While her first big break came in 1952's Singin' in the Rain, prior to that, Reynolds was accustomed to a meager lifestyle.
"We were a poor family," recalled Reynolds, who was born in El Paso, Texas. "My dreams kind of came through when I went to see the cinema."
At the age of 16, Reynolds was put under contract at Warner Bros. after winning a beauty contest in Burbank, California, where her family had relocated. Her fortunes changed for good after starring opposite Gene Kelly in the classic musical.
"What Gene taught me was tremendous discipline and never give up and you're never good enough," Reynolds told ET in 1985. "He believed that I could do it, but I never danced before Singin' in the Rain, and I had to learn to dance. Months I was locked in a soundstage to get me -- never equal -- but up at least to cut the role."
Reynolds worked tirelessly at her craft, transforming her image from young ingénue to mature leading lady. Her efforts were rewarded in 1965 with an Oscar nomination for her starring role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. While she ultimately lost to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins, Reynolds later accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2016 Oscars for her founding work with the Thalians, an organization designed to increase awareness about mental health.
After tackling movies, Reynolds took her talent to TV, Broadway and books. In 1969, she created a minor hit for NBC with The Debbie Reynolds Show, which was followed by appearances on The Love Boat and Aloha Paradise. She introduced herself to a new generation with roles on Will & Grace and TV movies like Disney Channel's Halloweentown.
On stage, Reynolds received a Tony nomination for taking on the title role in Irene, and she became a best-selling author with her autobiography, Debbie: My Life.
"I just think my life's been really blessed, because being in show business I've met wonderful people and I've traveled all over the world," Reynolds told ET in 1988 while promoting her tell-all. "I ain't down yet, and I've had a wonderful life, and I still have more life to go."
But with the good times, came some low moments as well. In 1959, she unexpectedly found herself in one of Hollywood's biggest tabloid scandals when her then-husband, Eddie Fisher, left her and their two young children to marry Reynold's close friend, Elizabeth Taylor.
Still, Reynolds refused to let the scandal define her.
"I don't think you can ever be bitter about anything, because if you don't allow your heart to stay open, then all you have is a filled heart of hate and bitterness, and you're never able to love or like anybody," she said in 1981. "I think you [should be] cautious. And if you're not cautious, you're crazy. Let's say I'm cautious."