Born the third of five children, "The Five Kellys"—Jay, Jim, Gene, Louise, and Fred—performed amateur vaudeville shows around Pittsburgh. Family founded The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance in 1932, with one studio in Pittsburgh and one in Johnstown. Taught at the studio, as well as choreographed and directed shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and University of Pittsburgh. Graduated from Peabody High School and the University of Pittsburgh.
Went to Broadway in 1938 and in 1940, starred in Pal Joey, a hit that ran for 270 performances. Hollywood came calling. Debuted in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. Other films followed including Cover Girl (1944) and Anchors Away (1945), earning an Academy Award nomination. Joined the navy during WWII and returned in 1946, making many films including The Pirate, Take Me Out to the Ballgame and On The Town. In 1951 made An American In Paris, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Followed with the spoof of early movie-making, Singin' in the Rain that went on to become one of America's most popular musicals.
After Singin' in the Rain, moved to Europe to take advantage of a new income tax law. Upon returning to the US, appeared in two musicals, Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather. In 1957, his fifteen year marriage to wife Betsy ended. Also that year made his last film for MGM, Les Girls. In 1960, married Jeannie Coyne, his longtime dance assistant and former pupil from Pittsburgh. Together they had a son, Timothy, and daughter Bridget. In 1973 Jeannie died from cancer. During the 1970s and 1980s, made retrospective films including That's Entertainment! and That's Entertainment II.
In 1982, received the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1985, a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute. Married writer Patricia Ward in 1990 and died in 1996. His legacy continues at Pittsburgh CLO where the annual Kelly Awards honor local high school talent, strongly supported by Patricia Ward Kelly.