Singin' In The Rain star Cyd Charisse dies at 86

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Cyd Charisse, the long-legged beauty who danced with the Ballet Russe as a teenager and starred in MGM musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, died today in Los Angeles aged 86.

Charisse was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre yesterday after suffering an apparent heart attack, said her publicist, Gene Schwam.

She appeared in dramatic films, but her fame came from the Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s.

Classically trained, she could dance anything, from a pas de deux in 1946's Ziegfeld Follies to the lowdown Mickey Spillane satire of 1953's The Band Wagon (with Astaire).

She also forged a popular song-and-dance partnership on television and in nightclub appearances with her husband, singer Tony Martin.

"Her beauty was breathtaking," Debbie Reynolds, who starred with Charisse in the 1952 classic Singin' in the Rain, said in a statement. "The world will miss her dancing."

Charisse arrived at MGM as the studio was establishing itself as the king of musicals.

Astaire, who danced with her in The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings, said of Charisse in a 1983 interview: "She wasn't a tap dancer, she's just beautiful, trained, very strong in whatever we did. When we were dancing, we didn't know what time it was."

She first gained notice as a member of the famed Ballet Russe, and got her start in Hollywood when star David Lichine was hired by Columbia Pictures for a ballet sequence in a 1943 Don Ameche-Janet Blair musical, Something to Shout About.

Although that film failed to live up to its title, its ballet sequence attracted wide notice, and Charisse (then billed as Lily Norwood) began receiving movie offers.

"I had just done that number with David as a favour to him," she said in The Two of Us, her 1976 double autobiography with Martin.

"Honestly, the idea of working movies had never once entered my head. I was a dancer, not an actress. I had no delusions about myself. I couldn't act - I had never acted. So how could I be a movie star?"

She overcame her doubts and signed a seven-year contract at MGM. She also got a new name, the exotic Cyd instead of her lifelong nickname Sid to go with her first husband's last name.

Singin' in the Rain marked a breakthrough. Charisse danced with Kelly in the Broadway Melody number that climaxed the movie.

She stunned critics and audiences with her 25-foot Chinese silk scarf that floated in the air with the aid of a wind machine.

Charisse also danced with Kelly in Brigadoon, It's Always Fair Weather and Invitation to the Dance.

She missed what might have been her greatest opportunity: to appear with Kelly in the 1951 Academy Award winner, An American in Paris. She was pregnant, and Leslie Caron was cast in the role.

In 1996, Charisse recalled her reaction on entering the movies: "Ballet is a closed world and very rigid; MGM was a fairyland. You'd walk down the lot, seeing all these fabulous movies being made with the greatest talent in the world sitting there. It was a dream to walk through that lot."

Charisse continued with dramatic films, several of them made in Europe. She and Martin took their musical act to Las Vegas and elsewhere. In 1992 she finally made her Broadway debut, taking over the starring role as the unhappy ballerina in the musicalised Grand Hotel.

"I've done about everything in show business except to play on Broadway," Charisse said. "I always hoped that I would one day. It's the World Series of show business. If anybody tells you they're not intimidated, they're lying."

Her name was Tula Ellice Finklea when she was born in Amarillo, Texas, on March 8, 1922.

In 1942, a son, Nicky, was born to her and then husband, Nico Charisse.

In 1948, the year after she and Nico divorced, Charisse married Martin. Her second son, Tony, was born in 1950.