Cyd Charisse, who shot to Hollywood stardom as the graceful, long-legged dancing partner of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in classic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Brigadoon (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957), dies of a heart attack on this day in 2008, in Los Angeles. She was 86.
Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas. According to her obituary in the New York Times, while some sources give her date of birth as March 8, 1921, her agent gave the year as 1922. Diagnosed with a mild case of polio as a little girl, she began taking ballet lessons for health reasons. As a teenager, she began training professionally in California, where she joined the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. During her years with the company, she was known variously as Maria Istomina or Felia Sidorova.
In 1939, at the age of 18, the young dancer eloped with Nico Charisse, a well-known dancer and dance instructor; the couple had a son, Nicky, in 1942.
Spotted by studio scouts in the early 1940s, Charisse made her film debut in Something to Shout About (1943), in which she was billed as Lily Norwood. Charisse paid her dues over the next decade with small parts, including a minor role in Ziegfield Follies in which she danced briefly with the film’s star, Fred Astaire. For that film, at the producer’s urging, she began using the name Cyd Charisse. “Sid,” her younger brother’s early mispronunciation of “sister,” had been her nickname since childhood. Divorced from Nico Charisse in 1947, the actress married Tony Martin in 1948; they had a son, Tony Jr.
Charisse’s big break came in 1952, with Singin’ in the Rain (1952), starring Gene Kelly, who also co-directed the film with Stanley Donen. Playing a gorgeous gold-digger, she was paired with Kelly in one of the film’s memorably complex sequences, called the “Broadway Melody Ballet.” In The Band Wagon (1953), directed by Vincente Minnelli, Charisse had her first leading role, opposite Astaire. She played a haughty prima ballerina who falls in love with Astaire’s washed-up Hollywood song-and-dance man after they are cast in a Broadway show together.
Charisse reunited with Kelly for Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954), set in Scotland, and for It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). She and Astaire also co-starred in Silk Stockings (1957), which would be Charisse’s last major musical. She would appear in several more dramas, including Party Girl (1958) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). Her final silver-screen appearance was in the Italian film Private Screenings (1989).
Charisse and Martin, her second husband, had a longtime song-and-dance act, performing in nightclubs and on television. After a successful run on the London stage in Charlie Girl during the 1980s, Charisse made a late-in-life debut on Broadway in 1992, playing the leading role of an aging ballerina in Grand Hotel.