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Cyd Charisse

Cyd Charisse
File:Cyd Charisse - 1949.jpg
Charisse pictured in 1949
Born Tula Ellice Finklea
(1922-03-08)March 8, 1922
Amarillo, Texas, U.S.
Died June 17, 2008(2008-06-17) (aged 86)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Heart attack
Resting place
Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery
Other names Lily Norwood
Felia Siderova
Maria Istomina
Occupation Actress, dancer
Years active 1939–2007
Spouse(s) Nico Charisse (m. 1939; div. 1947)
Tony Martin (m. 1948–Expression error: Unexpected < operator)
Children 2

Cyd Charisse (March 8, 1922 – June 17, 2008)[1] was an American actress and dancer.

After recovering from polio as a child, and studying ballet, Charisse entered films in the 1940s. Her roles usually focused on her abilities as a dancer, and she was paired with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly; her films include Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957). She stopped dancing in films in the late 1950s, but continued acting in film and television, and in 1992 made her Broadway debut. In her later years, she discussed the history of the Hollywood musical in documentaries, and was featured in That's Entertainment! III in 1994. She was awarded the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities in 2006.

Early life

Charisse was born as Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, the daughter of Lela (née Norwood) and Ernest Enos Finklea, Sr., who was a jeweler.[2][3] Her nickname "Sid" was taken from her younger brother, Thomas Jarrell Finklea (June 25, 1923), who tried to say "Sis".[4] (It was later given the more intriguing and exotic spelling of "Cyd".)

She was a sickly girl who started dancing lessons at six to build up her strength after a bout with polio. At 12, she studied ballet in Los Angeles with Adolph Bolm and Bronislava Nijinska, and at 14, she auditioned for and subsequently danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as "Felia Siderova"[5][6] and, later, "Maria Istomina".[6]

During a European tour, she met up again with Nico Charisse, a handsome young dancer she had studied with for a time in Los Angeles. They married in Paris in 1939. They had a son, Nicky, born in 1942.[4]


The outbreak of World War II led to the breakup of the company, and when Charisse returned to Los Angeles, David Lichine offered her a dancing role in Gregory Ratoff's Something to Shout About. This brought her to the attention of choreographer Robert Alton – who had also discovered Gene Kelly – and soon she joined the Freed Unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she became the resident MGM ballet dancer.[5] In an early role, she had her first speaking part supporting Judy Garland in the 1946 film The Harvey Girls.[7]

Charisse was principally celebrated for her onscreen pairings with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. She first appeared with Astaire in a brief routine in Ziegfeld Follies (produced in 1944 and released in 1946). Her next appearance with him was as the lead female role in The Band Wagon (1953), where she danced with Astaire in the acclaimed "Dancing in the Dark" and "Girl Hunt Ballet" routines. It was one of her most memorable dance numbers. Critic Pauline Kael said that "when the bespangled Charisse wraps her phenomenal legs around Astaire, she can be forgiven everything, even her three minutes of 'classical' ballet and the fact that she reads her lines as if she learned them phonetically.[8]

File:Cyd charisse singing in the rain.jpg
Charisse and Gene Kelly in the "Broadway Melody Ballet" sequence from Singin' in the Rain

As Debbie Reynolds was not a trained dancer, Gene Kelly chose Charisse to partner with him in the celebrated "Broadway Melody" ballet finale from Singin' in the Rain (1952), and she co-starred with Kelly in 1954's Scottish-themed musical film Brigadoon. She again took the lead female role alongside Kelly in his MGM musical It's Always Fair Weather (1956).[9]

In 1957, she rejoined Astaire in the film version of Silk Stockings, a musical remake of 1939's Ninotchka, with Charisse taking over Greta Garbo's role. In his autobiography, Astaire paid tribute to Charisse, calling her "beautiful dynamite" and writing: "That Cyd! When you've danced with her you stay danced with."[10][11]

She had a slightly unusual serious acting role in Party Girl (1958), where she played a showgirl who became involved with gangsters and a crooked lawyer, although it did include two dance routines. In her autobiography, Charisse reflected on her experience with Astaire and Kelly: "As one of the handful of girls who worked with both of those dance geniuses, I think I can give an honest comparison. In my opinion, Kelly is the more inventive choreographer of the two. Astaire, with Hermes Pan's help, creates fabulous numbers – for himself and his partner. But Kelly can create an entire number for somebody else ... I think, however, that Astaire's coordination is better than Kelly's ... his sense of rhythm is uncanny. Kelly, on the other hand, is the stronger of the two. When he lifts you, he lifts you! ... To sum it up, I'd say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen. But it's like comparing apples and oranges. They're both delicious." [12]

After the decline of the Hollywood musical in the late 1950s, Charisse retired from dancing but continued to appear in film and TV productions from the 1960s through the 1990s. She had a supporting role in Something's Got to Give (1962), the last, unfinished film of Marilyn Monroe. She made cameo appearances in Blue Mercedes's "I Want to Be Your Property" (1987) and Janet Jackson's "Alright" (1990) music videos. Her last film appearance was in 1994 in That's Entertainment! III as one of the onscreen narrators of a tribute to the great MGM musical films.[citation needed]

Personal life

Charisse's first husband, whose surname she kept, was Nico Charisse (March 1906 – April 1970);[13] they were married from 1939 and had a son, Nico "Nicky" Charisse, before divorcing in 1947. In 1948, Charisse married singer Tony Martin. They had a son, Tony Martin, Jr. (August 28, 1950 - April 10, 2011), and remained married until her death.[14]

Her daughter-in-law is actress and model Liv Lindeland, married to Tony Martin, Jr. until his death in 2011. Sheila Charisse, another daughter-in-law died in the American Airlines Flight 191 tragedy on May 25, 1979.[15]

Charisse, like her husband Tony Martin, Sr., was a staunch Republican and campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1968.[16]

Charisse was ordained as a minister by the Universal Life Church.[17]

She was the aunt of the actress Nana Visitor.[18]

Later years and death

In 1976, Charisse and her husband Tony Martin wrote their joint memoirs with Dick Kleiner entitled The Two of Us (1976). In 1990, following similar moves by MGM colleagues Debbie Reynolds and Angela Lansbury, Charisse produced the exercise video Easy Energy Shape Up, targeted for active senior citizens. She made her Broadway debut in 1992 in the musical version of Grand Hotel as the aging ballerina, Elizaveta Grushinskaya.[4] In her eighties, Charisse made occasional public appearances and appeared frequently in documentaries spotlighting the golden age of Hollywood.

She was featured in the 2001 Guinness Book of World Records under "Most Valuable Legs", because a $5 million insurance policy was reportedly issued on her legs in 1952. MGM was reputed to have insured her legs for a million dollars each, but Charisse stated that had been an invention of the MGM publicity machine.[citation needed]


Charisse was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California on June 16, 2008, after suffering an apparent heart attack. She died the following day at age 86.[19] She was a practicing Methodist, and due to her husband's religion she was buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Culver City, California,[20] following a Methodist ceremony.[21][22]


File:Cyd Charisse 2006 National Medal of Arts.jpg
Accepting the National Medal of Arts and Humanities Award in 2006, photo by Paul Morse

On November 9, 2006, in a private White House ceremony, President George W. Bush presented Cyd Charisse with the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities, the highest official U.S. honor available in the arts.[23]



Short subjects:

  • Rhumba Serenade (1941)
  • Poeme (1941)
  • I Knew It Would Be This Way (1941)
  • Did Anyone Call? (1941)
  • Magic of Magnolias (1942)
  • This Love of Mine (1942)
  • 1955 Motion Picture Theatre Celebration (1955)


Stage work

Music videos


  1. ^ "Cyd C. Martin". Social Security Death Index. New England Historic Genealogical Society. Retrieved March 9, 2011. 
  2. ^ Profile,; accessed November 4, 2014.
  3. ^ Profile, New York Times; accessed November 4, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c "Cyd Charisse dies in LA at 86",, June 17, 2008; accessed November 4, 2014.
  5. ^ a b Wollen, Peter (1992). Singin' in the Rain. London, UK: British Film Institute. p. 42. ISBN 0-85170-351-8. 
  6. ^ a b Missiaen, Jean-Claude (1978). Cyd Charisse, du ballet classique à la comédie musicale. Paris, France: Henri Veyrier. p. 38. ISBN 2-85199-186-8. 
  7. ^ Frank Miller. "The Harvey Girls -- Articles". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved November 4, 2014. 
  8. ^ Kael, Pauline (2011). 5001 Nights at the Movies. New York: Macmillan. p. 49. ISBN 9781250033574. 
  9. ^ Charisse's singing voice was usually dubbed in her musical film appearances, most often by India Adams.
  10. ^ Astaire, Fred (1959). Steps in Time. London, UK: Heinemann. p. 319. ISBN 0-241-11749-6. 
  11. ^ In a documentary on the making of The Band Wagon (included in that film's 2006 DVD release), Charisse cites Astaire's tribute as: "When you dance with Cyd Charisse, you've been danced with".Profile,; accessed November 4, 2014.
  12. ^ Charisse, Cyd; Tony Martin; Dick Kleiner (1976). The Two of Us. New York: Mason/Charter. ISBN 0-88405-363-6. 
  13. ^ "RootsWeb: Database Index". 
  14. ^ Berkvist, Robert (2008-06-18). "Cyd Charisse, 86, Silken Dancer of Movies, Dies". Retrieved 29 July 2012. 
  15. ^ "The Milwaukee Sentinel - Google News Archive Search". May 29, 1979. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Lewis Ashmore (1977). The Modesto Messiah: The Famous Mail-order Minister. Universal Press. ISBN 978-0-918950-01-7. 
  18. ^ "Nana Visitor Biography (1957-)". Film Reference. Retrieved August 12, 2013.
  19. ^ "Legendary dancer Cyd Charisse dies",; accessed November 4, 2014.
  20. ^ Cyd Charisse at Find a Grave
  21. ^ "Jew Eat Yet?". 
  22. ^ Bloom, Nate. "Interfaith Celebrities: The Dark Knight". InterfaithFamily. Retrieved March 18, 2014. 
  23. ^ "White House Honors Performers, Scholars". 
  24. ^ "Fred Allen tribute episode, part 3/4" - March 18, 1956 broadcast of "What's My Line?" on YouTube

External links

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