Cyd Charisse, 86; Actress Danced Across Silver Screen

By Joe Holley and Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cyd Charisse, 86, an actress and dancer whose mile-long legs made her a memorable partner with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in several top musicals of the 1950s, died June 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after an apparent heart attack.

Astaire called Ms. Charisse "beautiful dynamite," adding, "When you've danced with her, you stay danced with." Their elegant duet of "Dancing in the Dark" in "The Band Wagon" (1953) was a peerless display of romance set to music. In another sequence, she proved dangerous as a barroom seductress in a satire of Mickey Spillane.

Her breakthrough had occurred a year earlier in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) opposite Kelly. She was not the star of the movie and in fact had no dialogue. But she was a bewitching presence in the "Broadway Melody" finale, playing both a dangerously leggy gun moll in a green flapper dress and the chaste dancer in a white tutu whose long scarf floats in the air with the aid of a wind machine.

The performance elevated the Texas beauty to the front rank of movie musical performers and showcased her ability to portray both sizzling seduction and the personification of cold, elusive elegance.

She had another hit toward the end of 1952, "Sombrero," in which she danced around an Aztec idol in an alluring scene on a mountain side.

Ms. Charisse became Kelly's co-star in "Brigadoon" (1954) and "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955) and played a Russian efficiency expert opposite Astaire in "Silk Stockings" (1957), a charmless remake of "Ninotchka" with Ms. Charisse in the Greta Garbo role.

At 5-feet-6-inches -- taller in heels -- she was the picture of balletic grace, whether her partner was the athletic Kelly or the aristocratic Astaire.

Kelly, she told the New York Times, "was more of a physical dancer. He pulled you around and was strong enough to do lifts."

Astaire, she said, "moved like glass. Physically, it was easy to dance with him."

The admiration was mutual. "She wasn't a tap dancer, she's just beautiful, trained, very strong in whatever we did," Astaire said in a 1983 interview. "When we were dancing, we didn't know what time it was."

She was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Tex., on March 8, 1922. Her father, a jeweler, encouraged her early interest in ballet and built her a practice bar and a full-length mirror in her bedroom, in part to stretch her muscles after a brush with polio. She began dance lessons at age 8.

The family moved to Hollywood, where, at 18, she married her ballet instructor, Nico Charisse. (The marriage ended in divorce.)

She won an audition with the famed Ballet Russe, touring the capitals of Europe before using a ballet connection to meet Hollywood movie director Gregory Ratoff. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer signed her to a seven-year contract.

Working with producer Arthur Freed, she began appearing in small dancing roles in "Something to Shout About," "Thousands Cheer" and "Mission to Moscow" (all 1943) before earning more prominence as a featured ballerina in the all-star musical "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946).

She went through a number of stage and screen names, including Lily Norwood, before settling on Cyd Charisse. (Her brother, unable to pronounce "Sis" as a youngster, had called her Sid; Freed suggested changing the spelling to the more elegant Cyd.)

She had supporting roles in several major musicals, including "The Harvey Girls" and "Till the Clouds Roll By," both with Judy Garland, and a much-praised cameo as a fiesta dancer in "The Kissing Bandit" with Frank Sinatra.

MGM attempted to broaden her range, and her first star billing came in a low-budget drama, "Tension" (1949), with Richard Basehart. But her straight acting was never widely accepted by the public or the critics, who tended to focus on her loveliness above all else.

"Silk Stockings" was her last movie dancing role, at a time when musicals were going out of style. She remained one of MGM's last contract performers and freelanced as a dramatic actress in such fare as "Two Weeks in Another Town" (1962), as Kirk Douglas's randy wife, and "The Silencers" (1966), with Dean Martin as Matt Helm.

In addition to her dramatic roles in the post-musical era, Ms. Charisse made TV specials and appeared in a nightclub act with her second husband, singer-actor Tony Martin. In the 1980s, she appeared in the London production of "Charlie Girl."

In her early 70s, capitalizing on her still-impressive dancer's assets, she made an exercise video, appeared in a Janet Jackson music video and made her Broadway debut as the unhappy ballerina in Tommy Tune's "Grand Hotel."

Survivors include her husband of 60 years, who continues to perform at 95; a son from the first marriage, Nicky Charisse, and a son from the second marriage, Tony Martin Jr.; and two grandchildren.

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