Cyd Charisse, who brought sizzle and sophistication to dance in such classic movie musicals as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Silk Stockings,” died Tuesday. She was 86.
Charisse died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after suffering an apparent heart attack Monday, publicist Gene Schwam said.
Charisse captured moviegoers’ attention in a quick succession of films, starting with 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which she partnered with dancer and actor Gene Kelly in a steamy ballet.
She was strong, lithe and “drop-dead gorgeous to look at,” dance/film historian and author Larry Billman said of Charisse in her breakthrough performance. She partnered with Kelly again in “Brigadoon” in 1954 and “It’s Always Fair Weather” the following year.
“After years when Hollywood’s leading dancers were cute and fluffy, Cyd took dance to a more sensual realm in the 1950s,” Billman said in a September 2007 interview with The Times.
Charisse also danced with Fred Astaire, the premier dancer of his age, in major production numbers in the ‘50s. In “The Band Wagon” (1953), they danced to the music of “Dancing in the Dark” on a set that looked like New York City’s Central Park. Four years later, Charisse and Astaire were partners again in “Silk Stockings.” Astaire said Charisse was “beautiful dynamite” on screen. Charisse’s other star- maker roles of the 1950s included “Deep in My Heart” (1954), in which she danced a sexy duet with James Mitchell.
Unlike many top female dancers in the era of movie musicals, Charisse was trained as a ballerina in the Russian tradition.
Although she occasionally performed solo, “she was at her best when she was partnered,” Billman said. “She had technique, ability and she didn’t do anything to take away from her partner.”
Her glamorous looks fit well with an emerging trend.
“In the ‘50s, Hollywood was all about sex,” Billman said. While actresses Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren dominated their field, “Cyd ruled dance,” Billman said. “She personified dancing sophistication.”
Earlier in her film career, Charisse’s dark hair and eyes led to some unlikely roles as “ethnic-exotic” characters in B movies such as “Fiesta” (1947), in which she played the Latina fiancee of actor Ricardo Montalban.
She was cast as Polynesian in “On an Island With You,” a song, dance and swim film starring Esther Williams in 1948.
In interviews, Charisse said her acting roles were like a vacation compared with the hard work of dancing, but she was not tempted to change her priorities.
“If I had to give up either acting or dancing, I’d choose to keep dancing,” she said in a December 1952 interview with the Saturday Evening Post.
She was born Tula Ellice Finklea on March 8, 1922, in Amarillo, Texas. Her older brother nicknamed her Sid, a variation on Sis. In Hollywood, she changed the spelling to Cyd.
She began ballet lessons at age 6, encouraged by her father, Ernest, after she developed a mild case of polio that left her with a slight atrophy on her right side.
“I was this tiny, frail little girl, I needed to build up muscle, and I fell in love with dancing from the first lesson,” she said in a 1996 interview with the Calgary Herald.
During a family vacation in Los Angeles when she was 12, her parents enrolled her in ballet classes at a school in Hollywood. One of her teachers was Nico Charisse.
As a teenager, she returned to the school as a full-time student. Not long afterward, Col. W. de Basil, the director of the Ballet Russe dance company, visited the school and saw her dance. He invited her to join his company, and she toured with it under the stage names Natacha Tulaelis and Felia Siderova, according to Billman. Dancers in the company were required to take Russian-sounding names.
In 1939, while she was in France on tour with the ballet company, she and Nico Charisse eloped. They had one son, Nico, before their marriage ended in divorce in 1947.
Charisse then married singer and nightclub entertainer Tony Martin in 1948. They settled in Hollywood soon after their marriage. The couple had one son, Tony Jr. Martin and her sons survive her, along with two grandchildren.
One of her earliest movies was “Something to Shout About” (1943), in which she performed in a ballet. She captured wider attention three years later in “Ziegfeld Follies,” when she had a brief featured moment with the film’s star, Fred Astaire. It led to her signing a seven-year contract with MGM Studios in 1946.
“I never considered going into motion pictures,” she said in a 1992 interview with New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff. The offer of a contract at MGM, home of movie musicals, convinced her to change her mind.
After a decade in movies in which she was “the only dancer who could make a pirouette look sexy,” according to Kisselgoff, Charisse expanded her range.
In the ‘60s, she performed cabaret shows with Martin while she continued working in films such as “Two Weeks in Another Town” (1962). She made guest appearances on popular television series, including “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Love Boat” in the 1970s and “Murder, She Wrote” in the 1980s.
She also worked in theater, performing in “Charlie’s Girls” in London in the 1980s and making her Broadway debut as an aging Russian ballerina in “Grand Hotel” in 1992.
She was 70 when she first appeared on Broadway and was still faithful to her time-tested philosophy, she told the New York Times. “If you worry about taking risks, don’t do it,” Charisse said.
Services are pending.