Cyd Charisse, 86, Dancer Had $5 Million Legs
By STEPHEN MILLER, Staff Reporter of the Sun
June 18, 2008
A lanky Texas beauty whose legs were once insured for $5 million, Cyd Charisse danced her way into cinematic immortality in such films as "Singin' In the Rain," "Brigadoon," and "Silk Stockings."
Charisse, who died yesterday in Los Angeles at 86, was MGM's leading female dancer of the 1950s. She had her pick of partners, from Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire, who said, "When you've danced with her, you stay danced with."
Her height was 5 feet, 6 inches, but in high heels and full-length stockings, she seemed serenely tall, and she moved with extraordinary grace. Her flawless beauty and jet-black hair contributed to an aura of perfection that Astaire described in his 1959 memoir, "Steps in Time," as "beautiful dynamite."
Born Tula Ellice Finklea on March 8, 1922, according to the Associated Press, in Amarillo, Texas, Charisse suffered as a youngster with polio, which left her with weakened legs. Convinced she needed exercise, her father, a jeweler, installed a barre in her bedroom and enrolled her at a local ballet school. She recovered completely and, at 16, became a soloist with the Ballet Russe, touring America and Europe as Felia Sidorova. When the tour was canceled with the approach of World War II, she settled in Los Angeles and studied with choreographer Nico Charisse, whom she married in 1939.
Her film career began in 1943 with bit parts in "Something to Shout About" and "Mission to Moscow," after she heard that a film studio was "looking for a girl in pointe shoes." A series of uncredited appearances followed. In 1945, she was offered a seven-year contract after being tabbed for stardom by Arthur Freed, who produced many of the finest musicals of the Technicolor era. A clever agent has been given credit for changing her name to Cyd from Sid, a nickname bestowed by a lisping baby brother.
Freed used Charisse in two films in 1946, "The Harvey Girls" and "Ziegfeld Follies." Many of Charisse's legendary performances came in collaboration with Freed, including "Singin' In the Rain" (1952) and "Brigadoon" (1954).
Often compared to Ava Gardner in the looks department, she parted early with Nico Charisse and became one of Hollywood's most eligible leading ladies. Among her suitors was the prolific Howard Hughes, who used his patented technique of taking her for a spin in his airplane.
"I was just one of the many girls he invited out a couple of times," she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. "He had a long list."
If their romance was not for the ages, Hughes kept tabs on her, and when she broke a leg dancing a staircase routine in 1948, he sent limousines to chauffeur her. Later that year, she married singer Tony Martin. They had a son and were still married at her death from an apparent heart attack.
The broken leg kept her out of Freed's "Easter Parade" (1948), and Ann Miller took her place. Three years later, a pregnancy kept her from starring in Freed's "An American in Paris." Leslie Caron instead zoomed to stardom as the ingénue opposite Gene Kelly.
It was in "Singin' In the Rain" (1952) that Charisse broke through to stardom. When Freed was dissatisfied with another dancer who had been cast, Charisse inherited the role and danced with Kelly in the "Broadway Melody" at the film's climax. She stunned critics and audiences with her 25-foot Chinese silk scarf that floated in the air with the aid of a wind machine. She had not a word of dialog in the role; in most of her other appearances, her dialog was dubbed and she never sang.
Her last dancing role was in "Silk Stockings" (1957). Lavish musicals were in long-term decline. MGM dismantled Freed's musical unit.
Although she found work in a handful of dramatic films, including some in Europe, Charisse's Hollywood career stagnated thereafter. She put together a song-and-dance touring show with her husband that the two honed for decades.
She made her Broadway debut surprisingly late, in 1992, as an unhappy ballerina in the musical version of "Grand Hotel."
http://www.nysun.com/obituaries/cyd-cha ... egs/80176/