Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea on March 8, 1921 in Amarillo, Texas. Her legs were once insured for a million dollars. She died at the age of 87 early in the morning yesterday of a heart attack at a Los Angeles area hospital.
She took her screen surname from her first husband, ballet instructor Nico Charisse, and the name Cyd was adapted from her childhood nickname, Sid, since her brother had trouble saying the word “sister.” Prior to her lifelong marriage, publicity had once linked her with millionaire Howard Hughes. She had recently celebrated her 60th wedding anniversary with her second husband, singer Tony Martin.
Her father was a jeweler who encouraged her early interest in ballet by building a practice bar and a full-length mirror in her bedroom. Amazingly, this in part was to stretch her muscles after an early brush with polio. She began dance lessons at age 8.
Ms. Charisse joined the Ballet Russe as a teenager in the mid-1930s, working with David Lichine and Leonid Massine, using the names Felia Sidorova and Maria Istomina. She broke into movies in 1943 dancing opposite Don Ameche in "Something to Shout About," billed then as Lily Norwood. The appearance led to a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she first danced with Fred Astaire in a brief routine in "Ziegfeld Follies" and made her film acting debut with Judy Garland in "The Harvey Girls," both released in 1946. Also in 1943, she played a Bolshoi ballet dancer in “Mission to Moscow” by Michael Curtiz.
But her status rose as an MGM star as Gene Kelly's dance partner in their memorable "Broadway Melody Ballet" routine in the finale to the 1952 classic "Singin' in the Rain." Other notable roles were in the movies Brigadoon, Party Girl, The Bandwagon, Twilight for the Gods and Silk Stockings, where she played a Soviet Commissar. She was able to speak with a “Russian accent” pretty convincingly.
Cyd Charisse was once described by dance partner Fred Astaire as "beautiful dynamite." In his autobiography, writing of his partnership with Charisse, Astaire wrote "That Cyd! When you've danced with her, you stay danced with." When Cyd Charisse was asked whether she preferred dancing with Astaire or Kelly, she answered, "It's like comparing apples and oranges. They're both delicious."
An extremely versatile performer, photographs of Cyd Charisse could be placed side-by-side and in each, she would almost look like an entirely different person. When Hollywood musicals were no longer popular, she often performed in nightclubs with her husband, Tony Martin, and she made her Broadway debut in 1991 in the musical "Grand Hotel," starring in the role originated in the 1932 film by Greta Garbo.
Her memorable career let her to receive several awards:
National Medal of the Arts - 2006
Medal presented on November 9, 2006 during a private ceremony at the White House.
Movado Dance Award - 2003
Award received at the ninth annual Career Transition for Dancers' gala
Texas Film Hall of Fame - 2002
Inducted by the Austin Film Society for her career in the film industry
Nijinsky Award – 2000
Tribute to Cyd Charisse for her lifelong contribution to the world of dance
Hollywood Walk of Fame - 1960
Star in the movie category. Located at 1601 Vine Street, Hollywood, California.
Emmy Award nomination – 1959
Best TV show of the year - "Meet Cyd Charisse"
Golden Globe nomination - 1958
Best actress in a leading role - "Silk Stockings"
Survivors include her husband of 60 years, who continues to perform at 95; a son from her first marriage, Nicky Charisse, and a son from her second marriage, Tony Martin Jr.; and two grandchildren. Cyd Charisse’s talent, decency and great performances will be long remembered. So a tribute in the passing of one of the movie screen’s greatest.