Cyd Charisse

Cyd Charisse

Charisse 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) (1 child)
Tony Martin (m. 1948–2008) (her death) (1 child)
Children 2

Cyd Charisse (born Tula Ellice Finklea; 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), Brigadoon with Gene Kelly and Van Johnson (1954) 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

Cyd Charisse was born 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" by Arthur Freed.[5])

She was a sickly girl who started dancing lessons at six to build up her strength after a bout of 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"[6][7] and, later, "Maria Istomina".[7]

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.[6] In an early role, she had her first speaking part supporting Judy Garland in the 1946 film The Harvey Girls.[8]

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" (it was one of her most memorable dance numbers) and "Girl Hunt Ballet" routines. 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.[9]

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).[10]

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. Astaire paid tribute to Charisse in his autobiography, calling her "beautiful dynamite" and writing: "That Cyd! When you've danced with her you stay danced with."[11][12]

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." [13]

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.

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. A striptease number by Charisse set to the movie's theme song opened the 1966 Dean Martin spy spoof, The Silencers, and she played a fashion magazine editor in the 1967 caper film Maroc 7. She frequently performed dance numbers on TV variety series such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dean Martin Show, with seven appearances on The Hollywood Palace, a show she also hosted three times.

She played Atsil, an Atlantean high priestess, in the 1978 fantasy film Warlords of Atlantis, and 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. She also made cameo appearances in Blue Mercedes's "I Want to Be Your Property" (1987) and Janet Jackson's "Alright" (1990) music videos.

Personal life

Charisse's first husband, whose surname she kept, was Nico Charisse (March 1906 – April 1970);[14] they were married in 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.[15]

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 crash on May 25, 1979.[16] Charisse, like her husband Tony Martin, Sr., was a staunch Republican and campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1968.[17] She was the aunt of the actress Nana Visitor.[18]

Later years and death

Charisse in 1987, by Allan Warren

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.


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]


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:


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. 1 2 3 "Cyd Charisse dies in LA at 86",, June 17, 2008; accessed November 4, 2014.
  5. Marmar (2014-06-12), Cyd Charisse Interview, retrieved 2016-02-15
  6. 1 2 Wollen, Peter (1992). Singin' in the Rain. London, UK: British Film Institute. p. 42. ISBN 0-85170-351-8.
  7. 1 2 Missiaen, Jean-Claude (1978). Cyd Charisse, du ballet classique à la comédie musicale. Paris, France: Henri Veyrier. p. 38. ISBN 2-85199-186-8.
  8. Frank Miller. "The Harvey Girls -- Articles". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  9. Kael, Pauline (2011). 5001 Nights at the Movies. New York: Macmillan. p. 49. ISBN 9781250033574.
  10. Charisse's singing voice was usually dubbed in her musical film appearances, most often by India Adams.
  11. Astaire, Fred (1959). Steps in Time. London, UK: Heinemann. p. 319. ISBN 0-241-11749-6.
  12. 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.
  13. Charisse, Cyd; Tony Martin; Dick Kleiner (1976). The Two of Us. New York: Mason/Charter. ISBN 0-88405-363-6.
  14. "RootsWeb: Database Index". Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  15. Berkvist, Robert (2008-06-18). "Cyd Charisse, 86, Silken Dancer of Movies, Dies". Retrieved 29 July 2012.
  16. ""1968 Presidential Race"Republicans". The Pop History Dig. 2009-03-11. Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  17. "Nana Visitor Biography (1957-)". Film Reference. Retrieved August 12, 2013.
  18. "Legendary dancer Cyd Charisse dies" Archived June 28, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.,; accessed November 4, 2014.
  19. Cyd Charisse at Find a Grave
  20. "Jew Eat Yet?: Celebrity Deaths: Connecting the Dots". 2008-06-25. Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  21. Bloom, Nate. "Interfaith Celebrities: The Dark Knight". InterfaithFamily. Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  22. "White House Honors Performers, Scholars". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  23. "Fred Allen tribute episode, part 3/4" - March 18, 1956 broadcast of "What's My Line?" on YouTube
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