Cyd Charisse (Tula Ellice Finklea)

Cyd Charisse

Charisse was born as Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, the daughter of Lela (née Norwood) and Ernest Enos Finklea, Sr., who was a jeweler. Her nickname “Sid” was taken from her younger brother, Thomas Jarrell Finklea (June 25, 1923), who tried to say “Sis”. (It was later given the more intriguing and exotic spelling of “Cyd”.) She was a sickly girl who started dancing lessons at six to build up her strength after a bout with 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” and, later, “Maria Istomina”. 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. 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. In an early role, she had her first speaking part supporting Judy Garland in the 1946 film The Harvey Girls. 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” and “Girl Hunt Ballet” routines. It was one of her most memorable dance numbers. 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.

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). 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. In his autobiography, Astaire paid tribute to Charisse, calling her “beautiful dynamite” and writing: “That Cyd! When you’ve danced with her you stay danced with.” 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. 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.”

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. 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 made cameo appearances in Blue Mercedes’s “I Want to Be Your Property” (1987) and Janet Jackson’s “Alright” (1990) music videos. 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. Charisse’s first husband, whose surname she kept, was Nico Charisse (March 1906 – April 1970); they were married from 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. 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 tragedy on May 25, 1979. Charisse, like her husband Tony Martin, Sr., was a staunch Republican and campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1968. Charisse was ordained as a minister by the Universal Life Church. She was the aunt of the actress Nana Visitor. 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. 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, following a Methodist ceremony.

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Born

  • March, 08, 1922
  • USA
  • Amarillo, Texas

Died

  • June, 17, 2008
  • USA
  • Los Angeles, California

Cause of Death

  • heart attack

Cemetery

  • Hillside Memorial Park
  • Culver City, California
  • USA

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