Cyd Charisse could do it all. Classically trained in Russian ballet, she could dance with anyone in just about any style, and partnered with greats like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Known for her glamor and sensuality on screen, her appearances in Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon and The Bandwagon made her a star. Today, she is remembered as one of the brightest stars in old Hollywood musicals. Below are 50 graceful facts about the dancer.
Cyd Charisse Facts
Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea but earned the nickname “Sid” from her younger brother Thomas. He was trying to say “sis” but pronounced it Sid. Clearly, “Sid” stuck. When Charisse took an agent, she insisted he let her keep the name. He made just one change: he transformed Sid to the more feminine and sophisticated “Cyd.”
2. A Cure for What Ails You
When Charisse was very young, she suffered from a brutal disease: polio. Though she didn’t know it at the time, her pain would change her life forever. Charisse’s father encouraged her to start dance lessons at age 8 to build up her strength. She displayed an aptitude for the art and studied in Los Angeles with Adolph Bolm and Bronislava Nijinska before joining the prestigious Ballet Russes de Monte-Carlo.
3. First Love
Cyd met Nico Charisse under scandalous circumstances. She was a student at the Hollywood Ballet School and he was a promising young dancer. While on tour in Europe with the ballet company, they met again, fell head over heels for one another, and impulsively eloped. But the good times wouldn’t last forever.
4. Unhappy Ending
Cyd married Nico Charisse when she was just 18 years old. The couple were happy, for a time at least, and they had one son together, Nico Jr. Sadly, the marriage fell apart. For reasons that are still mysterious to this day, the pair divorced in 1947.
5. Back to LA
The onset of WWII led to the break-up of Les Ballets Russes, so Charisse and Nico moved back to L.A. where she continued her dancing career. She spent a few years dancing in short films, including the 1941 film Rhumba Serenade (which she made with her husband) which got her noticed by choreographer Robert Alton.
6. Most Valuable Legs in the World
With legs and talent such as Charisse had, it’s only natural that MGM would want to protect their asset. In 1952, the studio allegedly insured her legs for $5 million (about $48.5 million today). The sum was so huge that Charisse made her way into the 2001 Guinness Book for “Most Valuable Legs.”
7. I’m Not an Actress!
Being in the movies wasn’t something that Charisse had considered. She didn’t think she could act and instead saw herself as a dancer. That all changed when her Ballet Russe co-star David Lichine was tapped for a dance sequence in 1943’s Something to Shout About. In need of a partner, he turned to Charisse. He didn’t know it, but his decision would launch the career of one of Hollywood’s all-time greats.
8. Me? A Movie Star?
Lichine asked Charisse to dance with him in the film, and while the film itself was nothing to write home about, it earned Charisse a lot of notice. Appearing in movies may not have been on her radar, but the offers started rolling in. She ended up signing a 7-year contract with M.G.M. studios to dance in their movie musicals.
9. Completely Tone Deaf
While Charisse was second to none when it came to dancing, but a singer she was not. When she joined M.G.M. she received voice lessons to get rid of her Texas accent. But even after the gruelling lessons, Charisse just didn’t have the singing voice needed for a Hollywood musical. All her songs all had to be dubbed.
10. No Comparison
In her career, Charisse was fortunate enough to partner with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, who were two of the greatest male dancers in film. When asked to compare her two partners she stated: “It’s like comparing apples and oranges – they’re both delicious.” Perfect answer. How can you compare two legends?
11. Can We Keep Her?
Prior to signing with M.G.M., Charisse had been dancing some small roles in Warner Brothers films. She caught the notice of notoriously cruel M.G.M. exec Louis B. Mayer when she danced in 1943’s Thousands’ Cheer. Noticing her resemblance to bombshell Ava Gardner, Mayer asked Warner Brothers if M.G.M could steal Charisse. Warner agreed. Their loss!
12. Beautiful Dynamite
Aside from being an extremely talented dancer, Charisse was also known for her incredible looks. She was tall (especially in heels), long-legged, glamorous, and sensual. In his 1959 memoir, Astaire called hera “beautiful dynamite,” and said, “That Cyd! When you’ve danced with her, you stay danced with.” Absolutely!
13. Is She Too Tall?
5’6″ may not sound like an imposing height for a female dancer, but add a pair of high heels and stockings, and suddenly Charisse seemed six feet tall. This became a problem for her pairings with Kelly and Astaire, who were only slightly taller. As a result, she often wore flats when she danced with them to make herself seem shorter.
14. Show ‘Em What You’ve Got
One of the biggest adjustments that Charisse had to make in Hollywood was getting over her shyness. As Kelly recalled when asked about her, the most challenging thing that he had to do when he started working with her was to “get her to show off her beautiful legs and beautiful style.” If you’ve got it, flaunt it!
15. Love at Second Sight
The first time that Charisse and singer Tony Martin were introduced was at their mutual agent’s dinner party, but having just gotten back from the war, he didn’t really notice her. A year later, their agent insisted on setting them up for a date. This time they connected, and he said that “she stepped out of a dream.” How romantic is that?
16. A New Venture
Who says you’re ever too old to do something new? In 1996 at age 76, Charisse worked with a chemist friend to develop a product to help relieve her mother’s severe arthritis pain. The product was called “Arctic Spray” and while it’s no longer available, it was marketed in pharmacies across the US, so kudos to her!
17. An Award from a Princess
Described by the Los Angeles Times as the “Oscars of the Dance World”, the Njinsky Award recognizes the best dancers and choreographers in the world. On December 15, 2000, Princess Caroline of Monaco presented the award to Charisse for her lifetime achievements in the world of dance. She was also awarded the Movado Dance Award in October of 2003, which came with a Movado watch. Nice Perk!
18. National Tragedy
On May 25, 1979, Charisse’s entire world came crashing down. Her daughter-in-law, Sheila Charisse, had been one of the unlucky passengers on board American Airlines flight 191. Soon after departing from O’Hare International airport in Chicago, the plane encountered a freak accident and plummeted to the ground, killing almost everyone on board.
19. Making it Work
Both Charisse and Martin had been previously married, and Martin partially credited the experience gained from a first marriage for their marital success. In their joint autobiography, Charisse and Martin also emphasized that they were never competitive with one another. She danced, and he sang, and that was that.
20. His One Regret
Losing at cards was one of Martin’s few regrets in life, but his biggest was not meeting Charisse earlier. He once told People Magazine that he only wished he had his life to live over so that he could live it with Cyd. They were married for 60 years until her death in 2008, so she obviously loved him too.
21. Latin Looks
Charisse’s dark hair and alluring chocolate eyes gave her a somewhat exotic appearance. Before she hit it big, studios tended to cast her as exotic characters, pairing her with other ethnic actors. Her most frequent co-star was Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban with whom she appeared in six different films, including the 1947 film Fiesta with swimming star Esther Williams.
22. An Offer She Had to Refuse
Even before her star-making performance in Singin’ in the Rain, Charisse was starting to catch Hollywood’s attention. But there was one opportunity that came along at exactly the wrong time. Charisse was offered the lead in An American in Paris but couldn’t take it for a heartrending reason. She was pregnant with her son Tony Martin Jr.
23. Which One Was It?
Charisse’s husband Tony Martin claimed to always know which of her partners she’d been dancing with based on how her body looked when she got home each night. If she was battered and bruised, she’d been dancing with Gene Kelly, but if she was in relatively good shape it was Fred Astaire. Who said art was easy?
24. Unlucky Break
Sometimes luck is just against you, and poor Charisse had to give up the role of Nadine in Easter Parade when she suffered a serious knee injury during a dance scene in the 1948 movie On the Island with You. Funnily enough, Charisse’s would-be co-star Gene Kelly was also forced to drop out when he broke his ankle playing football.
25. We Need a Girl
Sometimes a little bit of luck is all it takes to get your big break, and luck was on Charisse’s side when she was cast in Singin’ In the Rain. The producer wanted to include a dream ballet sequence in the film. Since Debbie Reynolds could barely dance as it was, she wasn’t exactly their first choice for the number.
26. Sensual and Steamy
With Debbie Reynolds out of the running, Kelly wanted to cast his dance assistant Carol Haney. This is where luck came in for Charisse, because she had something that the honchos at MGM thought Haney lacked: sex appeal. As director Stanley Donan explained, they needed someone who “could stop a man just by sticking up her leg.” Charisse definitely fit that bill.
27. This is How You Do It
Prior to filming Singin’ In the Rain, Charisse had never smoked a cigarette, and didn’t know how to do it. When they handed her the cigarette holder for the scene, the director had to signal her to exhale so she didn’t choke on the smoke. After the scene, she never picked up a cigarette again. Smart choice.
28. Like a Dream
When asked about her initial reaction to being in movies, Charisse said that “It was a dream.” While the strict world of professional ballet was “closed and rigid”, the M.G.M. studio was a “fairyland.” You can’t blame her for being a little bit starstruck.
29. Hand’s Down Favorite
When asked which of her many memorable dance numbers was her favorite, Charisse had a quick answer: “Dancing in the Dark” from the movie The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire. According to Charisse, she loved the simplicity of the number, and of course, the charm and elegance of Fred Astaire. There’s no arguing with that!
30. Passed Over?
When it came time to cast the film version of Damn Yankees in 1958, the studio was interested in Cyd Charisse for the female lead Lola. Whether she was truly unavailable or something else happened behind the scenes, Gwen Verdon ended up reprising her stage role on screen. Charisse did end up playing the role on stage in 1969, so she didn’t totally miss out.
31. Personal Choice
The 1954 film adaptation of Brigadoon with Kelly and Charisse wasn’t a box office success, but of all the films that she made with Kelly, it was Charisse’s absolute favorite. This time, Charisse was the replacement star, stepping in after Kathyrn Grayson’s contract expired and Moira Shearer refused.
32. Escaping the Censors
Between the 30s and 60s, censorship was rampant in films, and yet the dance sequence between Kelly and Charisse was one of the most sensual and memorable dance scenes in history. How did they get something so sexy past the censors? According to Charisse, “we got away with murder in those days because it was dance”
33. It’s Like a Vacation
Most actors call their craft hard work, but Charisse didn’t see it that way. When asked about it in an interview with The Saturday Evening Post, she said that acting was a vacation compared to dancing, but never felt any temptation to give up dancing. She also said that if forced to choose, dance would always win.
34. Meet Cyd Charisse
In 1959, Charisse followed in the footsteps of some other former MGM musical stars and got her own variety special on NBC as part of the Ford Startime series which had a little of everything. In Charisse’s episode, she performed two dances with former on-screen partner James Mitchell, and a song and dance number with her husband.
35. Kicking up a Storm
Charisse’s influence on modern dancers was so strong that she appeared in the Janet Jackson music video Alright at age 68. Jackson grew up loving the movie musicals with Charisse, Astaire, and Kelly, and gave Charisse a cameo. To this day, Charisse is one of the only prima ballerinas to appear in a hip-hop video.
36. Never Together
Although they toured together in their later years, Martin and Charisse never actually starred in any movies together. Both were in the 1946 film Till the Clouds Roll By, but Martin starred and sang while Charisse danced with Gower Champion. She also made a cameo in 1953’s Easy to Love, where Martin bumps into her near the end of the movie. Cute Easter egg!
37. Let’s Get Physical
Charisse continued to practice ballet for most of her life, and at age 68, she created an exercise video titled Easy Energy Shape Up to keep senior citizens active. Charisse led viewers in a routine of easy acrobatic dance steps, and focused on cardiovascular health, as well as safe strengthening, relaxing and stretching of muscles. Impressive!
38. Lasting Influence
You can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl, and in her joint autobiography with husband Martin, Charisse often mentioned the strong and lasting influence of her childhood in Amarillo, Texas. As she told an Austin American–Statesman reporter in 2002, “Once a Texan always a Texan!”
39. Raising a Few Eyebrows
One scene in Silk Stockings almost didn’t make it past the censors thanks to a 2-second shot of Charisse’s exposed legs. The producers had to bring in a high-back chair for her to run behind instead, but viewers still got a shot of her legs through a see-through petticoat later on in the sequence. Hah!
40. The End of an Era
All good things must come to an end, and by the late 1950s, movie musicals were a dying breed. Television was putting a serious dent in movie profits, and musicals just got too expensive to produce. Charisse’s final film was Silk Stockings in 1957 co-starring Fred Astaire. The film was a box-office flop, but the performances were still great.
41. Staying Humble
Many stars would have let fame get to them, but Charisse somehow managed to stay humble. She always maintained that she never considered herself to be a star and left it to the public to decide what they thought of her work. While she hoped that they liked her, she also said that as far as she was concerned, “the pedestal they stuck me up on was insignificant.”
42. Taking it to Vegas
By the 1960s Charisse’s film career may have been basically over, but that didn’t mean that she had any plans to hang up her dancing shoes and fade away. In 1963 she and Martin formed a nightclub act which they took to Vegas and other US cities. She’d dance and he’d sing, which sounds like a match made in heaven.
43. Playing a Role
In the Boston Globe’s obituary of Charisse, the author of the article noted that Charisse “expressed her persona through movement rather than dialogue”. Charisse would probably have agreed, having told the New York Times in 1992 that in her dancing she plays a role, and to her, “that’s what dancing is about. It’s not just steps.”
44. Totally Impressed
Broadway director Tommy Tune grew up loving the movie musicals of Charisse and Astaire, and when Charisse auditioned for his musical Grand Hotel, Tune was so awed by her talent that he told her “I should be auditioning for YOU!” She was offered the part right away, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
45. Her Lifetime Goal
Performing on Broadway was the one goal that Charisse hadn’t achieved when she was young, but she got her chance to fulfill that dream when she joined the cast of the musical Grand Hotel as an aging ballerina. She admitted that putting the toe shoes back on was a challenge, but it’s nothing compared to the excitement of Broadway!
46. Not Like Her Character
While Charisse described her Grand Hotel character as being “out of her mind” because she had no career left in her older years, that was not true of Charisse. Even when movie musicals disappeared, she acted in movies, and performed with her husband not because she had to, but as she described, “for the joy of it”.
47. Merging Faiths
Charisse died of a heart attack in June of 2008, and when it came to funeral and burial arrangements, her and her husband’s different faiths made things interesting. Charisse was a practicing Methodist and Martin was Jewish, so she was given a Methodist service but was buried in a Jewish cemetery in California.
48. Can I Go Out with Her?
Before marrying Charisse in 1948, Martin was married to Alice Fay…and linked with several beautiful Hollywood actresses on the down low. So it’s not surprising that the eccentric playboy Howard Hughes thought he could lure Charisse away from her new boyfriend. Hughes told Martin that if he wasn’t in love with Charisse, he wanted to meet her. Martin said OK. Ouch?
49. Not What She Thought
When Martin gave his permission, Charisse was understandably hurt, believing the snub meant Martin didn’t care enough to try and keep her. But in fact, Martin’s logic was exactly the opposite. He thought that it would be a chance to see how good a boyfriend he was. If Hughes could steal Charisse from him, then he’d clearly blown it.
50. Accidental Wingman
Hughes was so confident that he’d win Charisse that he handed Martin a pair of open-ended first-class plane tickets to go anywhere in the world. Hughes assumed that Martin would quickly find another woman and take off with her, so imagine his surprise when he took Charisse to London…where they got married. Oops!