Sometimes the most an actor could hope for with a film career is a single moment that places them in the firmament of entertainment history. For Annette Charles, she earned her place with a brief, but iconic turn in the screen version of "Grease" (1978). Charles enjoyed a torrid dance sequence as the sultry "Cha Cha" DiGregorio opposite John Travolta's Danny Zuko in the film, which went on to become one of the most popular movie musicals of all time and a perennial for young and old viewers alike. Though the success of "Grease" failed to translate into stardom for Charles, she enjoyed a lengthy run on television in the years that followed before leaving the business to become a speech professor. Despite leaving show business for a more anonymous life, Charles remained the once and future Cha Cha for generations of starry-eyed moviegoers.
Born Annette Cardona in Los Angeles, CA on March 5, 1948, Charles began her acting career in guest roles on various television series in the late 1960s, beginning with a 1968 appearance on "The High Chaparral" (NBC, 1967-1971). Billed frequently by her birth name, she soon graduated to a steady string of female guest leads on a wide variety of shows, from "The Mod Squad" (ABC, 1968-1973) to "The Bionic Woman" (ABC, 1976-78). Most, if not all, of these turns were largely forgotten in the wake of her most widely recognized role, that of "Cha Cha" DiGregorio in "Grease."
Though Cha Cha was a relatively minor character in the iconic musical, Charles had one show-stopping dance sequence opposite John Travolta, in which they perform a hormonally charged rendition of the "Hand Jive" on a nationally televised dance contest. Cha Cha - who began the film as the girlfriend of Leo/Craterface (Dennis C. Stewart), leader of the rival gang the Scorpions - caused a rift between Travolta's Danny and Olivia Newton-John's Sandy, which was eventually resolved by a car race on Thunder Road. In addition to dancing in "Grease," Charles proved herself to be a team player of exceptional magnitude by enduring the pain of a tubular pregnancy during the Thunder Road sequence, where she could be seen leaning against other cars to keep herself upright. Charles had received permission from her doctor to shoot the scene, and was rushed into surgery immediately after completion.
Having dropped Cardona in favor of Charles, she returned to television work in several high-profile projects, including supporting roles in the epic miniseries "Centennial" (NBC, 1978-79) and the biopic "Can You Hear the Laughter? The Story of Freddie Prinze" (CBS, 1979). Unfortunately, the popularity of "Grease" failed to translate into a career boost for Cardona as the film had done for many of her co-stars, and her screen appearances began to dwindle in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of her last film appearances was also her most substantive, playing a Nicaraguan citizen who falls in love with a CIA adviser (Robert Beltran) sent to train the Contra rebels to overthrow the Sandinista government in Haskell Wexler's "Latino" (1985). Though critically praised, the film failed to find an audience, and was largely overshadowed by the release of Oliver Stone's similar "Salvador" that same year.
Charles' final acting appearance came in a 1987 episode of "Magnum, P.I." (CBS, 1980-88). She soon left the profession to become a speech professor at California State University Northridge, where she enjoyed a lengthy tenure as a tough but dedicated educator, while graduating from the New York University School of Social Work in 2001. She occasionally revisited her "Grease" past through "where are they now" TV specials, but appeared to prefer her time outside of the limelight. In 2011, she was diagnosed with cancer, and required a lengthy hospital stay for pneumonia. On Aug. 3, 2011, Charles died from complications due to her battle with cancer. She was the second "Grease" performer to pass that year, following Jeff Conaway who died that May.