No less of an icon than Fred Astaire once said about Cyd Charisse, "When you've danced with Cyd, you stay danced with. " And in a sense, that was the legacy of the actress and dancer, whose sinuous style and breathtaking beauty captivated moviegoers during the 1940s and '50s in classic musicals like "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), "The Band Wagon" (1953) and "Silk Stockings" (1957). Charisse's on-screen visibility grew less frequent with the decline of the Hollywood musical in the late 1950s, though she could be glimpsed in decorative or exotic roles in films and on television for the next four decades before her death in 2008.
Born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, TX on March 8, 1922, her screen name came from a nickname bestowed upon her by an older brother who could not pronounce "sis." Sickly from an early age after a bout with polio, she took dance lessons to regain her strength, and showed enough promise to warrant an audition with the Ballet Russes, which brought her talent to audiences both in the United States and in Europe. While in Europe, she was reunited with a young dancer she had trained with named Nico Charisse, and the couple wed in 1939. The outbreak of World War II sent her back to the United States, where she settled with her new husband in Los Angeles. While there, Ballet Russes star David Lichine tapped her to perform in a new feature, Gregory Ratloff's "Something to Shout About" (1943). The film was not a success, and though Charisse had no initial interest in becoming a movie actress, she was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM and joined the Freed Unit, one of three talent pools headed by producer/lyricist Arthur Freed and directors Jack Cummings and Joe Pasternak, who oversaw a pool of dancers, singers, choreographers and composers for MGM's musical films. She was soon put through the studio's rigorous grooming process, which gave her drama and elocution lessons to eliminate her Texas accent. She also took singing lessons, though she did not prove as talented in that department as she did at dancing, leading her numbers in subsequent musicals to be dubbed by singer India Allen.
Charisse was unbilled for several of her early appearances; among these being "Ziegfield Follies" (1944), in which she briefly shared the screen with one of her greatest future co-stars, Fred Astaire. Eventually, she worked her way up to featured dancer in a wide variety of musicals, which allowed her to show off her versatility in different styles of dance. Charisse also took the occasional dramatic role in films like the noir "Tension" (1949) and "East Side, West Side" (1949), where her dark good looks were put to use as various femme fatales or ethnic types. As her career began to gain momentum, her marriage to Charisse came to an end in 1948, but she was soon married to popular crooner Tony Martin, with whom she had a son, Tony Jr., in 1950. Her pregnancy kept her from appearing opposite then-reigning dance king Gene Kelly in his landmark "An American in Paris" (1951), but the actor-choreographer-director remembered her for his next project.
That film, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) became her breakout film. Cast after producer Freed sought a more skilled partner for Kelly in the film's climactic "Broadway Melody Ballet," she stunned audiences and critics alike with the depth and range of her talent, which were made all the more memorable by her dark loveliness. From her first appearance as a gangster's moll dressed in flapper green dress with legs up to here, to the later romantic ballet, in which she stunned critics and audiences with her 25-foot Chinese silk scarf that floated in the air behind her with the aid of a wind machine. The film cemented her reputation as one of the most skilled dancers in Hollywood, and she quickly followed its success with another acclaimed film, "The Band Wagon" (1953), this time opposite Astaire. Charisse played a ballerina who is chosen to perform opposite Astaire's fading movie star in a dark musical interpretation of the Faust legend. The pair's initial insecurities about each other eventually give way to love, and their two dance numbers - "Dancing in the Dark" and "Girl Hunt Ballet" (which parodied the gritty hard-boiled novels of Mickey Spillane) - were among the most technically stunning and hot-blooded performances on screen during the 1950s.
Charisse was the co-star and dance partner of choice for Kelly and Astaire in some of their best efforts in the 1950s. She was Fiona Cooper, resident of "Brigadoon" (1954) and love interest to Kelly's bewildered traveler in Vincente Minnelli's film adaptation of the popular musical, and later co-starred with him in his final big-screen musical, the troubled "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955). She also appeared in Astaire's musical swan song, "Silk Stockings" (1957), a song-and-dance take on the Greta Garbo comedy "Ninotchka" (1939) with Charisse in the Garbo role. Her performance would earn her a Golden Globe nomination. When asked to name her favorite among the two screen dance legends, she cited that while Kelly was the more athletic dancer, both were "delicious" in their own way.
"Silk Stockings" also signaled the end of Charisse's career in film musicals. The impact of television and rising production costs brought an end to the genre by the late fifties, but Charisse's acting ability allowed her to segue into straight dramatic roles for much of the next decade. Unfortunately, there seemed to be little for her to do onscreen - she was largely wasted as Rock Hudson's object of desire in the turgid "Twilight for the Gods" (1958), though Nicholas Ray gave her a sizzling showcase as a dancer in his cult favorite "Party Girl" (1958). She was also featured in a supporting role in the unreleased "Something's Got to Give" (1962), which was Marilyn Monroe's final screen appearance.
By the mid-1960s, Charisse was making features largely in Europe, where her poise and looks earned her regular employment in exotic, regal roles, such as a baroness opposite Ernie Kovacs' Italian con man in "Five Golden Hours" (1961). Television, which had become the refuge of the musical in the 1960s, offered more opportunities for audiences to enjoy her abilities. She was front and center in a 1959 episode of the variety series "Startime" (NBC, 1959-1960) called "Meet Cyd Charisse," and she gave an excellent reminder of her talents at both the 33rd and 38th Academy Awards ceremonies in 1961 and 1966, respectively. Visitors to Las Vegas could also see her perform with Martin as part of a successful nightclub act during these years.
Charisse was an infrequent guest star on television dramas during the 1970s and '80s, and penned a tandem autobiography with Martin in 1976 titled The Two of Us. More often than not, she was featured in retrospective specials and documentaries about the Golden Age of Hollywood or in tributes to Astaire and Kelly. The 1990s proved to be a more fruitful time for her - not only did she achieve her long-standing goal of appearing on Broadway by starring as a fading Russian ballerina in the 1990 production of the musical "Grand Hotel," but she gained exposure to a whole new audience with a cameo in Janet Jackson's music video for "Alright" in 1990. She also followed in the footsteps of her former co-star Debbie Reynolds by releasing her own senior-oriented exercise video, "Easy Energy Shape Up," in 1990.
Charisse made her final on-camera appearance in "Satin and Silk," a 2003 documentary about the making of "Silk Stockings" that appeared on its DVD release. Three years later, she was given the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities by President George W. Bush in a private ceremony at the White House. On June 16 2008, Charisse was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital after suffering from a reported heart attack; she died the following day at the age of 86, one of the last surviving of the MGM musical stars during that genre's heyday.