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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cyd Charisse Dies at 86

Cyd Charisse, the long-legged beauty who danced with the Ballet Russe as a teenager and starred in MGM musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, died Tuesday. She was 86.

Ms. Charisse was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Monday after suffering an apparent heart attack, said her publicist, Gene Schwam.

She appeared in dramatic films, but her fame came from the Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s.

Classically trained, she could dance anything, from a pas de deux in 1946's "Ziegfeld Follies" to the lowdown Mickey Spillane satire of 1953's "The Band Wagon" (with Mr. Astaire).
Associated Press
Cyd Charisse with Gene Kelly

She also forged a popular song-and-dance partnership on television and in nightclub appearances with her husband, singer Tony Martin.

Her height was 5 feet, 6 inches, but in high heels and full-length stockings, she seemed serenely tall, and she moved with extraordinary grace. Her flawless beauty and jet-black hair contributed to an aura of perfection that Mr. Astaire described in his 1959 memoir, "Steps in Time," as "beautiful dynamite."

"Her beauty was breathtaking," Debbie Reynolds, who starred with Ms. Charisse in the 1952 classic "Singin" in the Rain," said in a statement. "The world will miss her dancing."

Ms. Charisse arrived at MGM as the studio was establishing itself as the king of musicals. Three producers -- Arthur Freed, Joe Pasternak and Jack Cummings -- headed units that drew from the greatest collection of musical talent. Dancers, singers, directors, choreographers, composers, conductors and a symphony-size orchestra were under contract and available. The contract list also included the screen's two greatest male dancers: Messrs. Astaire and Kelly.

Mr. Astaire, who danced with her in "The Band Wagon" and "Silk Stockings," said of Ms. Charisse in a 1983 interview: "She wasn't a tap dancer, she's just beautiful, trained, very strong in whatever we did. When we were dancing, we didn't know what time it was."

She first gained notice as a member of the famed Ballet Russe, and got her start in Hollywood when star David Lichine was hired by Columbia Pictures for a ballet sequence in a 1943 Don Ameche-Janet Blair musical, "Something to Shout About."

Although that film failed to live up to its title, its ballet sequence attracted wide notice, and Ms. Charisse (then billed as Lily Norwood) began receiving movie offers.

"I had just done that number with David as a favor to him," she said in "The Two of Us," her 1976 double autobiography with Mr. Martin. "Honestly, the idea of working movies had never once entered my head. I was a dancer, not an actress. I had no delusions about myself. I couldn't act -- I had never acted. So how could I be a movie star?"

She overcame her doubts and signed a seven-year contract at MGM. She also got a new name, the exotic "Cyd" instead of her lifelong nickname Sid to go with her first husband's last name.

"Singin" in the Rain" marked a breakthrough.

When Mr. Freed was dissatisfied with another dancer who had been cast, Ms. Charisse inherited the role and danced with Mr. Kelly in the "Broadway Melody" number that climaxed the movie. She stunned critics and audiences with her 25-foot Chinese silk scarf that floated in the air with the aid of a wind machine.

Ms. Charisse also danced with Mr. Kelly in "Brigadoon," "It's Always Fair Weather" and "Invitation to the Dance." She missed what might have been her greatest opportunity: to appear with Mr. Kelly in the 1951 Academy Award winner, "An American in Paris." She was pregnant, and Leslie Caron was cast in the role.

In 1996, Ms. Charisse recalled her reaction on entering the movies: "Ballet is a closed world and very rigid; MGM was a fairyland. You'd walk down the lot, seeing all these fabulous movies being made with the greatest talent in the world sitting there. It was a dream to walk through that lot."

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