From ballerina to ‘Singin' in the Rain'

Cyd Charisse, the Texas beauty who danced with the Ballet Russe as a teen and starred in MGM musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, died Tuesday.

Charisse, 86, was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Monday after 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 '50s.

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

She was 5 feet, 6 inches, but in high heels and full-length stockings, she seemed serenely tall. Her jet-black hair added to an aura of perfection that Astaire described in his 1959 memoir, “Steps in Time,” as “beautiful dynamite.”

Charisse arrived at MGM as the studio was establishing itself as the king of musicals. Dancers, singers, directors, choreographers, composers, conductors and a symphony-size orchestra were under contract – including two of the screen's greatest male dancers: Astaire and Kelly.

Astaire, who danced with Charisse in “The Band Wagon” and “Silk Stockings,” said of her in 1983: “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.”

The sequence attracted wide notice, and Charisse (then billed as Lily Norwood) began getting film 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 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.

The 1952 classic “Singin' in the Rain” marked a breakthrough.

When Freed was dissatisfied with another dancer who had been cast, Charisse got the role and danced with Kelly in the “Broadway Melody” number that climaxed the movie. Charisse also danced with Kelly in “Brigadoon,” “It's Always Fair Weather” and “Invitation to the Dance.”