Actressm Dancer. She is remembered for winning four Tony awards in the 1950s for her performance in stage musicals. Born into a "show business family," her father was an electrician at MGM Studios and her mother was a former vaudevillian of the Denishawn dance troupe, as well as a dance teacher. She suffered from rickets as a toddler, which left her legs so badly misshapen she was called "Gimpy" by other children and spent her early years in orthopedic boots and rigid leg braces. Her mother put her in dance classes at an early age and further ballet training strengthened her legs and improved her carriage. At the age of six, she was already dancing on stage and went on to study multiple dance forms, ranging from tap, jazz, ballroom and flamenco to Balinese, even adding juggling to her repertoire. At the age of 11, she appeared as a solo ballerina in the musical romance film "The King Steps Out" (1936), starring Grace Moore and Franchot Tone. She attended Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and studied under famed balletomane Ernest Belcher. While in high school, she was cast in a revival of "Show Boat." In 1945, she appeared as a dancer in the movie musical "The Blonde From Brooklyn." She became an assistant to choreographer Jack Cole, whose work was respected by both Broadway and Hollywood movie studios. During her five-year employment with Cole, she took small roles in movie musicals as a "specialty dancer" and also taught dance to stars such as Jane Russell, Fernando Lamas, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. She began on Broadway as a "gypsy", going from one chorus line to another. Her breakthrough role finally came when she was cast as the second female lead in Cole Porter's musical "Can-Can" (1953), starring French prima donna Lilo. Out-of-town reviewers hailed her interpretation of 'Eve' in the Garden of Eden ballet as a performance that upstaged the show's star, who jealously demanded her role be cut to only two featured dance numbers. With her role reduced to little more than an ensemble part, she formally announced her intention to quit by the time the show premiered on Broadway. But her opening-night Garden of Eden performance was so well received that the audience screamed her name until the startled actress was brought from her dressing room in her bathrobe to take a curtain call. As a result, she received a pay increase and her first Tony Award for her triumphant performance. She was considered by many as the best dancer on Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s and that reputation solidified during her next show, George Abbott's "Damn Yankees" (1955), based on the novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant." She would forever be identified with her role as the vampish 'Lola' and it was on this show that she first worked with Bob Fosse (her future 2nd husband) as her choreographer. The musical ran for 1019 performances and she garnered another Tony award and went to Hollywood to repeat her role in the 1958 movie version "Damn Yankees," memorably singing "whatever Lola wants, Lola gets". Her 3rd Tony award came her way when she memorably played a role associated with Greta Garbo, Eugene O'Neill's 'Anna Christie' the hard-luck girl fleeing from her past as a prostitute, in the musical "New Girl in Town" (1957) When Fosse directed as well as choreographed his first Broadway musical, it was "Redhead" (1959), for which she won her 4th Tony award. In 1960 she and Fosse were married. In 1966 she returned to the stage in the role of 'Charity' in "Sweet Charity" (FOR WHICH SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR A Tony Award), which like many of her earlier Broadway triumphs was choreographed and directed by her husband. By 1970 she and her husband became estranged (but never divorced), and continued to collaborate on projects such as "Chicago" (1975, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award and in which she originated the role of murderess 'Roxie Hart') and the musical "Dancin'" (1978), as well as Fosse's autobiographical movie "All That Jazz" (1979). After originating the role of 'Roxie' opposite Chita Rivera in "Chicago," she focused on film acting, playing character roles in movies such as "The Cotton Club" (1984), "Cocoon" (1985) and "Cocoon: The Return" (1988). She continued to teach dance and musical theater and to act. She received three Emmy Award nominations for appearances on "Magnum, P.I." (1988), "Dream On" (1993) and "Homicide: Life on the Street" (1993). She appeared as Alice's mother in the Woody Allen movie "Alice" (1990) and as 'Ruth' in "Marvin's Room" (1996, for which she was nominated for two separate Screen Actors Guild Awards), co-starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Hume Cronyn. In 1999 she served as artistic consultant on a plotless Broadway musical designed to showcase examples of classic Fosse choreography. Called simply "Fosse," the show received a Tony award for Best Musical. She played 'Alora' in the movie "Walking Across Egypt" (1999) and appeared in the film "Bruno" (2000). She was married twice, first to tabloid reporter James Henaghan (1942 to 1947) and then to Bob Fosse (1960 until his death in 1987). She died in her sleep of a heart attack at the home of her daughter Nicole, at the age of 75. In 1981 she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and in 1998, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Bio by: William Bjornstad
William Farrell Verdon