Gwen Verdon

Gwyneth Evelyn "Gwen" Verdon (January 13, 1925 – October 18, 2000) was an American actress and dancer. She won four Tony Awards for her musical comedy performances, and served as an uncredited choreographer's assistant and specialty dance coach for theater and film. With flaming red hair and a quaver in her voice, Verdon was a critically acclaimed performer on Broadway in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Having originated many roles in musicals she is also strongly identified with her second husband, director–choreographer Bob Fosse, remembered as the dancer–collaborator–muse for whom he choreographed much of his work and as the guardian of his legacy after his death.

Gwen Verdon
Verdon in 1954
Born
Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon

(1925-01-13)January 13, 1925
DiedOctober 18, 2000(2000-10-18) (aged 75)
OccupationActress, dancer
Years active1936–2000
Spouse(s)
James Henaghan
(m. 1942; div. 1947)

Bob Fosse
(m. 1960; sep. 1971)
Children2, including Nicole Fosse

Early life

Verdon was born in Culver City, California, the second child of Gertrude Lilian (née Standring; October 24, 1896 – October 16, 1956) and Joseph William Verdon (December 31, 1896 – June 23, 1978), British immigrants to the United States by way of Canada.[1] Her brother was William Farrell Verdon (August 1, 1923 – June 10, 1991). The Verdon family could be described as "showpeople." 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.[2][3]

As a toddler, she had rickets, 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 the three-year-old in dance classes. Further ballet training strengthened her legs and improved her carriage.

By the time she was six, she was already dancing on stage. She went on to study multiple dance forms, ranging from tap, jazz, ballroom and flamenco to Balinese. She also studied juggling. At age 11, she appeared as a solo ballerina in the musical romance film The King Steps Out (1936), directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Grace Moore and Franchot Tone. She attended Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and studied under ballet enthusiast Ernest Belcher. While in high school, she was cast in a revival of Show Boat.

In 1942, Verdon’s parents asked her to marry family friend and tabloid reporter James Henaghan after he got her pregnant at 17 years old, and she quit her dancing career to raise their child.[4] In 1945, she appeared as a dancer in the movie musical The Blonde From Brooklyn. After her divorce, she entrusted her son Jimmy to the care of her parents.

Career

Early on, Verdon found a job as 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". She also taught dance to stars such as Jane Russell, Fernando Lamas, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe.

Verdon started out on Broadway as a "gypsy", going from one chorus line to another. Her breakthrough role finally came when choreographer Michael Kidd cast her as the second female lead in Cole Porter's musical Can-Can (1953), starring French prima donna Lilo. Out-of-town reviewers hailed Verdon's interpretation of Eve in the Garden of Eden ballet as a performance that upstaged the show's star, who reputedly demanded Verdon's role be cut to only two featured dance numbers. With her role reduced to little more than an ensemble part, Verdon 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 a towel to take a curtain call.[5] Verdon received a pay increase and her first Tony Award for her performance.

Verdon's biggest critical and commercial success was her following show, George Abbott's Damn Yankees (1955), based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. The musical ran for 1019 performances. Verdon won another Tony and went to Hollywood to repeat her role in the 1958 movie version Damn Yankees, famously singing "Whatever Lola Wants". (Fosse can be seen partnered with her in the original mambo duet "Who's Got the Pain.")

Verdon won another Tony for her performance in the musical New Girl in Town as a hard-luck girl fleeing from her past as a prostitute. She won her fourth Tony for the murder-mystery musical Redhead, Fosse's Broadway debut as a director/choreographer. In 1960, Fosse and Verdon wed.

In 1966, Verdon returned to the stage in the role of Charity in Sweet Charity, which like many of her earlier Broadway triumphs was choreographed and directed by husband Fosse. The show is loosely based on Federico Fellini's screenplay for Nights of Cabiria. It was followed by a movie version starring Shirley MacLaine as Charity, featuring Ricardo Montalbán, Sammy Davis Jr. and Chita Rivera, with Fosse at the helm of his very first film as director and choreographer. Verdon helped with the choreography. The numbers include the famed "Big Spender," "Rhythm of Life," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," and "I'm a Brass Band". Verdon would also travel to Berlin to help Fosse with Cabaret, the musical film for which he won an Oscar for Best Director.

Although estranged as a couple, Verdon and Fosse continued to collaborate on projects such as the musical Chicago (1975) (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).[6] The helpmate/peer played by Leland Palmer in that film is based on the role Verdon played in Fosse's real life. She also developed a close working relationship with Fosse's partner, Broadway dancer Ann Reinking, and she instructed for Reinking's musical theatre classes.

After originating the role of Roxie opposite Chita Rivera's Velma Kelly in Chicago[6], Verdon 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). Verdon appeared as the title character's mother in the Woody Allen movie Alice (1990) and as Ruth in Marvin's Room (1996), co-starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1999, Verdon served as artistic consultant on a Broadway musical designed to showcase examples of classic Fosse choreography. Called simply Fosse, the revue was conceived and directed by Richard Maltby Jr. and Ann Reinking and choreographed by Reinking and Chet Walker. Verdon's daughter Nicole received a "special thanks" credit. The show won a Tony Award for best musical.

In 1997 Verdon appeared in an episode of Walker Texas Ranger as Maisie Whitman. She reprised the role in 1999.

Verdon played Alora in the movie Walking Across Egypt (1999) and appeared in the film Bruno, released in 2000. Verdon received a total of four Tonys, for best featured actress for Can-Can (1953) and best leading actress for Damn Yankees (1955), New Girl in Town (1957) and Redhead (1959). She also won a Grammy Award for the cast recording of Redhead.[7]

Verdon was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981.[8] In 1998, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.[9]

Personal life

Verdon was married twice and had two children. She married tabloid reporter James Henaghan in 1942. They had a son, Jim, the following year and divorced in 1947. In 1960, Verdon married choreographer Bob Fosse. They had a daughter, Nicole, in 1963. Fosse's extramarital affairs put a strain on their marriage, and by 1971, Verdon and Fosse were separated, but never divorced. She was involved in relationships with actor Scott Brady and actor Jerry Lanning, son of Roberta Sherwood.[10] Verdon was with Fosse when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. in September 1987.[11]

Verdon was a cat fancier, having up to six cats at one time, with the pets carrying names such as "Feets Fosse", "Junie Moon", and "Tidbits Tumbler Fosse".[12]

Verdon was a mental health-care advocate; later in life, she openly spoke about the positive effects of mental-health counseling. Along with teaching dance as a form of therapy, she sat on the board of directors for the New York Postgraduate Center for Mental Health, and actively raised funds to support mental health-care research.[13]

Death

On October 18, 2000, Verdon died in her sleep at age 75 of a heart attack at the home of her daughter, Nicole, in Woodstock, Vermont.[14][15][16] Later that night, at 8 pm, all marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed in a tribute to the actress.[16]

Work

Stage

YearTitleRoleNotes
1950Alive and KickingHerselfMusical revue
1953Can-CanClaudine/EveTony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical
1955Damn YankeesLolaTony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1957New Girl in TownAnnaTony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1959RedheadEssie WhimpleTony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1966Sweet CharityCharity Hope ValentineNominated – Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1972Children! Children!Helen GilesOnly played one performance (13 previews)
1975ChicagoRoxie HartNominated – Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical

Film

YearTitleRoleNotes
1936The King Steps OutSpecialty BallerinaUncredited
1943Hoosier HolidayCheerleaderUncredited
1945The Blonde from BrooklynGirl in NightclubUncredited
1951On the RivieraSpecialty DancerUncredited
1951David and BathshebaSpecialty DancerUncredited
1951Meet Me After the ShowSapphoUncredited, as a prominent dancer in "No Talent Joe", sung by Betty Grable[17]
1952DreamboatGirlUncredited
1952The Merry WidowSpecialty Can-Can DancerUncredited
1953The I Don't Care GirlSpecialty DancerUncredited
1953The Mississippi GamblerVoodoo DancerUncredited
1953The Farmer Takes a WifeAbigailUncredited
1955Gentlemen Marry BrunettesSpecialty DancerUncredited
1958Damn YankeesLolaNominated—BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film
1978Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club BandOur Guests at Heartland
1982CreepshowVoice of Lenora CastonmeyerUncredited
1984The Cotton ClubTish Dwyer
1985CocoonBess McCarthyNominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1987NadineVera
1988Cocoon: The ReturnBess McCarthy Selwyn
1990AliceAlice's mother
1994Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells AllEtta Pell, Nursing Home Resident
1996Marvin's RoomRuth WakefieldNominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
1999Walking Across EgyptAlora
2000BrunoMrs. Drago

Television

YearTitleRoleNotes
1954Goodyear PlayhouseShirley KochendorferEpisode: "Native Dancer"
1972Love, American StyleEstelle MayberrySegment: "Love and the New Act"
1973The $10,000 PyramidCelebrity GuestWeek of October 22–26, playing against Godfrey Cambridge[18]
1981M*A*S*HBrandy DoyleEpisode: "That's Show Biz"
1982FameMelinda MacNeilEpisode: "Come One, Come All"
1982All My ChildrenJudith Kingsley SawyerUnknown episodes
1983LegsMaureen ComlyTelevision movie
1984The Jerk, TooBag LadyTelevision movie; uncredited
1984Gimme a Break!LilyEpisode: "The Center"
1985Trapper John, M.D.Ms. TaylorEpisode: "All the King's Horses"
1985Kids IncorporatedRuthEpisode: "Grandma, Won't You Dance with Me"
1985–1988Magnum, P.I.Katherine Peterson5 episodes
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
1986The EqualizerKelly SterlingEpisode: "Unnatural Causes"
1986All Is ForgivenBonita HarrellEpisode: "I Can't Say No"
1986–1988WebsterAunt Charlotte3 episodes
1987HotelIris LloydEpisode: "Second Thoughts"
1989Dear JohnYvonneEpisode: "The Second Time Around"
1992Dream OnKitty BrewerEpisode: "For Peter's Sake"
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
1993Homicide: Life on the StreetJessie DoohenEpisode: "Ghost of a Chance"
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
1993Key WestSister GraceEpisode: "Gimme Shelter"
1994The Cosby MysteriesYolanda2 episodes
1996In Cold BloodSadie Truitt2 episodes
1997Touched by an AngelLorraine McCullyEpisode: "Missing in Action"
1997–1999Walker, Texas RangerMaisie Whitman2 episodes
1998Promised LandKaren HatcherEpisode: "Undercover Granny"

Music

In 1956, Verdon released an album titled The Girl I Left Home For. The album includes her covers of popular jazz standards of the time.[19]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Work Result Notes
1953 Theatre World Awards Can-Can Won
1954 Tony Award Best Featured Actress in a Musical Won
1956 Best Actress in a Musical Damn Yankees Won
1958 New Girl in Town Won Tied with co-star Thelma Ritter
1959 Redhead Won
BAFTA Awards Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles Damn Yankees Nominated Titled What Lola Wants in UK
Grammy Awards Best Broadway Show Album Redhead Won
1966 Tony Awards Best Actress in a Musical Sweet Charity Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Outstanding Performance Won
1976 Tony Award Best Actress in a Musical Chicago Nominated
1988 Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Magnum, P.I. Nominated
1993 Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series Dream On Nominated
Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Homicide: Life on the Street Nominated
1997 Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role Marvin's Room Nominated
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Nominated

References

  1. Pacheco, Patrick (November 3, 2000). "Remembering Gwen Verdon". Entertainment Weekly. New York City: Meredith Corporation. Retrieved June 24, 2015.
  2. "Gwen Verdon profile". filmreference.com. Retrieved June 24, 2015.
  3. Birthdata, californiabirthindex.org; accessed June 24, 2015.
  4. Miller, Julie (April 24, 2019). "'Fosse/Verdon' Reveals the Sad Secret of Gwen Verdon's First Marriage". Vanity Fair. New York City: Condé Nast. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
  5. "Gwen Verdon #5" youtube.com, retrieved June 4, 2019
  6. Thulin, Lila. "How Broadway Legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon Made Headlines Long Before 'Fosse/Verdon'". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2019-12-10.
  7. "2ND Annual Grammy Awards (1959) Redhead" grammy.com, retrieved June 4, 2019
  8. "26 Elected to the Theater Hall of Fame." The New York Times, March 3, 1981.
  9. Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine, nea.gov; accessed June 24, 2015.
  10. "Scott Brady And Gwen Verdon News Photo" gettyimages.com, January 10, 1955
  11. Molotsky, Irvin. "Bob Fosse, Director and Choreographer, Dies" The New York Times, September 24, 1987
  12. Cat People, Bill Hayward, introduction by Rogers E. M. Whitaker. New York: Dolphin/Doubleday, 1978 (p. 70)
  13. Taylor, Clarke. "Separated but Still Mated Professionally" People, Vol.3, No.4, June 23, 1975
  14. Kuchwara, Michael (October 19, 2000). "Gwen Verdon, Broadway's Lola, Sweet Charity and Roxie Hart, dies at 75". Associated Press.
  15. Simonson, Robert; Jones, Kenneth (October 18, 2000). "Broadway Musical Legend Gwen Verdon Is Dead at 75". Playbill. New York City: Playbill Inc.
  16. Berkvist, Robert (October 19, 2000). "Gwen Verdon, Redhead Who High-Kicked Her Way to Stardom, Dies at 75". The New York Times. New York City: New York Times Company.
  17. Meet Me After the Show cast and credits at IMDb
  18. " 10,000 Pyramid Gwen Verdon & Godfrey Cambridge, Aired Oct 22, 1973" tv.com, retrieved June 4, 2019
  19. " The Girl I Left Home For RCA Victor LPM-1152" discogs.com, retrieved June 4, 2019
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