Gwen Verdon

Last updated
Gwen Verdon
Gwen Verdon 1954.jpg
Verdon in 1954
Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon

(1925-01-13)January 13, 1925
DiedOctober 18, 2000(2000-10-18) (aged 75)
OccupationActress, dancer
Years active1936–2000
  • James Henaghan
    (m. 1942;div. 1947)
  • (m. 1960;died 1987)
Children2, including Nicole Fosse

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. Verdon was a critically acclaimed performer on Broadway in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, having originated many roles in musicals, including the title character in Sweet Charity and Roxie Hart in Chicago . 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.


Early life

Verdon was born in Culver City, California, the second child of Gertrude Lilian ( née Standring) and Joseph William Verdon, British immigrants to the United States by way of Canada. [1] Her brother was William Farrell Verdon. 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]

As a toddler, she suffered from 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. At age three, her mother enrolled her in dance classes. Further ballet training strengthened her legs and improved her carriage.

By age six, she was 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. [3] In 1945, she appeared as a dancer in the movie musical Blonde From Brooklyn . After her divorce, she entrusted her son Jimmy to the care of her parents.


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 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. [4] 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 also traveled 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). [5] 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 was an instructor for Reinking's musical theatre classes.

After originating the role of Roxie opposite Chita Rivera's Velma Kelly in Chicago, [5] 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. [6]

Verdon was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981. [7] In 1998, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. [8]

Personal life

Verdon was married twice and had two children. She married tabloid reporter James Archibald 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. [9] Verdon was with Fosse when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in September 1987. [10]

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". [11]

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. [12]

Fosse/Verdon is an 8-part American miniseries starring Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon. The series, which tells the story of the couple's troubled personal and professional relationship, is based on the biography Fosse by Sam Wasson. It premiered in eight parts on April 9, 2019, on FX. At the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, Fosse/Verdon received seventeen nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series and acting nominations for Rockwell, Williams, and Qualley. Williams won the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series.


Verdon died from a heart attack on October 18, 2000, aged 75, at her daughter's home in Woodstock, Vermont. [13] [14] [15] Later that night, at 8 pm, all marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed in a tribute to Verdon. [15]



1950 Alive and Kicking HerselfMusical revue
1953 Can-Can Claudine/Eve Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical
1955 Damn Yankees Lola Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1957 New Girl in Town AnnaTony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1959 Redhead Essie WhimpleTony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1966 Sweet Charity Charity Hope ValentineNominated – Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1972Children! Children!Helen GilesOnly played one performance (13 previews)
1975 Chicago Roxie Hart Nominated – Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical


1936 The King Steps Out Specialty BallerinaUncredited
1941The Girl After My Heart (a featurette by Roy Mack (director))Specialty BallerinaCredited as "Gwen Verdun" [sic]
1943 Hoosier Holiday CheerleaderUncredited
1945 Blonde from Brooklyn Girl in NightclubUncredited
1951 On the Riviera Specialty DancerUncredited
1951 David and Bathsheba Specialty DancerUncredited
1951 Meet Me After the Show SapphoUncredited, as a prominent dancer in "No Talent Joe", sung by Betty Grable
1952 Dreamboat GirlUncredited
1952 The Merry Widow Specialty Can-Can DancerUncredited
1953 The I Don't Care Girl Specialty DancerUncredited
1953 The Mississippi Gambler Voodoo DancerUncredited
1953 The Farmer Takes a Wife AbigailUncredited
1955 Gentlemen Marry Brunettes Specialty DancerUncredited
1958 Damn Yankees LolaNominated—BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film
1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Our Guests at Heartland
1982 Creepshow Voice of Lenora CastonmeyerUncredited
1984 The Cotton Club Tish Dwyer
1985 Cocoon Bess McCarthyNominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1987 Nadine Vera
1988 Cocoon: The Return Bess McCarthy Selwyn
1990 Alice Alice's mother
1994 Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All Etta Pell, Nursing Home Resident
1996 Marvin's Room Ruth 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
1999 Walking Across Egypt Alora
2000 Bruno Mrs. Drago


1954 Goodyear Playhouse Shirley KochendorferEpisode: "Native Dancer"
1972 Love, American Style Estelle MayberrySegment: "Love and the New Act"
1973 The $10,000 Pyramid Celebrity GuestWeek of October 22–26, playing against Godfrey Cambridge [16]
1981 M*A*S*H Brandy Doyle(USO performer)Episode: "That's Show Biz"
1982 Fame Melinda MacNeilEpisode: "Come One, Come All"
1982 All My Children Judith Kingsley SawyerUnknown episodes
1983 Legs Maureen ComlyTelevision movie
1984 The Jerk, Too Bag LadyTelevision movie; uncredited
1984 Gimme a Break! LilyEpisode: "The Center"
1985 Trapper John, M.D. Ms. TaylorEpisode: "All the King's Horses"
1985 Kids Incorporated RuthEpisode: "Grandma, Won't You Dance with Me"
1985–1988 Magnum, P.I. Katherine Peterson5 episodes
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
1986 The Equalizer Kelly SterlingEpisode: "Unnatural Causes"
1986 All Is Forgiven Bonita HarrellEpisode: "I Can't Say No"
1986–1988 Webster Aunt Charlotte3 episodes
1987 Hotel Iris LloydEpisode: "Second Thoughts"
1989 Dear John YvonneEpisode: "The Second Time Around"
1992 Dream On Kitty BrewerEpisode: "For Peter's Sake"
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series
1993 Homicide: Life on the Street Jessie DoohenEpisode: "Ghost of a Chance"
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
1993 Key West Sister GraceEpisode: "Gimme Shelter"
1994 The Cosby Mysteries Yolanda2 episodes
1996 In Cold Blood Sadie Truitt2 episodes
1997 Touched by an Angel Lorraine McCullyEpisode: "Missing in Action"
1997–1999 Walker, Texas Ranger Maisie Whitman2 episodes
1998 Promised Land Karen HatcherEpisode: "Undercover Granny"


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. [17]

Awards and nominations

1953 Theatre World Award Can-Can WonAwarded for outstanding debut theatre performance On or Off-Broadway
1954 Tony Award Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical Won
1956 Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical Damn Yankees Won
1958 New Girl in Town WonTied with co-star Thelma Ritter
1959 Redhead Won
BAFTA Awards Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles Damn Yankees NominatedTitled What Lola Wants in UK
1960 Grammy Award Best Broadway Show Album Redhead WonTied with Ethel Merman for Gypsy
1966 Tony Award Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical Sweet Charity Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Performance Won
1976 Tony Award Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical Chicago Nominated
1979Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award Choreography Dancin' WonShared with Bob Fosse
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

Related Research Articles

Bob Fosse American actor, dancer, choreographer, director, and screenwriter

Robert Louis Fosse was an American dancer, musical-theatre choreographer, actor, theatre director, and filmmaker. He directed and choreographed musical works on stage and screen, including the stage musicals The Pajama Game (1954), Damn Yankees (1955), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), Sweet Charity (1966), Pippin (1972), and Chicago (1975). His films include Sweet Charity (1969), Cabaret (1972), Lenny (1975), All That Jazz (1979), and Star 80 (1983).

<i>Chicago</i> (musical) Musical set in jazz-age Chicago

Chicago is a 1975 American musical with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Ebb and Bob Fosse. Set in Chicago in the jazz age, the musical is based on a 1926 play of the same title by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, about actual criminals and the crimes on which she reported. The story is a satire on corruption in the administration of criminal justice and the concept of the "celebrity criminal".

<i>Sweet Charity</i> 1966 American musical

Sweet Charity is a musical with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon. It was directed and choreographed for Broadway by Bob Fosse starring his wife and muse Gwen Verdon alongside John McMartin. It is based on the screenplay for the 1957 Italian film Nights of Cabiria. However, whereas Federico Fellini's black-and-white film concerns the romantic ups-and-downs of an ever-hopeful prostitute, in the musical the central character is a dancer-for-hire at a Times Square dance hall. The musical premiered on Broadway in 1966, where it was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning the Tony Award for Best Choreography. The production also ran in the West End as well as having revivals and international productions.

Chita Rivera American actress, dancer, and singer

Chita Rivera, is an American actress, singer and dancer best known for originating roles in Broadway musicals including Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She is a ten-time Tony Award nominee and a three-time Tony Award recipient, including one for Lifetime Achievement. She is the first Latina woman and the first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Donna McKechnie

Donna McKechnie is an American musical theater dancer, singer, actress, and choreographer. She is known for her professional and personal relationship with choreographer Michael Bennett, with whom she collaborated on her most noted role, the character of Cassie in the musical A Chorus Line. She earned the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for this performance in 1976. She is also known for playing Amanda Harris/Olivia Corey on the Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows from 1969 to 1970.

Ann Reinking American actress, dancer, and choreographer

Ann Reinking was an American dancer, actress, choreographer and singer. She worked extensively in musical theater, starring in Broadway productions such as Coco (1969), Over Here! (1974), Goodtime Charley (1975), Chicago (1977), Dancin' (1978), and Sweet Charity (1986).

Sandahl Bergman American actress

Sandahl Bergman is an American actress. She is best known for her role as Valeria in the film Conan the Barbarian (1982), for which she won a Golden Globe and a Saturn Award.

<i>Fosse</i> (musical)

Fosse is a three-act musical revue showcasing the choreography of Bob Fosse. The musical was conceived by Richard Maltby Jr., Chet Walker, and Ann Reinking.

<i>Redhead</i> (musical)

Redhead is a musical with music composed by Albert Hague and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, who with her brother, Herbert, along with Sidney Sheldon and David Shaw wrote the book/libretto. Set in London in the 1880s, around the time of Jack the Ripper, the musical is a murder mystery in the setting of a wax museum.

<i>New Girl in Town</i>

New Girl in Town is a musical with a book by George Abbott and music and lyrics by Bob Merrill based on Eugene O'Neill's 1921 play Anna Christie, about a prostitute who tries to live down her past. New Girl, unlike O'Neill's play, focuses on the jealousy of the character Marthy and on love's ability to conquer all. The musical ends far more hopefully than the play.

Joan McCracken American dancer and actress (1917–1961)

Joan Hume McCracken was an American dancer, actress, and comedian who became famous for her role as Sylvie in the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! She also was noted for her performances in the Broadway shows Bloomer Girl (1944), Billion Dollar Baby (1945) and Dance Me a Song (1950), and the films Hollywood Canteen (1945) and Good News (1947).

Leland Palmer is an American actress, dancer, and singer who has appeared on stage, in motion pictures, and on television. She appeared on Broadway in Bajour (1964), A Joyful Noise (1966) Hello, Dolly!, Applause, and Pippin (1972). Palmer received two Tony Award nominations: in 1967 for featured actress in a musical, and in 1973 for actress in a musical.

<i>Sweet Charity</i> (film) 1969 film by Bob Fosse

Sweet Charity is a 1969 American musical comedy-drama film directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse in his feature directorial debut, written by Peter Stone, and featuring music by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.

Roxie Hart

Roxanne "Roxie" Hart is a fictional character. She is the main character of the 1926 play Chicago and its various remakes and derivatives.

Russell Brown was an American Tony Award-winning actor of stage and film. Brown, a stage actor for decades, is best remembered by audiences as Captain Brackett in South Pacific, which he repeated in the movie version, and for his performances as "Benny Van Buren" in the stage/film version of Damn Yankees in 1958, and the following year as park caretaker George Lemon in the classic courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder (1959). For his stage performance in "Damn Yankees!", he earned Broadway's Tony Award in 1956, as did actor Ray Walston, actress Gwen Verdon and her choreographer husband Bob Fosse, among others, all for the same Tony Award-winning musical.

Lenora Nemetz is an American theatre actress.

Valarie Pettiford American actress and singer

Valarie Pettiford is an American stage and television actress, dancer, and jazz singer. She received a Tony Award nomination for her role in the broadway production Fosse. She is also known for her role as "Big Dee Dee" Thorne on the UPN television sitcom Half & Half.

Tony Stevens, born Anthony Pusateri, was an American choreographer, dancer, and director who worked with, danced with, and directed many of Broadway and Hollywood's theatre-centric actors and actresses, including Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Robert Redford, and Gene Kelly.

Nicole Providence Fosse is an American actress, dancer, and producer. She is the only daughter of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse.

<i>Fosse/Verdon</i> Biographical miniseries starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams

Fosse/Verdon is an eight-part American biographical miniseries starring Sam Rockwell as director–choreographer Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams as actress and dancer Gwen Verdon. The series, which tells the story of the couple's troubled personal and professional relationship, is based on the biography Fosse by Sam Wasson. Norbert Leo Butz and Margaret Qualley also feature as Paddy Chayefsky and Ann Reinking, respectively. It premiered in eight parts on April 9, 2019, on FX.


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