Gwen Verdon

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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)

Bob Fosse
(m. 1960;sep. 1971)
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. 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.

Tony Award awards for live Broadway theatre

The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre, more commonly known as the Tony Award, recognizes excellence in live Broadway theatre. The awards are presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League at an annual ceremony in Midtown Manhattan. The awards are given for Broadway productions and performances, and an award is given for regional theatre. Several discretionary non-competitive awards are also given, including a Special Tony Award, the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre, and the Isabelle Stevenson Award. The awards are named after Antoinette "Tony" Perry, co-founder of the American Theatre Wing.

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

Robert Louis Fosse was an American dancer, musical-theatre choreographer, and theatre and film director. He is known for directing and choreographing musical works on stage and screen, including the stage musicals The Pajama Game (choreography) in 1954 and Chicago in 1975 and the film Cabaret in 1972.


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]

Culver City, California City in California, United States

Culver City is a city in Los Angeles County, California. The city was named after its founder, Harry Culver. As of the 2010 census, the city had a population of 38,883. It is mostly surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, but also shares a border with unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. Over the years, it has annexed more than 40 pieces of adjoining land and now comprises about five square miles.

Canada Country in North America

Canada is a country in the northern part of North America. Its ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 9.98 million square kilometres, making it the world's second-largest country by total area. Canada's southern border with the United States, stretching some 8,891 kilometres (5,525 mi), is the world's longest bi-national land border. Its capital is Ottawa, and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. As a whole, Canada is sparsely populated, the majority of its land area being dominated by forest and tundra. Consequently, its population is highly urbanized, with over 80 percent of its inhabitants concentrated in large and medium-sized cities, with 70% of citizens residing within 100 kilometres (62 mi) of the southern border. Canada's climate varies widely across its vast area, ranging from arctic weather in the north, to hot summers in the southern regions, with four distinct seasons.

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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.

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Ballet form of performance dance

Ballet is a type of performance dance that originated during the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century and later developed into a concert dance form in France and Russia. It has since become a widespread, highly technical form of dance with its own vocabulary based on French terminology. It has been globally influential and has defined the foundational techniques used in many other dance genres and cultures. Ballet has been taught in various schools around the world, which have historically incorporated their own cultures and as a result, the art has evolved in a number of distinct ways. See glossary of ballet.

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 .

<i>The King Steps Out</i> 1936 film by Josef von Sternberg

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Josef von Sternberg Austrian-American film director

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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.


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.

Jack Cole was an American dancer, choreographer, and theatre director known as "the Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance".

Broadway theatre class of professional theater presented in New York City, New York, USA

Broadway theatre, also known simply as Broadway, refers to the theatrical performances presented in the 41 professional theatres, each with 500 or more seats located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center along Broadway, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Along with London's West End theatre, Broadway theatre is widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world.

Jane Russell American actress and model

Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell was an American film actress and one of Hollywood's leading sex symbols in the 1940s and 1950s.

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 Academy Award 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). 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, 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 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 Post-Graduate Center for Mental Health, and actively raised funds to support mental-healthcare research. [12]


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. [13] [14] [15]

Later that night, at 8 p.m., all marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed in a tribute to the actress. [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
1975 Chicago Roxie Hart Nominated - Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical


1936 The King Steps Out Specialty BallerinaUncredited
1943 Hoosier Holiday CheerleaderUncredited
1945The Blonde from BrooklynGirl 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 [16]
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 [17]
1981 M*A*S*H Brandy DoyleEpisode: "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. [18]

Awards and nominations

1953Theatre 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 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
Grammy AwardsBest Broadway Show Album Redhead Won
1966Tony AwardsBest Actress in a Musical Sweet Charity Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Outstanding Performance Won
1976Tony AwardBest 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 Actor 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

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