Gwen Verdon (January 13, 1925 in Culver City, California - October 18, 2000 in Woodstock, Vermont) was an acclaimed Tony Award winning American dancer and actress. She was known professionally as Gwen Verdon.
She was the second child of Joseph William Verdon (December 31, 1896-June 23, 1978) and Gertrude Lilian Standring (October 24, 1896-October 16, 1956), who were British emigrants to the U.S. by way of Canada. Her brother was William Farrell Verdon (August 1, 1923-June 10, 1991).
They were also "show people", her father Joseph was an electrician at MGM Studios, and Gertrude, her mother, was a former member of the Denishawn dance troupe, and a veteran of vaudeville.
As a child, Gwen was afflicted with rickets, which left her legs so badly bent and misshapen she was called "Gimpy" by other children and spent her early years in orthopedic boots and stiff leg braces. Gertrude Verdon placed Gwen in dance classes at the age of three and ballet began strengthening her legs and improving her carriage. Little did Gwen or her mother know she would one day become a famous Broadway star.
By the age of six, feisty redheaded Gwen was performing on stage as a tap dancer. She went on to study multiple dance forms, from tap, jazz, ballroom and flamenco, to Balinese and juggling.
At age eleven, she appeared in the musical/romance movie The King Steps Out (1936), which was directed by Josef von Sternberg and starred Grace Moore and Franchot Tone. Gwen was a solo ballerina.
She attended Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and also studied under the renowned ballet master, Ernest Belcher. While in high school, she was cast in a revival of Show Boat.
Verdon then shocked her parents and instructors when she abandoned her budding career to elope with her first husband at the age of 17 in 1942. In 1945, she appeared as a dancer in the movie musical The Blonde From Brooklyn. After her divorce, she entrusted her young son, Jimmy, to the care of her parents.
Her quest for work led to a job as assistant to choreographer Jack Cole, whose work was respected by both Broadway and top Hollywood movie studios. During her five-year employment with Cole, she took small roles in movie musicals as a "specialty dancer." She also gave dance instruction, with trainees including such big name stars as Jane Russell, Gene Kelly, Fernando Lamas, Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe.
Verdon started out on Broadway as a "gypsy," going from one chorus line to another. Her breakthrough role came when she was cast by choreographer Michael Kidd as the second female lead in Cole Porter's musical Can-Can (1953), which starred French prima donna Lilo.
Out-of-town reviewers hailed Verdon's interpretation of Eve in the Garden of Eden ballet and said it outshone the show's star. Lilo was displeased with all the attention Verdon received and demanded her role be cut to only two featured dance numbers.
With her role reduced to barely more than an ensemble part, Verdon threatened to walk out of Can-Can, formally announcing her intention to leave by the time the show premiered on Broadway. But on opening night her Garden of Eden number stopped the show. The audience thundered her name until the startled actress was brought out of her dressing room in her bathrobe to take a curtain call. Verdon received a pay raise and her first Tony Award for her triumphant performance.
With flaming red hair and a sassy, ill-mannered attitude, Verdon was considered the best dancer on Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s. She would forever be identified with her role as the vampish "Lola" in Bob Fosse's Damn Yankees (1955), which is based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. Verdon played the Devil's disciple who entices a baseball aficionado to sell his soul to play for the Washington Senators. The musical ran for 1,019 performances. She won another Tony and went to Hollywood to repeat her role in the movie version, Damn Yankees (1958).
She received a total of four Tonys; for Can-Can (1953), Damn Yankees (1955), New Girl in Town (1957) and Redhead (1959), a murder-mystery musical. She also won a Grammy Award for the cast recording of Redhead.
Verdon had two husbands, tabloid reporter James Henaghan (married 1942-divorced 1947) and Bob Fosse (married 1960-his death 1987).
She and Henaghan had one son, Jim Henaghan (born 1943); she and Fosse had a daughter, Nicole Fosse (born 1963).
After the birth of her daughter, Verdon took time off. In 1966, she returned to the stage in the role of Charity in Sweet Charity, which like many of her earlier Broadway triumphs was choreographed by her longtime husband, Bob Fosse. The show became a Broadway cult classic and was followed by a movie version starring Shirley MacLaine, Ricardo Montalban, Sammy Davis Jr., and Chita Rivera. Verdon helped choreograph the numbers, which included the legendary "Big Spender", the fast-paced "Rhythm of Life" and the show-stopping "If My Friends Could See Me Now".
In 1971, Verdon filed a legal separation from Fosse because of his open extramarital affairs but they never divorced. They remained close friends and were collaborators and co-workers on projects like Chicago (1975), her last major Broadway role in which she played murderess Roxie Hart, and the musical Dancin' (1978), as well as his autobiographical movie, All That Jazz (1979). She developed a close working relationship with Fosse's domestic companion, actress Ann Reinking, and even instructed for Reinking's musical theatre classes.
After playing "Roxie Hart" in Chicago, Verdon concentrated on straight acting. She played character parts in such movies as The Cotton Club (1984), Cocoon (1985) and Cocoon: The Return (1988).
Verdon was accompanying Fosse to the 1987 revival of Sweet Charity starring Debbie Allen in Washington and held him in her arms when he suffered a fatal heart attack on the walk outside the theatre.
She continued to instruct dance and musical theatre and to act, including receiving three Emmy Award nominations for appearances on Magnum PI (1988), Dream On (1993) and Homicide (1993). Verdon appeared as the mother of "Alice" in the Woody Allen movie Alice (1990) and as "Ruth" in Marvin's Room (1996), which co-starred Meryl Streep and Hume Cronyn.
In 1999, Verdon served as artistic advisor and consultant on the stage biography of her late husband's life in theatre, the current stage musical Fosse, and her daughter, Nicole, was credited with "special thanks." The show received the Tony for best musical. Verdon also played Alora in the movie Walking Across Egypt (1999) and appeared in the movie Bruno, which was released in 2000.
Gwen Verdon died quietly in her sleep of natural causes at the home of her daughter, Nicole Fosse, in Woodstock, Vermont, at the age of 75.
At 8:00 p.m. on the night she died, for the first time in a long time, all the marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed in honor and tribute of one of its greatest and brightest stars.