Marni Nixon, who gained fame as a “ghost singer” for Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” died of breast cancer on Sunday in New York City. She was 86.
In the 1940s, ’50s and into the ’60s, major film actresses without great singing voices were often “dubbed” by anonymous background singers. Studio execs preferred to keep alive the myth that the stars did their own singing. Nixon became the most famous of these — inadvertently at first, because Kerr spilled the beans in an interview about “The King and I” in 1956.
She was born Feb. 22, 1930, in Altadena, Calif. By the time she was 4, her family discovered that she had the rare gift of “perfect pitch” and started her on violin lessons.
By the time she was 7, she was working as an extra or bit player in films, which continued through her teen years. She can be seen in the background of “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Babes on Broadway,” “Song to Remember,” “The Emperor Waltz,” “The Good Old Summertime” and nearly 50 other films.
At the age of 11, she won $100 in a vocal competition at the L.A. County Fair in Pomona and made up her mind to pursue a singing career. In 1946 famed choral director Roger Wagner invited her to become one of the founding members of the Roger Wagner Chorale, with whom she sang throughout the 1950s (the group eventually became the Los Angeles Master Chorale).
She also began performing classical works with the Los Angeles Philharmonic while also acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and singing on radio programs. A chance encounter with MGM composer Bronislau Kaper led to her first “ghost-singing” assignment, for child star Margaret O’Brien in 1949’s “The Secret Garden.”
Other film assignments followed. She sang part of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” for Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” for 20th Century-Fox in 1953. Fox vocal director Ken Darby then called her in 1955 to dub Kerr in the screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”
Nixon did Kerr’s singing voice again in “An Affair to Remember” and was quietly hired to do Maria in “West Side Story” against the wishes of Wood, who acted the part. Although she was again not credited, she did receive a royalty on the “West Side Story” soundtrack album.
In 1963, she and Hepburn worked together on the songs for the screen version of “My Fair Lady,” most of which wound up with Nixon’s voice doubling for Hepburn’s. She actually performed on screen as Sister Sophia in the film version of “The Sound of Music” in 1965.
She also sang the roles of the geese in 1964’s “Mary Poppins” and Grandmother Fa in Disney’s 1998 “Mulan.” On a 1965 concert tour with Liberace, the flamboyant pianist dubbed her “the ghostess with the mostest.” She also toured with comedy pianist Victor Borge.
She began teaching voice at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s, although she continued to appear on stage, primarily in operatic roles.
Nixon first appeared on Broadway in “The Girl in Pink Tights” in 1954. She later did the musical version of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and the Broadway revivals of “Follies” and “Nine.”
Her television credits include “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show” as part of the voices of Walter Schumann; “Young People’s Concerts” with conductor Leonard Bernstein; “Jack and the Beanstalk” with Gene Kelly; “The Ed Sullivan Show”; “The Hollywood Palace”; “The Bell Telephone Hour”; “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson; and “The Danny Kaye Show.” She won four local Emmys as the host of the long-running children’s show “Boomerang” in the 1970s.
During the 1950s and ’60s, she was married to film composer Ernest Gold (later Oscar winner for “Exodus”). She later performed in a one-woman show, “Marni Nixon: The Voice of Hollywood,” and penned an autobiography, “I Could Have Sung All Night.”
Survivors include two daughters, three sisters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her son Andrew Gold died in 2011.