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Marni Nixon, often heard but rarely seen voice double in classic movie musicals, dead at 86

🕐 5 min read

NEW YORK (AP) — Marni Nixon, the woman whose powerful singing voice was heard in place of the leading actresses in such classic movie musicals as West Side Story, The King and I, and My Fair Lady, has died. She was 86.

Michael Kirsten, senior vice president of Nixon’s talent agency, Harden-Curtis Associates, said Nixon died Sunday in New York.

Nixon had a wide-ranging career in music, movies and theater, but her biggest audiences of the 1950s and ’60s never saw her face.

Instead, they heard Nixon singing as they watched non-singing stars such as Natalie Wood in West Side Story mouth the words of memorable songs. She was Deborah Kerr’s singing voice in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady.

Nixon, who was initially uncredited for her work, early on resented the dubbing work but later came to terms with it. “I realized now that this was something that would outlive me. Something that would last,” she wrote in her 2006 memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night.

In the heyday of the Hollywood musical, studios often paid big money for film rights to hit Broadway shows, then cast them with popular non-singing actors and actresses.

Such was the case with the 1956 hit The King and I, in which filmmakers dubbed Deborah Kerr’s voice with Nixon’s.

“I was brought in and had to follow along with her, getting her diction and acting style,” Nixon recalled in 2004. “She in turn would study how I looked when I hit the high notes.”

Nixon did the same for Natalie Wood in 1961’s West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in 1964’s My Fair Lady, which had starred Julie Andrews onstage. Earlier, she added a few notes to Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

She went uncredited in the films and on their soundtrack albums and was warned by the filmmakers that if she ever let it be known that she was doing the singing, “they would run me out of town.”

Word began to leak out, however, and Kerr herself blew Nixon’s cover when she praised her work on The King and I. By the late 1960s, The Hollywood Reporter was joking that “they found out who was doing (talking horse) Mr. Ed’s voice on the television show; it was Marni Nixon’s horse.”

Nixon also appeared before the cameras in 1965, in a small role as a nun in The Sound of Music, and provided the singing voice of Grandmother Fa in the 1998 animated film Mulan.

As the era of big, traditional movie musicals dried up, though, so did Nixon’s film career. But she kept busy with other work, including starring in her own children’s TV show, singing opera, soloing with symphony orchestras, appearing in a road tour of Cabaret and teaching at the California Institute of the Arts.

In her later years, she was also popular at nostalgia festivals, where she told audiences, “I allowed all these actresses to dub their bodies to my voice.”

She had landed her role in West Side Story after Wood’s voice proved inadequate for the challenging Leonard Bernstein score. She prepared for it by studying Wood singing the role of Maria before the cameras – and had to then face the exacting task of getting her singing to match Wood’s on-screen lip movements.

Hepburn, who had memorably sung Moon River in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, had campaigned to do her own singing as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

She was able to handle the film’s early cockney-accented songs like Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, but Nixon – carefully matching Hepburn’s vocal style – had to be called in for such soaring melodies as I Could Have Danced All Night.

Both Wood and Hepburn, Nixon wrote, worked hard to learn the songs, and their singing was recorded in hopes that Nixon’s voice would be needed only to fill in on difficult passages. But that was not to be.

“I heard later that Natalie Wood was very upset and felt betrayed by the powers that be,” Nixon wrote. As for Hepburn, “determined as she was, her vocals were not used.”

Nixon recalled that after getting no royalties from the big-selling The King and I soundtrack album, she and her manager fought for better treatment for West Side Story.

After some haggling, she wrote, Bernstein made the “incredibly generous gesture” of giving up a sliver of his royalty share. It amounted to a major payday for her, given the album’s huge sales.

She recalled she also had a small credit as “soprano soloist” – but no royalty –on the soundtrack recording of Kerr’s 1957 An Affair to Remember. The film isn’t a musical, but Kerr’s character is a nightclub singer.

Nixon was born Margaret Nixon McEathron in 1929 in Altadena, California. The nickname Marni came from the first letters of her first and middle names.

She took up the violin as a child and later studied voice. Her first dubbing job was for young Margaret O’Brien in the 1949 film The Secret Garden.

Onstage, she made her Broadway debut in 1954 in The Girl in Pink Tights, and was in the 2001 revival of Follies and the 2003 revival of Nine. She toured with My Fair Lady in 2007.

Nixon was married to film composer-conductor Ernest Gold, Oscar winner for Exodus, from 1950 to 1969. A second marriage, to Dr. Lajos Fenster, in 1971 also ended in divorce. Nixon married flutist Albert Block in 1983.

Her son, Andrew Gold, was a rock musician who arranged music for Linda Ronstadt and had a top 10 hit in 1977 with Lonely Boy. He died in 2011. She also had two daughters with her first husband, Martha and Melani.

Biographical material in this story was written by The Associated Press’ late Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas.

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