​Marni Nixon, voice double for Hollywood stars, dead at 86

Singer Marni Nixon's work as a voice double was heard in such classic movie musicals as ''The King and I," "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady."

New York Public Library/Bill Rose Theatre Division

Singer Marni Nixon, whose work as a voice double was heard in such classic movie musicals as ''The King and I," "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady," has died. She was 86.

Nixon's talent agency, Harden-Curtis Associates, confirmed her death on Sunday in New York.

Nixon became the most famous example of a common Hollywood practice: "ghosting," or replacing the singing voice of an actress whose gifts did not extend to music. Nixon was the voice double of such stars as Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn.

Nixon had to sign non-disclosure agreements keeping her participation secret (she said some actors didn't know their singing was replaced until the film was released), though the secret wasn't necessarily kept for long.

In 2009 Nixon told WNYC's Leonard Lopate that she "was threatened that I wouldn't work again if anybody knew, but other people said it for me, so I was lucky."

Born Margaret Nixon McEathron in Altadena, California, in 1929, she studied violin and later voice. In her 2006 autobiography, "I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story," Nixon wrote of her first dubbing job at MGM for child star Margaret O'Brien (in Hindu!) for "The Secret Garden." She substituted the voices of Jeanne Crain, Ida Lupino and Lili Palmer, and even hit high notes for Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

For the 1956 film "The King and I," her singing voice stood in for star Deborah Kerr's. [Nixon stepped in to replace another vocal double, who had gotten ill and died the previous month while performing "Oklahoma!" in Italy.]

She said that she worked very closely with Kerr before filming began.

"She was in much agreement with the fact that she needed to be dubbed, and we worked a week per song before we even recorded them, and then it was her job to then mouth to that recording," Nixon said. "So we were quite together, and I knew every little movement. We rehearsed on the rehearsal stage, with the furniture all laid out, and just rehearsed side by side until we got a blend and she could approve of that."

Marni Nixon (dubbing Deborah Kerr) performs "Getting to Know You" from "The King and I":

It was Kerr who revealed Nixon had dubbed her singing, in an interview with columnist Earl Wilson. "I said to her, 'Look, people aren't supposed to know that I did your dubbing.' And she said, 'Well, I don't have to know that that's in your contract.' She was that gracious."

And it wasn't their last collaboration; the following year Nixon dubbed Kerr's singing voice in "An Affair to Remember," with the credit "soprano soloist."

Nixon also replaced Natalie Wood's singing in "West Side Story," whose voice Nixon described as high and "angular." Wood came in for a drubbing from the musicians on the recording stage where her six songs were pre-recorded (and to which Wood lips-synced during filming), but in the end it was Nixon whose takes were retained.

Listen: Marni Nixon and Jim Bryant - the singing voices of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer - perform "Tonight" in "West Side Story":

In addition to Wood, Nixon filled in for Rita Moreno on the song "Quintet" ("Anita's going to get her kicks tonight") when she was out sick.

And while her name appeared nowhere on the soundtrack album, Nixon did wrangle a royalty payment for the soundtrack album -- a precedent for ghosts.

In 1964 both Nixon and Audrey Hepburn recorded the singing parts of "My Fair Lady," but despite Hepburn's best efforts, it was Nixon's voice that wound up in the finished film.

When word leaked that Nixon had done Eliza Doolittle's singing, some critics sniffed that the star had only given "half a performance" (or was "miming to a canned voice").

Marni Nixon (as Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle) performs "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady":

Nixon would later star in a stage tour of "My Fair Lady" in 2007.

She appeared on screen in "The Sound of Music," as Sister Sophia. And as movie musicals fell out of fashion, Nixon performed in operas and with symphony orchestras, toured in "Cabaret," and appeared on a children's TV show. She also taught at the California Institute of the Arts.

Her voice later appeared in the 1997 Disney cartoon, "Mulan," as Grandmother Fa.

She debuted on Broadway in 1954 in "The Girl in Pink Tights" (1954), and also appeared on stage in a 2001 revival of "Follies" and a 2003 revival of "Nine."

Nixon was married first to film composer Ernest Gold (with whom she had three children, including rock musician Andrew Gold), and then to Dr. Lajos Fenster (both marriages ended in divorce), before she married flutist Albert Block, who died last year.

In this video, Marni Nixon, who appeared on camera as Sister Sophia in "The Sound of Music," performs a medley of songs as a guide for singers dubbing the soundtrack for foreign language editions.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.