Legendary “ghost” singer Marni Nixon has died at the age of 86, the New York Times reports. Nixon died yesterday in Manhattan from breast cancer, according to her student and friend Randy Banner. Nixon was often heard but rarely seen in movie musical classics: Her lovely soprano echoed from the mouths of Deborah Kerr in The King And I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
Though Nixon remained in the shadows for most of her career, Kerr actually tipped the public off about Nixon, despite Twentieth Century Fox’s insistence that Nixon keep her participation quiet. “Deborah Kerr herself, gave me some credit right away on The King & I,” Nixon told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. Nixon later also subbed in for Kerr on An Affair To Remember. “By the time I was doing West Side Story a few years later, everyone was questioning that Natalie Wood could sing that well. By the time I did My Fair Lady, I didn’t have to say anything. You weren’t ‘in’ if you didn’t know it was me.”
That didn’t mean, however, that her presence was always welcome. Wood wanted to perform Maria’s songs in West Side Story, and the studio tried to placate their leading lady while still enlisting Nixon. “The studio executives knew I would do all of her voice work but because her ego couldn’t take it and they were afraid she’d walk off the picture, they let her record all the songs with the orchestra,” Nixon once told Philadelphia Magazine. “But they told me they’d throw it all out and record over with my voice. We were there at the same time recording.”
According to the Times, Nixon said that she marked West Side Story as the moment when her “anonymity” began to frustrate her. Here is Nixon in a 1964 appearance on To Tell The Truth:
Nixon did appear onscreen in 1965’s The Sound Of Music, playing a nun. Later, she was credited for singing the role of Grandma Fa in Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan. Nixon also performed on Broadway multiple times, making her debut in 1954’s The Girl In Pink Tights. However, she took the stage more frequently in later life, most recently in the 2003 production of Nine.