Marni Nixon, Famed 'Ghost Singer' in Classic Musicals, Dies at 86

Marni Nixon P 2016

She performed, uncredited, for Deborah Kerr in 'The King and I,' for Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story' and for Audrey Hepburn in 'My Fair Lady.'

Marni Nixon, the soprano who stepped in to sing for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, has died. She was 86.

Nixon, a "ghost singer" who did not receive onscreen credit for her work on these legendary musicals, died Sunday of breast cancer in Manhattan, her friend told The New York Times.

It was Nixon who sang the wonderful standards "Getting to Know You" from The King and I (1956), "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story (1961) and "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "The Rain in Spain" from My Fair Lady (1964). The last two films won Academy Awards for best picture.

Kerr received an Oscar nomination for portraying Anna in The King and I. For her work on the film, Nixon received $420, she once recalled.

"You always had to sign a contract that nothing would be revealed," Nixon told ABC's Nightline in 2007. "Twentieth Century Fox … said, 'If anybody ever knows that you did any part of the dubbing for Deborah Kerr, we'll see to it that you don't work in town again.'"

"Ghost singing" was a common practice in Hollywood back in the day, with other stars like Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Ann Blyth and Christopher Plummer being dubbed.

Nixon also sang for Kerr in An Affair to Remember (1957), for Jeanne Crain in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), for Ida Lupino in Jennifer (1953) and for Janet Leigh in Pepe (1960). Her lovely voice also is heard in Cinderella (1950), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Mulan (1998), where she sang as Grandma Fa.

Nixon actually appeared as herself in The Sound of Music (1965), playing a nun who sings "Maria." And on Seinfeld and The King of Queens, she performed "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Getting to Know You," respectively.

In 2012, she was honored with a Peabody Award for outstanding contributions to American music.

Born in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, Nixon was a child actress who made her way into such films as The Bashful Bachelor (1942). She appeared as a vocal soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1947 and would perform with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.

As a teenager, Nixon also worked as a messenger for MGM, and that helped her pay for vocal lessons. The studio began to use her as a singer, and she did a lullaby for child star Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden (1949).

"By the time I was doing West Side Story … everyone was questioning that Natalie Wood could sing that well," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "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."

During production of My Fair Lady, Hepburn picked her up in her limousine every morning and took her to the studio, she told People magazine last year.

"I sat in on her singing lessons, so I could hear not only the Cockney and the upper-class British, which are two different voices," she recalled. "But I also had to get her very unique speech patterns, so I had to listen very carefully so I could catch it."

Nixon appeared on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights in 1954, in James Joyce's The Dead in 2000, in Follies in 2001 and in Nine in 2003.

She hosted the kids TV show Boomerang for many years, and in 2006, her memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night, was published.

Her first husband was film composer Ernest Gold, who won an Oscar for Exodus (1960). A son from that marriage, Andrew Gold, wrote "Thank You for Being a Friend," the song that served as the theme for NBC's The Golden Girls. He died at age 59 in 2011.