John Brascia, the handsome male half of three spectacular Hollywood dance teams in the 1950s and '60s, died Tuesday at a nursing home in Santa Monica following a 20-year battle with Parkinson's disease, his daughter said. He was 80.
Tony Bennett, who served as Brascia's best man at his wedding to actress-model Sondra Scott on New Year's Eve in 1970, called his longtime friend days before he died, Brascia's daughter, Christina McNown, told The Hollywood Reporter. Brascia tap-danced with and twirled the slim-waisted Vera-Ellen in the high-octane "Abraham" number in Michael Curtiz's White Christmas (1954) and with the sultry Cyd Charisse in Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) in another famed number, "Frankie and Johnny."
In the Las Vegas scene, set in a nightclub and accompanied by the singing of Sammy Davis Jr., Brascia, who was dancing with another woman (Liliane Montevecchi), dies at the hand of Charisse. "He was her mate/but he couldn’t fly straight," Davis sings during the number.
Later, Brascia teamed with Tybee Arfa in the act Brascia and Tybee, with the pair appearing as the opening nightclub act for such stars as Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Dean Martin and George Burns and as regulars on television on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Show and The Hollywood Palace.
Brascia had met Arfa at the Stage Deli in New York City in 1957, and they married soon afterward. (In an uncredited role, Arfa would play a dancer in the wedding scene in 1972's The Godfather.)
Brascia, whose fans included Elvis Presley, also worked as an actor in non-dancing roles in such films as The Ambushers (1967), The Wrecking Crew (1968), Executive Action (1973), Walking Tall (1973) and The Baltimore Bullet (1980), in the telefilm Pray for the Wildcats (1974) and in the TV series S.W.A.T. and Joe and Sons.
Brascia also wrote and produced The Baltimore Bullet, which was inspired by his passion for the game of pool. The film about hustlers starred James Coburn, Omar Sharif and Bruce Boxleitner.
Brascia was born May 11, 1932, in Fresno, Calif., to Italian parents Caterina and Gaetano. He grew up in Colton, Calif., and attended Hollywood High School.
He made his Broadway debut in February 1953 in Hazel Flagg, a musical from Jules Styne and Bob Hilliard that was based on the 1937 Carole Lombard screwball comedy Nothing Sacred. The production was choreographed by Robert Alton -- a major figure in dance choreography for Broadway and Hollywood musicals -- and Brascia received an Outer Critics Circle Award for his performance.
Alton was in charge of the musical numbers in White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, and he cast Brascia as the lead dancer in that movie.
In addition to Christina, his daughter with Scott, Brascia is survived by another daughter, Giavonna (from his marriage in 1986 to actress-model Jordan Michaels), and grandchildren John, Mary-Catherine and Arabella.
Christina, the wife of former UCLA star quarterback Cade McNown, told THR that Brascia was sued for "alienation of affection" by famed Spanish-American bandleader Xavier Cugat for "stealing" his wife, actress-singer Abbe Lane. (Cugat and Lane divorced in the early 1960s.)