The tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers brought an elegant but distinctively gymnastic style to a number of major Hollywood musicals in the 1930s and '40s.
The self-taught brothers — Fayard and Harold — tap-danced their way from vaudeville and Harlem's legendary Cotton Club to Broadway and Hollywood. Known for their airborne splits and acrobatics, the handsome, dapper duo is considered by many to be the greatest dance team ever to work in American movies.
Child prodigies, the brothers made their film debut in 1932 ("Pie, Pie Blackbird" with Eubie Blake) and the same year began dancing at the Cotton Club, the famed New York cabaret that showcased black performers. Producer Sam Goldwyn saw them there and hired them for their first Hollywood musical, "Kid Millions" (1934).
Because of racial prejudice, they appeared as guest artists, isolated from the plot, in many of their films — a strategy that allowed their scenes to be easily deleted in the American South.
Among those films are "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941), "Orchestra Wives" (1942) and "The Pirate" (1948), which was highlighted by their acrobatic routine with Gene Kelly in the "Be a Clown" number.
The Nicholas Brothers appeared on Broadway in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936" and in 1937 they worked with ballet choreographer George Balanchine in the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical-comedy "Babes in Arms."
After spending a year in the Army stateside during World War II, Fayard reteamed with Harold. In 1946, Fayard had a featured role in "St. Louis Woman," in which Harold had the lead. They then embarked on a series of international tours. In 1948, they gave a royal command performance for the king of England at the London Palladium. Later, they danced for nine U.S. presidents.
Harold had appeared without Fayard as early as 1933 ("The Emperor Jones") and thereafter earned solo credits in "Carolina Blues" (1944), "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974) and in a solo stage career in the 1950s and early '60s. He introduced the song, "Come Rain or Come Shine" in the 1946 production of "St. Louis Woman." He also starred in the Broadway Duke Ellington musical "Sophisticated Ladies" on tour in 1982 and in the touring musical "The Tap Dance Kid" (1985).
On his own, Fayard Nicholas took on a dramatic role in the 1970 movie "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" and won a Tony for his choreography for the Broadway revue "Black and Blue" (1989).
With Harold working in Europe and Fayard in the United States, the Nicholas Brothers did not perform as a team for seven years in the 1950s and early 1960s.
They reunited as a duo in the mid-1960s. Among a string of awards in their later years, the Nicholas Brothers in 1991 received Kennedy Center Honors and were honored at the Academy Awards.
Harold, the younger brother, died July 3, 2000, of kidney failure and cardiac arrest, the Times reported. He was 79. Fayard died of pneumonia Jan. 24, 2006, at age 91.