Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1920, Maria Karnilova came to New York to study at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. And though she did occasionally play a ballerina on stage, Karnilova was recognized as one of the great Broadway dancers of her day, often working with choreographer and director Jerome Robbins. Between her debut in 1946 as the girl in the ballet in Call Me Mister and her reprisal of the role of Golde in the 1981 revival of Fiddler on the Roof, Karnilova danced, sang, and stripped in a dozen different shows, including Irving Berlin’s 1949 Broadway musical, Miss Liberty, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s 1959 hit, Gypsy, and in the original 1964 production of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof. For that performance, Maria Karnilova won the Tony® for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 1965.
Among her other roles on Broadway, Karnilova starred opposite Herschel Bernardi in the 1969 musical adaptation of Zorba (for which she earned a Tony® nomination) and played Inez Alvarez in the 1973 Broadway production of Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi, opposite Alfred Drake. Her last original role on Broadway was in the 1981 Strouse and Adams musical, Bring Back Birdie, the ill-fated sequel to Bye Bye Birdie.
From 1948 until her death in 2001, Karnilova was married to actor George S. Irving – a total of 53 years.