Originally published in 2014 at popcultureaddict.com
When the film version West Side Story opened in movie theaters in 1961, it opened the audience up to a world of youth culture as never before seen. Stories and films about juvenile delinquents were already commonplace, but West Side Story brought together the world of street gangs, racism and the crumbing American dream to the audience through dance, song, angst, romance and tragedy. Although presented in a new and daring way, the story line was as old as Shakespeare himself, and the power of the film and its themes continue to captivate new audiences’ generation after generation. The film, rightfully, won ten Oscars and made the majority of its young unknown star’s household names. One of those young stars was George Chakiris.
Starting in Hollywood as a dancer, George Chakiris could be seen performing in the chorus of films such as White Christmas, Brigadoon, There’s No Business Like Show Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A dark-haired young man with intense hawk like good looks, George was soon recruited to perform in the London stage version of the Broadway sensation West Side Story in the role of the streetwise leader of the Jets, Riff. But when he was asked to audition for the film version, he changed sides where he would forever be remembered by film audiences as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Performing opposite of Natalie Wood in the role of his naïve kid sister Maria, and Rita Moreno as his sensuous lover Anita, George Chakiris lit up the screen with a combination of sensuality and danger as he loved, fought, danced and died on the streets of New York City. His performance would win him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and turn him into a screen idol. With a lifetime performing on film, television and stage, as well as recording half a dozen LP’s, George Chakiris has been a perennial favorite of film fans worldwide. However, in recent years he has slowed down his acting work and has focused on a new venture creating a line of sterling silver jewelry. A talented craftsman, Chakiris’ jewelry can be purchased on-line through a major Japanese distributor. However, it doesn’t stop him from still getting the occasional nod from the Hollywood community who have the memory of his performance of West Side Story etched in their memories forever.
Sam Tweedle: I’ve done hundreds of interviews over the years, but you are the first person I’ve ever spoken to that has their hands and feet at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater courtyard. What sort of experience was that for you?
George Chakiris: It was the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story, and they did a screening at Grauman’s. We did the footprint ceremony the morning before. That was in 2011. It was something absolutely unique. It was fantastic. When I was studying dance at the American School of Dance, the studio was on Hollywood Boulevard. I had a scholarship at the school so I could take lessons for nothing, but then I’d clean the studio at night before I went home. I had a room that I rented just down the street, so I’d pass Grauman’s every night on the way home. Sometimes I’d just look at those images and dream and then go home. So, there are just so many coincidences in life. Like the fact that West Side Story premiered at Grauman’s and then all these years we actually got to do our prints there. It’s just mind boggling. While it is happening, you’re sort of concentrating on what you are going to say, and the technicality of writing in the cement and not making a mistake. I guess it just kind of trumps an Academy Award because there is just something so amazing about the history of the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese. Something about all those names there that we’ve all seen so many times. It’s so awesome. Our prints are right next to Natalie Wood’s. I thought that was perfect.
Sam: You started in the business as a dancer. What was it about dance that attracted you?
George: Well, as a kid growing up, I didn’t know that the theater existed. There weren’t any theaters where we lived, because we lived just outside of the city. But, of course, we went to the movies. I fell in love with the movies like a lot of kids do. The things that you could walk home with after seeing a movie was a musical. I’d walk home and remember the songs. That would live with me until the next movie. I loved that world. I just thought everybody sang, dance and acted. It never occurred to me to cut it into three pieces. I thought everybody did everything. Well, in high school there was a girl I went with who was a dancer, so I danced with her in some high school assemblies. She was the one who told me about The America School of Dance. She told me that Syd Charisse, Leslie Charon and other famous people took class there. That’s all I had to hear, so I took the train one morning to the American School of Dance to watch the 11:30 morning class. There was nobody famous in class, but I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. That was the first thing ever exposed to me that I could actually study. I started late. I was 19. But, hey, it was fantastic. A lot of the kids that were working there were already working on the chorus of Singing in the Rain, so I got to hear all these fantastic stories when we went to get something to eat after class. That was how I got really started in the dance world. I just went on from there.
Sam: Was it through these classes that you got some of your early screen work, or did you get signed to a studio?
George: Once I got my guild card – it was the Screen Extras Guild at that time –you got to go to any open audition. I went to a couple of things at 20th Century Fox, Metro and Paramount. But at Fox I got to be in the Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe.
Sam: That is one of the most iconic musical numbers in the history of Hollywood.
Sam: Did you, or anybody, at that time have any idea of what kind of historical impact that number was going to have on the world of film?
George: No. Well, it felt special because of Marilyn, and because of Jack Cole, the choreographer. He was amazing. There were two choreographers that all dancers loved to work for – Jack Cole, of course, and then another wonderful man whose name was Robert Alton, whose style was very opposite to Jack’s. You always got nervous working for Jack because he was such a task master. But nobody stopped to think about it. You were more concerned with the work at hand and what happens afterwards is a whole other ballgame. But you’re right. It’s one of the most iconic numbers. It’s a great number that Jack created for Marilyn.
Sam: But out of everything that Marilyn did, and the musical that came out of Fox in general, what is it about Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend that seems to resonate with people, keeping it in the public mind over all these decades?
George: Well, that again has to do with Jack Cole. By the way, Jack Cole also directed that number. It was not directed by Howard Hawks, who directed the film. Jack Cole was actually on the camera, setting up the shots and directing the entire number. Jack always designed the set on every number he ever did, so that red background, and the pink dress against the background and the guys in black and the structure of the number, like when Marilyn sits on that round couch and the guys are coming around her, it’s an absolutely perfect collaboration between a choreographer and an actress and it turns out to be fantastic. That’s actually my favorite film credit, to be able to say that I was one of the guys behind Marilyn in this number. I’ll tell you another thing. That number remains absolutely contemporary. She remains contemporary. When you see Marilyn Monroe, there is nothing dated about her in everything she does. Especially in that number. If anybody was good enough could equal Jack Cole, they could be doing a number like that today. But nobody gets to do numbers like that today. They are doing things on So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing with the Stars. They’re doing pieces that are not a full-blown number. We don’t see musicals like that anymore.
Sam: How did you move from being in the chorus to larger acting roles?
George: Well, my first role as an actor in a movie was West Side Story. In West Side Story you had to sing, dance and act. You have to be fully present as an actor, and although I had never acted in anything before, the resources that you pull on to fulfill that work is in your instincts and the truth in what you’re doing. To instinctively express what the character really feels and identifying with what is going on. I didn’t have technique. But it turned out in that instance, with Jerry [Robbins’] help, you kind of didn’t need it because he guided you through it. Jerry was such a perfectionist, and he could not tolerate a false moment for anybody. It was an incredible first training grounds as an actor, to be able to work with Jerry Robbins on the play and on the film. Later I got just straight acting roles in movies, and I studied with people after that.
Sam: On the London stage you were actually playing Riff. How is it that you ended up playing Bernardo in the film?
George: Well, I did the play in London for a year and a half. That’s a long time to be around that piece and all of those characters, and without realizing it it’s a kind of like osmosis, and you’re absorbing every character. I was with Ken La Roy, who was the original Bernardo and who was absolutely amazing. Every night for eighteen months I was learning from him without realizing I was learning anything. So the change from Riff to Bernardo didn’t feel like a change. It felt like I was moving forward into something else. There didn’t seem like there was a challenge from going into one role to another because I was so familiar with all the roles after a year and a half of doing it.
Sam: So how did you go from the London stage to the film version?
George: Well, we all heard about the movie coming up and they were naming Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley [for roles] so we thought “Forget about us.” But five of us got letters from United Artists asking us to test [for the film]. My letter asked me to pick a scene as Riff and a scene as Bernardo. I guess they were thinking ahead. So, I did those and about six weeks later Jerry called me and said “We liked your test. We’d like to test you further” and I got a weeks leave of absence from the show to fly to Los Angeles and test for Bernardo. I met Robert Wise for the first time and Jerry did the test with an actress named Barbara Luna who was a hot contender for the role of Anita. It was an incredible week. Then I went back into the show again until they decided how they were going to cast their move. Ultimately they chose me to play Bernardo. I loved it. They are certain times in your life where everything goes well. If I wrote everything that I wanted to happen, it couldn’t have gone better for me than it did. There are very lucky moments in all of our lives where we all need a little luck with everything. That was a very lucky time. I loved playing Riff, and I loved playing Bernardo. I had the best of both worlds.
Sam: And those great songs! You got to sing When You’re a Jet and America at different points of your career.
George: Well, in the stage version America is just done by the girls, but in the film version it’s done by both the girls and the guys and it’s so much better. Ernest Leland, who wrote the screenplay for the film version of West Side Story, changed the positions of certain songs. In the stage show Riff sings Cool, and after the rumble comes Officer Krupke. That didn’t feel right. There’s a rumble, their leaders are killed, and then the Jets are having a good time singing Officer Krupke? That never felt right to anybody. But in the film Officer Krupke is sang before the rumble, and Cool is sung after the rumble by Tucker Smith as Ice, who leads the gang in that number, and it makes so much more sense. Tucker is so good in that.
Sam: It makes so much more sense because they are able to bring out so much more anger and angst in the number.
George: Yeah. That number is done in a garage where everything is so close and tight. And at the other number Tucker looks around at everybody to make sure that everybody is cool, and then he says “Okay. Let’s go.” The music is still going, and they walk out into the alleyway. It’s such an amazing thought out and constructed number.
Sam: One thing I think is really amazing about West Side Story is that when I was a teenager growing up in the 1990’s the film really resonated with a lot of people I knew. Not long ago I was talking to a teenager who is in love with the film today. I was also talking to someone who showed West Side Story to kids at a drama camp this summer and all of them were traumatized by the deaths in the film. It doesn’t matter how many years go by, the film remains relevant and continues to find a young audience that are very passionate about it.
George: It remains timeless because it deals with themes that are still a part of today’s life and today’s culture. Discrimination and gang warfare and conflict between young people, and racism. I was watching Bill Maher last night and racism was one of the topics. Racism is not dead. So all of these things that we feel and the themes that are in West Side Story are relevant today. So, we can still identify with that. It’s not old to us. So, I think, for that reason, it’s not dated. The underlining emotional aspects are present. Racism is the huge element that is so important, because we still recognize that. It doesn’t age at all in that way. It’s very contemporary. It’s interesting because I’ve met kids that are ten and twelve who get it. They see it, and they love West Side Story too. I love it that anybody from any age can see something about the film that they can identify with and understand and really feel something from. There is this scene after the rumble where Tony goes to Maria’s room, and they are wondering what they are going to do. Natalie Wood’s line to Richard Beymer is “It’s not us. It’s everything around us.” I think that’s what young people have to contend with no matter what the rest of us are doing. Young people have to manage with that kind of atmosphere. There is something that goes around young people, or any of us really, which dictates what we do and how we have to go about our lives.
Sam: Most of the cast were all unknowns at the time you filmed West Side Story, for the exception of Natalie Wood. What was it like to have her on the set?
George: I loved Natalie. First time I ever saw her she was walking down the street to rehearsal, all by herself, no makeup and she was gorgeous. She was physically a perfect creature. So beautiful. So intelligent. So smart. She was only 23, but when she walked on the set she didn’t say “I’m a star” but we all knew that there was a movie star here. That was exciting for us. I don’t even know what to say about Natalie. I did get to spend some social time with her away from the studio. I was crazy about her. On the set, between takes, she would play little mind games, I guess you might call them. I forgotten the game. She was fun. I have nothing but really beautiful memories about her.
Sam: How did you deal with suddenly becoming a film idol?
George: Well, I never felt like one, so I kind of never had to think about. I was much too modest to think that I was a matinee idol. I never thought that.
Sam: West Side Story won ten Academy Awards in 1961, including one for you in the category of Best Supporting Actor. The footage of you winning your Oscar is on YouTube. You were up against Montgomery Clift, Peter Falk, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. Pretty heavy hitters. B you’re sitting in the crowd cool as a cucumber.
George: Well, I may have looked cool, but I don’t think I was. (Laughs)
Sam: What was it like to hear your name called out? Did you just go numb or did you have an idea that you’d win?
George: That was the first category that was called that night, so at that time West Side Story hadn’t won anything yet. Nobody had. My best way of trying to describe how it feels is like this – if you buy a lottery ticket you don’t expect to win, but you kind of hope you might. So, there was no conscious thought going on in my mind. I certainly didn’t expect that to happen. So, when my name was called it was like “Oh my God.” It’s such a difficult experience to describe because you’re in another world. You’re sort of levitating, and you have to pull yourself together enough to say something. All I said was “Thank you. Thank you very much.” It was such an amazing evening. Rita Moreno and I went together, and later when she got an Oscar as well, you couldn’t have asked for a greater evening if you tried. Rita and I are still great friends. It was an amazingly beautiful night from beginning to end.
Sam: What was the pressure for you to maintain the momentum after you won the Oscar? Was it challenging for you to decide what your next projects would be?
George: Well, before we were even finished making West Side Story, and before I went back to London, I was signed to a five-picture deal. Listen, I was so naive that I didn’t know what anything meant. I didn’t realize what an Academy Award meant and how you could use it professionally to further a career. I never thought what my next movie would be. I was still thinking like a dancer and wondering when I would work again. I wasn’t plotting a career move or anything like it. I was with a wonderful agency – The William Morris Agency. What I’ve learned is that you have to guide things yourself, but I didn’t know how to do that. So, I did the movies that I was contracted to do. I did Flight of the Ashiya with Yul Brynner and Richard Widmark, and another one with Yul called Kings of the Sun. I was happy to be doing them, but these films were not career moves. They were not A movies. I’m not sorry to do them, but what I am sorry about is that I did not have the presence of mind at the time to start saying [what I wanted to do]. I was in a position because of the Oscar and because of West Side Story to actually pick and choose something that would be a career move, but I didn’t know that and the people who represented me didn’t seem to know that, or if they did, they didn’t know to act on it. I turned Flight of the Ashiya down three times, and for some reason I couldn’t explain why I did not want to make that movie. I didn’t think it was right for me, but I couldn’t explain why. So, I finally went to the head of the William Morris Agency, and he gave me three reasons why I should make this movie. He said “It’s important to keep making movies. Look at the billing you’re getting. Look at your money you’re getting.” He didn’t say “Maybe this is a career move.” He wasn’t thinking that way either. He thought it was important to be seen and the money was good. But if you’re thinking of a career and properties you want to associate yourself with, none of that was happening and I didn’t know how to make it happen. I don’t say that with any real regret, but it was something I had to learn.
Sam: When I think of a lot of the things, I’ve enjoyed you in over the years my mind goes to many of your television appearances on programs such as Wonder Woman, The Partridge Family and Dallas. What made you gravitate towards television?
George: Well, there was a time when movie people didn’t do television, but these shows started coming up, like Wonder Woman or Murder She Wrote, where the guest stars were movie stars. It’s very different now. Today television has the best material. It’s better than the movies. It’s great, but it’s a shame what it says about movies. But at that time actresses and actors started to do guest appearances on television. So, when an offer was made, we all thought it was good exposure. That was the thinking behind it. I loved doing the Partridge Family by the way. Shirley Jones is a good friend of mine. I love Shirley. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, but I think that the episode I was on was the final one.
Sam: I’m a huge Partridge Family collector. Not only was your episode of The Partridge Family the final one, the series ended on Shirley Jones kissing your character goodbye.
George: Okay. Well, I didn’t realize that until someone recently reminded me. I don’t know if Shirley knew. We get together now and again. I’ve known her so well for such a long time. But we never spoke about that.
Sam: You’ve stayed very close to the theater throughout the years, haven’t you?
George: I have. I love theater. No matter what you’re doing – television, film or theater – it depends on the material. But if you have good material, there is nothing like the theater. You’re doing it for the audience and it’s live and everybody is in the room together. It’s a beautiful experience. Another thing that is beautiful is that it’s different every night. It’s the same every night, but little bits are different, so you can keep working on it for the entire time that you are doing it. There is something magical about walking into an empty theater and just walking onto the stage and looking out at those seats. It’s dreamy. It’s exciting. It’s full of potential. It’s just so beautiful. And then you rehearse and when you walk out on the stage, you’re ready to do it for the audience. That’s an exciting experience. You can feel what the audience is feeling and believing what you’re doing. That collaboration is priceless.
Sam: In recent years you have been very focused on designing jewelry.
George: Oh yeah. I started this in an accidental way. I never planned it. I had been doing a play in London. Well, I did a lot of work in London and a lot of work in France. Not in just theater, but also in television. I also did a lot in Japan. So my point is, I was often away for very long periods of time. Sometimes eight to ten months. Well I have a little dog. A little Italian greyhound. A beautiful little guy named Sami. Well when I came home in 2000, I looked at Sami and I realized that eight to ten months is a long time out of his life. So, I’m not going to do that to him. I’m not going to go away, and I’ll stay home with Sami and take a sabbatical. I didn’t even think of that. I just wanted to just stay home with this beautiful little creature that I love so much. So I don’t even know how I heard about this silversmith school in Los Angeles, but I started going there to learn and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the idea of making a piece of jewelry that you could hold in your hand. I didn’t think to myself that I was going to start a jewelry line. But I just started taking these classes. I have a free-standing garage at home which I’ve turned into a studio, and I have a soldering torch and all the tools I need. So, I can be at home working out there, and Sami can come out and be with me. It is perfect. But I did end up, without realizing it, designing about thirty different pieces and I got to know people in the manufacturing business in downtown LA. Through them a Japanese distributor met me and saw my pieces and placed a huge order. So that’s how I got into the money-making part of it. I’m still going.
Sam: Its very nice stuff. I don’t know a lot about jewelry, I must admit, but I do know enough to know that it is very attractive. How long have you been doing this?
George: I started around 2001. I think that everybody has more than one talent. They are not just confined to singing or acting. There is something else that they love to do and are able to do. We don’t hear about it, perhaps, because they don’t turn it into a commercial venture. But I think that people always have other things that they are gifted in. I have a gift for this. I like designing things. I like shapes and color. One thing leads to the next, and when you’re working on that something else pops. It’s always moving. There are some things I’d like to make that I don’t know how to make technically. I don’t know how to do it myself. So, something I have in mind I will need professional help to actually achieve it. But most of the time I manage to do it myself.
Sam: Is there a sub-culture of people that help each other in situations like that, or is it a very isolated venture?
George: When you’re working it’s very solitary, and that’s something nice. But you never stops getting ideas from somebody else, whether it’s an ad in a magazine or going to an exhibition of somebody’s work or seeing something on-line. Copying is a no-no. Ethically you never want to do that, but sometimes something somebody has done will bring about a new shape or design to your mind.
Sam: I think you find that from everything to music and literature and everything you do. You’ve had a pretty amazing career in the arts. You’ve been involved with a lot of iconic performers and projects.
George: Well, I think we realize it now a lot of years later, but at the time people aren’t thinking of that. They are thinking of the work at hand, and that’s the work they have to do at that moment of time. Now people sometimes do think because we do see that something’s do have life long after they are done. Some people might think something might be relevant after fifty years. I don’t know. But at that time, I don’t remember thinking West Side Story would live this long. I remember one day during a break in filming I went into the alleyway and there were two guys in suits from the front office, and I heard one of them say “I’m not sure at all if we’ll have a commercial success, but we’re hoping for an artistic success.” That was there thinking, I guess. Who knew?
“I enjoy talking to you. You’re the sort of person I’d like to sit down and have a coffee with,” George said to me as our interview began to wind down. I’ll admit that I didn’t want to stop talking to George either. I could have talked with him for a long while as well. Well-spoken and soulful, George Chakiris is one of the nicest gentlemen that I had the pleasure to interview and someone who I hope my paths will cross with again. Next time I’m in Los Angeles, the coffee is on me George.
For information on George Chakiris’ jewelry line visit his website at http://georgechakiris.com/.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging our interview with George Chakiris. Thank you for making this process so easy. I hope we can work again in the near future. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.