When West Side Story made its debut on Broadway in 1957, it became one of the groundbreaking sensations of its era when it brought to the stage a tragic look at youth culture in a way never presented to audiences before. Created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, and based on William Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story told the story of two rival gangs in the slums of New York City – the Sharks and the Jets – and the star-crossed lovers whose romance who tried to watch from the sidelines. A passionate story that brought real life problems faced by modern youth to the stage, West Side Story dealt with subjects such as delinquency, xenophobia, poverty and gang violence but in a way that brought humanity and dignity to all its players. The result was a powerful and endearing production which has lasted the test of time and is still beloved by people today.
For most of his career, one of the actors most associated to West Side Story has been George Chakiris. First finding work as a chorus dancer in films such as The Stars and Stripes Forever, Brigadoon, The 5.000 Fingers of Dr. T and How to Marry a Millionaire, it was a non-speaking appearance in White Christmas where George caught the eye of both producers and a curious public. Yet, although he signed a contract with Paramount, George was soon on his way to England as part of the company for the London production of West Side Story where he would play Riff, leader of the Jets. Thus, when United Artists began production of a film version of the production, like many cast members of the stage productions, George auditioned. However, instead of casting him as Riff, George was cast in the film as his stage rival Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. With his dark features, firm jaw and eagle sharp eyes, George Chakiris had the potentially dangerous, but handsome, look that the filmmakers wanted to bring one of film’s angriest young men to life.
West Side Story the film would open in theatres in 1961, and like the play, the theatre became a massive phenomenon. Starring established Hollywood star Natalie Wood in the role of Maria, the film made household names out of George Chakiris and the rest of his costars, including Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and Richard Beymer. The film would not only be a box office success, but go on to win ten Academy Awards, including best picture, and George would bring home one of the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor.
Now, sixty years after the film was released, George Chakiris has released his autobiography, My West Side Story: A Memoir. Written with Lindsay Harrison, George tells his own personal story about his life in Hollywood and living in the backdrop of West Side Story.
One of my personal favorite performers, it is always a great pleasure to speak with George. My third encounter with this phenomenal personality, it was a delight to speak to George once again about his career, and his memories of West Side Story.
Sam: You’ve been a stage actor, a film star, a recording artist and now you are a published author.
George: Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to do all of those things.
Sam: How long had you been working on the book?
George: Well, I’m not good at time at all. I maybe started on it about two years ago. I have a friend named Lindsey Harrison, who wrote the book with me. We were chatting and she thought it was a good idea to start it. She had done Tippi Hedren’s book and I knew I was in good hands, which made me want to do it.
Sam: Well, I know you have wonderful stories to tell, and a unique perspective of a certain exciting time in show business. I think one of the most interesting things about your career, and I get a charge anytime I see this clip, is that you were one of the male dancers in the Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe.
George: That’s my favorite film credit. I love being able to say that I was one of the guys behind Marilyn Monroe in that incredible number. It was great.
Sam: When filming that number, did anybody know it’d become such a legendary musical number as it became? I mean, was there any indication?
George: No. Nobody could have known that. But we worked with an incredible choreographer named Jack Cole. He was the choreographer Marilyn always wanted to work with. We knew it was a great number. We could see it. We could feel it. But nobody could look into the future and know how iconic it would be, or how iconic Marilyn would be, in film history.
Sam: When watching the clip, it struck me how they made all the men to look older. But how old were you when you appeared in that film?
George: I was about twenty-one. We were made up to look like ambassadors. They put grey on our temples. Nobody in that group was very old, although some of the guys looked more mature than others. Jack Cole did that kind of look in a few other films too. He had done the same sort of premise for Betty Grable in some of her movies. It was a thing he liked doing.
Sam: Now you got your film contract in a very unique way. I read that it was when a photo of you and Rosemary Clooney appeared in Life Magazine during the filming of White Christmas that you began to receive fan mail and the studio took notice.
George: Yeah. I worked in three of the numbers in that film, and one of the numbers was demanding with a lot of guys and girls along with the four stars form the film. But a little bit later this number which you are talking about, sung by Rosemary Clooney, there was only four of us guys in the number and we got more attention. Well, there was a two-page layout in Life Magazine and one of the pictures was of Rosie and me. So, some girls cut out that picture and circled me. They didn’t know who I was, but that’s how they responded to that. Well, because of that I started getting fan mail. Robert Emmett Dolan was the producer of White Christmas, and he was so impressed by that that he talked Paramount into giving me a screen test, which I did and I signed a contract with Paramount.
Sam: Was it flattering for you to get letter from fans just based on a picture in a magazine?
George: Ph yes. We had a great time working on White Christmas. The stars were all great, and the choreographer was incredible. It was a happy circumstance for everybody involved in every way. So, when I got that kind of attention, it was a step up because I was then under contract. Things didn’t go smoothly, but it made things go forward. It really was extraordinary.
Sam: You started in Hollywood as a dancer. As a young man, what was it that made you gravitate towards dance?
George: Well, as a kid, like many people I didn’t know anything about theatre, but I certainly knew about movies because I saw lots of them. I fell in love with movies and especially musicals. I fell in love with that world because everything was so beautiful and the floors were so shiny, and the stars were so great. I didn’t think of it in terms of a career, but I fell in love and, without realizing it, I hoped to get into that world. Thankfully, that happened, but it wasn’t a conscious thing to make that happen. It just evolved luckily for me.
Sam: What was the first step into that world?
George: Well, when I was twelve to about fourteen, I sang in a boys’ choir at an Episcopal Church in Long Beach, California, where we lived. That choir had sung in a lot of movies over the years, and we were hired to be in the background of a concert sequence in a film called Song of Love with Catherine Hepburn and Paul Henreid. Because of that we were in the studio, but we had to go to school three hours a day. But being at a movie studio, and MGM in particular because I did notice their musicals more than others, was hard to describe. I couldn’t believe I was actually in a movie studio. I saw Elizabeth Taylor when she was fifteen, Frank Sinatra walking down the street, listening to Mario Lanza record. At age thirteen this was pretty heavy stuff.
Sam: I hope you never get tired of talking about West Side Story, because I have some questions.
George: None of us get tired of talking about West Side Story. We had the most amazing time making it and we were lucky to be a part of it. I call us the West Side Story family. Over the years we’ve stayed friends and I’ve stayed in touch with Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn. I don’t see Richard Beymer much, but we were all affected by the movie. That was a real bonding experience for everyone.
Sam: I put a photo of you on social media saying I’d be speaking with you, and I was amazed at the range of age of people who connected to your photo and who love that movie. It’s a movie that seems timeless and extends through generations. What do you think is special about that film that it has that impact?
George: What is special about that film is the material itself, and the great men who created West Side Story – Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. They created this piece. It took them a few years to get it to the theatre, and each of them were amazing in their own categories. So that, and the fact that it was based on a classic Shakespeare story. But this collaboration was something that hadn’t happened before or since. I’ve seen so many stage productions of it over the years and I’ve got to meet so many kids doing those roles. Everybody, like we did, really responds to those roles. Its because you’re not just a dancer. In West Side Story you are a dancer, an actor and a singer. Meanwhile the material is such a heart wrenching, and heart grasping, story.
Sam: I think a lot of people would be surprised that your journey with West Side Story began in the original London production of the show, and that you actually played Riff instead of Barnardo.
George: That’s right.
Sam: When you were doing the play in London, what kind of reaction were you getting from British youth? Was it the same as American audiences?
George: Absolutely yes. The entire London company was actually cast, and rehearsed, in New York City. It was a charted plane that flew us all to London. The entire cast and crew, for the exception of Leonard Bernstein, were on that plane. Before London we opened at the Opera House in Manchester. But when we opened in London the public just went crazy for this show. They hadn’t seen anything like it. The theatre community responded to it in an incredible way, and I got to know a lot of people in the English theatre community because of it. West Side Story was groundbreaking, and people loved the show in so many ways.
Sam: Well, it was groundbreaking in so many levels. First of all, at the time juvenile delinquency was a popular theme in fiction, but rarely painted with any sort of sensitivity or heart. Meanwhile, the show portrayed youth culture in a very serious and dramatic light for the first time. I feel that instead of making characters like Riff and Bernardo delinquents or gang members, they tried to expose the humanity and tragedy of them as young angry men.
George: It’s good you recognize that. In our first week of rehearsals, Gerry Robbins had us read a book about Juvenile delinquency called The Shook-Up Generation. Jerry asked us to all get a copy and to read it. At my age I hadn’t heard of a juvenile delinquent, but we had to read that book as research. But, again, any character anybody plays in the theatre, whether it’s a good guy or a bad guy, they are all human. That’s how you have to deal with them and portray them. They are all human. The world now is full of the same problems for young kids as there was in 1959. But everybody is human.
Sam: I’m glad you point that out, because one of the things that West Side Story dealt with, which is still a problem in our society today, is racism and xenophobia. It was such a big element of the show, and this was before most civil right movements even began to take hold in the United States or across the worlds.
George: That was a huge element to the show, and that’s one of the reasons why people today can still relate to West Side Story because it’s a never ending problem. It’s always been, and unfortunately it probably always will be. Because of that, we can always relate to West Side Story and feel something from it. Especially now because of Black Lives Matter, and because its in the news on as regular basis, so we are really more aware of it in a way.
Sam: Was race and class issues talked about in the home during the 1950’s?
George: If it was, I don’t remember. As a young person it wasn’t something that came into my world. The only thing I remember as a kid in school was that I always notice that little kids could be not so nice to kids. I remember that. When I was in high school, I remember I was asked to join a fraternity and I didn’t’ want to do it because I didn’t want to belong to a club where these kids were okay, but these other kids were not. But that was as far as I went.
Sam: When you returned to the United States and auditioned for the film, you did audition for Riff, but instead you got Bernardo. Was it difficult to switch over to the other role? Was it hard to go from being a Jet to a Shark?
George: No. It wasn’t. When I was playing Riff in London, I played opposite the original guy who played the original Bernardo on Broadway, who was named Ken LeRoy. He was fantastic. So, I saw him do the role every night for a year and a half, and without even trying to learn anything I knew the part. Doing a show eight nights a week, you become so familiar with everything and every part. Its like osmosis. You just absorb it, and you don’t even know you are. So, moving from Riff, who I loved playing, to Bernardo, it wasn’t difficult. It was wonderful to play another character and figure out how that character felt.
Sam: Who is Bernardo to you? What’s he all about?
George: Well Bernardo and his family – his sister, his mother and his father – like many families have all come to America from Puerto Rico for a better life. Then, what these young Puerto Rican guys experiences on their first day walking through the neighborhood is the other guys spitting on them, calling them names and they don’t like them. So, they end up encountering prejudice and hate and all of that. So that’s what’s partly going on with Bernardo. But the other thing is that he is protecting his younger sister. He’s a family guy. Sometimes people think of Bernardo as the bad guy. He’s not the bad guy at all. But sometimes people respond to the way that the Sharks are being treated. But that’s what life is like today.
Sam: Well, thinking back when I first saw West Side Story as a young teenager, I remember I responded more to the Sharks than the Jets. I think it was because I often felt like an outsider, and the Sharks seemed more like outsiders than the Jets did.
George: That’s interesting and it’s nice to hear that. In West Side Story, it’s the Puerto Ricans that aren’t treated as well. They are the ones being rejected from the community. They are the ones that have had to deal with prejudice. I like what you’ve said because I think that’s a clarification of the Sharks.
Sam: Do you have any special memories, or things you can share about working with Natalie Wood?
George: Oh yeah. She was only twenty-three years old for goodness sake, and she was already a huge movie star. When she came on board, she was charming, she was quiet and professional, and so beautiful. We knew she was a movie star. But she was so wonderful. Natalie, in my opinion, brought a personal quality into everything she did. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of wonderful girls in the role of Maria, but there was just something about Natalie that I just can’t put into words. There is something more that she brings to that role that is so moving that makes you really care about her. That was part of Natalie’s natural personal quality, and also that she was a very serious professional actress. But as a person, Natalie couldn’t have been any sweeter or nicer. I got to know her a little bit and I really liked who she was as a person.
Sam: I watched the footage of you winning your Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for playing Bernardo. First of all, I think its great that it was presented by Shirley Jones, who you later worked opposite of in the final episode of The Partridge Family years later.
George: Well, incidentally, Shirley and I had the same representation, so I got to know Shirley very well. I’ve been to her home for dinner, and I met her boys when they were just little kids. So, I’ve known Shirley a long time and she’s another actress who gorgeous and wonderful.
Sam: But what really impressed me about your Oscar win was the competition you were up against. The other guys up for the award included Peter Falk, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason and Montgomery Clift. Very stiff competition.
George: Rita Moreno was up against equally stiff competition. Judy Garland was up for her award. West Side Story was such a success for us all, but the competition was stiff. It was a really strong year for films overall.
Sam: You said that you often visit casts that are performing West Side Story. How did the young actors in the show react to you?
George: Its so much fun to see young people doing that show. They are always so happy to meet the people who did the movie, because they love the movie, and we all have that West Side Story experience in common. So, when we all meet each other, we feel like we know each other before we meet because of that. It’s really thrilling, and so much fun, to be around a young cast of West Side Story because the connection is so strong.
Well-spoken and thoughtful, George Chakiris is one of the nicest men in all of Hollywood, which is the reason that he has remained an endearing figure to his fans throughout the world. For more of his stories be sure to pick up his book, My West Side Story: A Memoir, from your local book vendor, or favorite on-line book seller.