By Gary Susman
The film version of 'West Side Story' seems like it has always been part of our collective memories. The sounds and images from the street-gang update of 'Romeo and Juliet' have resonated with us down through the years, as refracted in other movies (like Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Outsiders'), music videos (Michael Jackson's 'Beat It'), Bruce Springsteen lyrics ("There's a ballet being fought out in the alley") and even television shows (this season of 'Glee') so that -- even if you've never seen 'West Side Story' -- you feel you know it. Still, there's a lot about the classic movie musical, released 50 years ago today (on Oct. 18, 1961) that you may not know. Read on to learn about the real-life gangbangers hired for the film, how star Natalie Wood almost got male lead Richard Beymer and herself fired from the film, and how the co-director who was fired in mid-shoot ended up winning an Oscar.
1. Despite the movie's New York street feel, most of it was shot on a soundstage in Hollywood. The famous prologue, however, was shot on the gritty Manhattan streets, in the West 60s (amid tenements about to be torn down to make way for Lincoln Center) and in Spanish Harlem (around East 110th Street). Dancers sustained some injuries from leaping about on the hard pavement, but those weren't the only injuries they risked. Locals harassed the performers by throwing rocks and dropping objects off roofs until the filmmakers hired an actual street gang to protect them.
2. Some viewers who'd loved the 1957 Broadway musical were miffed that Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence weren't even considered to reprise the roles of Tony and Maria in the movie. But the producers wanted a cast that looked young enough to be teenagers, and the Broadway leads were both about 30. Nonetheless, while they ended up casting two 23-year-olds in the leads, most of the gangbangers and gals they hired were indeed close to 30.
3. Elvis Presley was approached to play Tony, but Col. Tom Parker turned the studio down, favoring the anodyne musicals his client was already making over one that would have had him wielding a switchblade. (Though he'd already played a street kid driven to violence in such movies as 'Jailhouse Rock' and 'King Creole.') If Elvis had done the movie, he'd have ended up playing opposite real-life ex-girlfriend Wood.
4. Others who almost played Tony: Marlon Brando, Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins, Russ Tamblyn, Burt Reynolds, Troy Donahue, Bobby Darin, Richard Chamberlain, Dennis Hopper, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. Hunter (age 30), Reynolds (26) and Chamberlain (26) were all considered too old. The versatile Darin was too busy. Brando wanted to do it but figured that, at 34, he was way too old. Tamblyn ended up with the role of Jets leader Riff. Beatty was co-director Robert Wise's first choice, and he even tested with then lover/'Splendor in the Grass' co-star Wood. Ultimately, the filmmakers went with the little-known Beymer.
5. Actresses considered for Maria included Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Luna, Jill St. John, Diane Baker, Valery Harper, Elizabeth Ashley, and Suzanne Pleshette. Hepburn dropped out when she became pregnant.
6. Wood really wanted to do 'West Side Story,' but she knew if she turned down Warner Bros. forthcoming melodrama 'Parrish,' studio chief Jack Warner would never loan her to the rival United Artists. So she faked a bout of tonisillitis. That trick got her out of 'Parrish,' but it backfired when she contracted a serious case of pneumonia and almost had to drop out of 'West Side Story' as well. Fortunately, she recovered in time. (Pneumonia also struck cast member Eliot Feld, who played Baby John, during the New York shoot.)
7. Feld was one of several veterans of the Broadway production who landed roles in the film. Others included Tony Mordente (Action), Tucker Smith (Ice), and Jay Norman (Pepe). George Chakiris, who played Sharks leader Bernardo, had played Riff on the London stage.
8. A few members of the Broadway cast did get to reprise their roles in the movie: Carole D'Andrea (Velma), Tommy Abbott (Gee-Tar) and William Bramley (Officer Krupke).
9. David Winters played Baby John on stage and A-rab in the movie. On stage, it's A-rab whose beating by the Sharks sparks a rumble, while in the movie, it's Baby John. Had Winters' roles been reversed, he'd have been beaten up both times.
10. Stefanie Powers, then going by the stage name Taffy Paul, was hired as a chorus dancer but had to drop out because she was underage and would have required an on-set tutor and a shorter work schedule. Years later, of course, she would co-star with Wood's husband, Robert Wagner, on TV's 'Hart to Hart.'
11. The scope of the project was so large that the studio decided to split the workload between two directors. Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the Broadway show was hired despite never having directed a film before. Veteran movie director Robert Wise was hired despite never having made a musical. It was decided that Wise would handle the drama scenes and Robbins the musical numbers. But Robbins' perfectionism began to drag the movie down. His exacting demands and endless rehearsals took a toll on the dancers. ("They didn't dance out of joy, they danced out of fear," said music supervisor Saul Chaplin.") Soon the movie was behind schedule and $300,000 over budget. Wise defended Robbins, but he was soon asked to finish the movie by himself. Robbins' choreography remained, but the only completed numbers he shot that remain in the film were the prologue, 'America,' 'Cool,' and 'Something's Coming.'
12. Robbins worked Wood 16 hours a day, until she begged to be fired from the film. She also wanted Beymer fired, complaining about his lack of singing and dancing chops (even though her song-and-dance skills were just as limited). Eventually, she figured out how to get along with both Robbins and Beymer, while the directors figured out how to shoot around her dance limitations.
13. As for the stars' vocal limitations, most fans know that Wood's singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon (who would do the same for Audrey Hepburn three years later in 'My Fair Lady'). Wood herself didn't know, however. She had assumed her own singing voice would be used, at least for the lower-register parts, and didn't learn she'd be dubbed until the shoot was over. Beymer was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant.
14. There was other vocal doubling going on as well. Tucker Smith (Ice) also sang Tamblyn's part in 'The Jet Song,' though Tamblyn's own voice is heard during 'Gee, Officer Krupke' and 'Quintet.'
15. As Anita (Bernardo's sister and Maria's confidante), Rita Moreno sang on 'America,' but Betty Ward was hired to dub her lower notes on 'A Boy Like That.' On the day the vocals for 'Quintet' were recorded, however, both Moreno and Ward were sick, so Nixon stepped in, singing for both Anita and Maria. So on film, the song was really a quartet.
16. 'West Side Story' was the No. 2 box office hit of 1961, behind only Disney's '101 Dalmatians.' The film, which cost $6 million to make, has earned back $43 million at the box office over the course of multiple releases through the years.
17. The film was popular overseas, too. It played for four years straight at Paris's George V Theater, setting a record.
18. In 1962, the film won 10 Oscars, a record for a musical that stands to this day. Among the honors: Best Picture (a prize that went to Wise, as a producer), Best Director (shared by Robbins and Wise, who insisted that his fired collaborator remain credited as co-director), Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Moreno). The only Oscar it was nominated for that it didn't win was Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Lehman). Wise and Robbins were the first pair ever to share a directing award (and the last, until Joel and Ethan Coen won for 2007's 'No Country for Old Men.') Robbins is the only director ever to win an Oscar for his sole feature directing credit; he never directed another film. Wise, however, went on to repeat his feat four years later, winning Best Picture and Best Director for 'The Sound of Music.'
19. Rita Moreno, the only actual Puerto Rican among the principal cast, became only the second Hispanic performer (after fellow Puerto Rican José Ferrer a decade earlier) to win an Oscar. But it didn't help her career the way she expected. "Ha, ha. I showed them. I didn't make another movie for seven years after winning the Oscar," she recalled in a 2008 interview. "Before 'West Side Story,' I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After 'West Side Story,' it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories." Today, Moreno is one of only 10 stars who've won the EGOT grand slam of competitive entertainment awards (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) and is the one who did it in the shortest span of time (14 years).
20. Leonard Bernstein, who composed the songs, complained that the movie was over-orchestrated. The film used some 90 musicians, about three times as many as the Broadway production.
21. The soundtrack album was very popular and won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack. Other near-simultaneous instrumental versions of the score, by lounge pianists Ferrante & Teicher and by jazz bandleader Stan Kenton, were big sellers as well.
22. For her work dubbing Moreno's vocals, Ward went uncredited on the album. She sued the film's producers and the CBS record label for $60,000 in damages. The suit was settled out of court.
23. Nixon was denied royalties as well. She finally got some when Bernstein agreed to give her a portion of his percentage.
24. These days, Russ Tamblyn is better known as the father of Amber Tamblyn, of the 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' movies and TV's 'Joan of Arcadia' and 'House.'
25. Of the 'West Side Story' cast alumni, Wood had the most celebrated career, as a leading lady in such films as 'Love With the Proper Stranger,' 'Inside Daisy CLover,' 'This Property Is Condemned,' and 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.' Moreno has shown her versatility in a variety of media; today, the former 'Electric Company' star is playing Fran Drescher's mother on TV's 'Happily Divorced.' Chakiris starred in such movies as 'Diamond Head,' 'Is Paris Burning?' and 'The Young Girls of Rochefort" before turning to TV in the 1970s and '80s, retiring from acting and taking up jewelry design. Nearly 30 years after 'West Side Story's release, Richard Beymer and Tamblyn were reunited as members of the ensemble cast of David Lynch's 1990 TV drama series 'Twin Peaks.' Beymer played the sinister hotal magnate Ben Horne, while Tamblyn was the mysterious psychiatrist Lawrence Jacoby. Both still retained flashes of the old mystique and menace. 'Cause when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.