By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
CHICAGO – The legend of the 1961 film version of the Broadway sensation “West Side Story” grows as the years go by. Who better to remember that legend 50 years later than three of the stars of that Academy Award winning Best Picture – Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo) and Russ Tamblyn (Riff).
The film version of “West Side Story” had it all. There was controversy – star Natalie Wood (Maria) was neither Puerto Rican nor sang her own songs. There was art – the classic, unforgettable songs of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, plus the athletic and graceful choreography of Jerome Robbins. And finally, there were the awards. TEN Oscars including Best Supporting nods for both Moreno and Chakiris, in addition to the first shared Best Director award for Robbins and co-director Robert Wise.
HollywoodChicago.com got the privilege last year of interviewing three of the main stars of West Side Story – Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tambyn – as they reminisced on their participation in one of the most iconic movie musicals ever put to screen. The good, the bad and the ugly came out of these sessions, in accordance with the hindsight and perspective of 50 years.
HollywoodChicago: George, you first were in ‘West Side Story’ on stage in London. What were the circumstances of getting that show, and you were actually Riff, not Bernardo, is that correct?
George Chakiris: As far as London was concerned, it was just being in New York City at the right time, because they were auditioning replacements for the Broadway show and the London cast. I was literally sleeping on somebody’s couch, when a friend told me to go to the stage door of the Winter Garden Theater, and ask for Ruth Mitchell, she was the stage manager.
The first person I see at that stage door was Howard Jeffrey, who had been at the American School of Dance. He knew me, and was also the assistant to Jerry Robbins on the show. They all looked at me, and immediately thought I would be a good Bernardo. I learned that part, and they also told me to take a look at the part of Riff. That is the part I got for London.
HollywoodChicago: How did that circle back for the movie audition?
Chakiris: I was doing ‘West Side Story’ for about a year, and started hearing rumors about the movie, with names like Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. None of us thought we would ever get near it. One day, five of us from the London company got letters from United Artists Pictures, asking us to pick a scene to do a movie test for them. My letter asked me to pick a scene for Riff, which was easy, but they also asked me to pick a scene as Bernardo. The five of us went to Elstree Studios in England, doing the tests in black-and-white.
The six weeks went by, and I got a call to the stage door. It was Jerome Robbins and he said that they liked my test, could I get a leave of absence from the show to do some further tests. I came home for a week, and did a color test as Bernardo with Barbara Luna, who was hot on the trail for the part of Anita, and Jerry directed it.
I went back to London, and again the weeks went by. I finally got a letter from Bob Wise, saying that he was sorry I hadn’t heard anything yet, but they felt they had to cast the part of Maria before they could cast her brother. At that point, Natalie was not on the picture. The Friday afterward, and I’m not psychic or anything, I had a urge to go down to the theater early. There was a telegram telling me that I had the job in the film.
HollywoodChicago: Russ, you had actually had auditioned for Tony and lost that part, and then they called you back for Riff?
Russ Tambyn: I had the same agent as Robert Wise, Phil Gersh, so I had the inside track to what was going on, and he told me it was between me and another guy for Tony. Riff never occurred to me, never came up. I thought it was hardcore dancing and I couldn’t do that.
So I got the call from my agent, who told me that Richard Beymer had got the part of Tony, but they wanted to offer me the part of Riff, but MGM [the studio Tambyn was contracted to] turned them down. And I said, what? And he said, not only did they not release you, but they booked you in another movie.
So I went to the big office of the studio chief at the time, Benny Thau. He told me, ‘I know Russ you want to do this movie, but here are some of the lines you’ll have to say in the film,’ and he told me the bad lyrics from the song ‘Officer Krupke.’ He then told me that my reputation was good at MGM, and we think this would be really bad for you. [laughs] And he then told me he booked me in ‘Where the Boys Are.’
I didn’t get down on my knees, but I literally begged him. I told him I’d memorized the parts, saw the show, knew the music and I wanted to do it so badly. He thought about it and called me a few days later and said, okay we’re going to let you do it. The kicker to this story is that when they started showing ‘Where the Boys Are’ on television, they started sending me residual checks, because I was listed to be in the film. [laughs] I saved them for awhile, thinking they’d call them back, but eventually cashed them out. [laughs]
HollywoodChicago.com: Rita, as one of the few actual Puerto Ricans in the cast of West Side Story, how did you help the others, especially Natalie Wood, seem more authentic?
Rita Moreno: It was really Natalie that came to me during the rehearsal period and asked if I would tape record her dialog with the accent. I told her I would be thrilled to do it. And so she came to the dressing room with a reel-to-reel recorder and I started reading the stuff. After awhile she got bored and left, and I don’t know if she ever used it.
HollywoodChicago: How was Natalie Wood on set? Did she feel insecure about being cast against type, and having her singing dubbed?
Tambyn: Well, actually Bob Wise watched ‘Splendor in the Grass,’ because he was looking at Warren for Tony, not Natalie for any part. Wise immediately thought, there was his Maria.
Chakiris: She turned it down initially. And then the studio came back and upped the price, and she accepted.
Tambyn: She wasn’t uncomfortable with the role, but she was uncomfortable with Richard Beymer.
Chakiris: I actually spoken to Richard about that. One of the facts about his experience is that Jerome Robbins was never around when Richard was doing a scene. He was never directed by Jerry. And Richard was working with Natalie, who never spoke to him. And he was alone, Bob Wise never really worked with either. He was a young guy working on a huge movie. Richard said to me that he could have gone to Natalie, he could have broken the ice.
Tambyn: He told me this when we were working on ‘Twin Peaks.’ He told me the truth was he was miscast. They should have never has casted him in that. He said he came off a farm in Indiana, and if you see the film he didn’t really have a street sense, that Tony should have had.
Chakiris: Even having said that, I think Richard is wonderful in the movie. If anything about the film had changed, everything would be different.
HollywoodChicago: The fantastic choreography of Jerome Robbins, and his direction on the film, was both famous and infamous. What stories about his work on the film are examples of that?
Chakiris: Jerry created the tension. The Sharks stayed in one place, the Jets in another. It was his way of creating the tension. He needed to get these young dancers on opposite sides. It needed to be there.
Tamblyn: The first thing Jerry told me was that Riff was not a tumbler, there would be no tumbling. It wasn’t until after he was left, when Tony Mordente took over the dancing, that when the sequence at the gym dance came up, he put in more tumbling. [laughs]
HollywoodChicago: I want to know the circumstances of Jerome Robbins leaving the production, what is the inside story on that?
Tamblyn: Well, he was fired.
HollywoodChicago: But, I’ve always heard that part of it was his intense perfectionism, and the fact he tortured the dancers by making them do take after take…
Chakiris: Jerry was a perfectionist, but he was also a genius. You can use that word quite freely with him, because it was true. But that perfectionism starts with him, and bleeds to everyone else. If he expects it from himself, he expected it from everyone else, even though he never said it. He could never say, ‘cut and print,’ because he could always find a better way to do it. It was just hard to let go, and he was taking up too much time.
Tamblyn: Not only too much time, but he wasted time. We did the opening sequence number, and we finally got to the end of the street. The camera got it, everyone was fine, it looked good. Jerry said, ‘I want to do one more, but I want the Jets [gang in the film] to do it on the opposite foot. Do you know what that means? It was turning left instead of right, snapping on the other hand, all those dancers only had a half hour to work it out.
It’s not just my opinion. There is a book about him called ‘Dancing with Demons.’ Hello! Hello! Do you get the picture? I’ve done two tributes to him, and everyone says the same thing, he was a f**king pain in the ass.
Chakiris: I’ve read the book as well, but they still all say they would work with him at the drop of a hat. I loved Jerry. You rose to another level because of him. Besides the Bernstein/Sondheim score, Jerry is the heart and soul of the film. Had Jerry had not been a part of the film, it never would have been the same.
HollywoodChicago: How do you think the film influenced the culture and subsequent stage productions of ‘West Side Story’?
Tamblyn: I went to see ‘Jerome Robbins Broadway,’ a revue with his numbers in it, which Jerry choreographed, and the guy playing Riff in one sequence did a flip, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t wait to get back to get backstage and ask him how he got away with it, didn’t Jerry choreograph it? He told me that was one of the requirements for the role. Ha! I always call that flip the "Tamblyn Touch"
Chakiris: I think in every stage version since the movie, Riff does a tumble at some point, which is pure Russ Tamblyn. Except for Cody Green in the 2009 revival "sniffs" Also from the movie in the ‘America’ number, when Rita sings, ‘I like the island Manhattan,’ Yvonne Wilder, who played Consuelo, ad-libbed, ‘I know you do!’ and it’s in the soundtrack. Now in every production you see on stage, ‘I know you do!’ is in there. That was Yvonne.
HollywoodChicago: George and Rita, what was your Oscar moment like?
Chakiris: Shirley Jones gave me my Oscar. I was suspended in disbelief. It’s hard to describe, but it was an amazing feeling that I can find no words for. It was like floating on a cloud, and I didn’t really have a speech, just thank you, thank you very much. I remember there was a limo that picked me and Rita [Moreno] up beforehand, and as we were driving to the ceremony she said, “I’ve been practicing my loser’s face.’ [laughs]
Moreno: George and I practiced ‘Loser’s Speeches.’ One of mine was, ‘well of course she slept with everyone in the movie.’ [laughs] We laughed so hard.
Chakiris: But what I really remember is that the Academy sent me a film of my portion of the show, being introduced by Bob Hope and all that. When I watched it, I was sitting in the audience next to Rita, and the thing that struck me was how happy Rita was for me. And then later, when the Supporting Actress award came up, and she won too, we just had the best night. [laughs]
Moreno: I will never forget who presented it to me, it was Rock Hudson. And I have the pictures at home to prove it. It was unbelievable, because I was so sure that Judy Garland, who was up for ‘Judgment at Nuremberg,’ was going to get it. She was certainly a sentimental favorite. And I had flown in all the way from Manila in the Philippines for this event. I really thought I wouldn’t get it but if there was the tiniest chance that I was going to be rewarded this magnificent honor, I want to be there.
I was astonished. I remember thinking once my name was called that I must not run down the aisle, because that was undignified. I was saying to myself all the way to the stage, ‘don’t you dare run, You maintain your dignity.’ And I didn’t run.
HollywoodChicago: Russ, did David Lynch intentionally reunite you and your West Side Story co-star Richard Beymer on an episode of ‘Twin Peaks’ in the early 1990s?
Tambyn: Somebody asked him that in an interview. Because there was the snapping on the soundtrack, with the music by Angelo Badalamenti, everyone assumed it was a tribute. David Lynch just replied, ‘no, I never saw the movie.’ That was pretty far-out. [laughs]
The 50th Anniversary Blu-ray of “West Side Story’ was released on November 15th, 2011, by MGM Home Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.