by Bill Biss
With the national tour of West Side Story in full swing across the country, EDGE thought it would be of interest to speak with George Chakiris, one of the stars of the Oscar-winning 1961 film version. Chakiris also won the Best Supporting Actor Award for his portrayal of Bernardo, the leader of the Latino gang The Sharks, dancing, quite spectacularly, to Jerome Robbins’ choreography.
That, though, wasn’t the first time Chakiris had danced on film. For nearly a decade before he was a regular performer in major musicals of the 1950s. He recalls his debut as dancing in a large chorus in the cult classic The 5,000 Fingers on Dr. T when he was 18 (though IMDB has him having appeared in the long-forgotten musical Song of Love at the age of 12). In the same year as Dr. T (1953), Chakiris participated in a bit of film history - as one of the dancers in the "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend" number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Over the next few years he appeared dancing opposite Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, with Mitzi Gaynor and Ethel Merman in There’s No Business Like Show Business and with Nancy Kwan in Flower Drum Song.
Yet it was as Bernardo that he made his mark. After winning his Oscar, Chakiris appeared in such films as the starry drama Diamond Head, the historical epic Is Paris Burning? and the French musical The Young Girls of Rochefort (with Gene Kelly). Television then beckoned and for the next 30 years he established himself as a character actor (most memorably in an ongoing role on Dallas in the 1980s). When he retired from acting he turned his hobby - making sterling silver jewelry - into a successful business. Now at the age of 76, the out actor sat down with EDGE to talk appearing in musicals during the closeted 1950s.
EDGE: Your dancing work in films is so remarkable. I think you were around 18 at the time and you were in a film adapted from a Dr. Seuss book called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
George Chakiris: That was my first job! (laughter)
EDGE: How did you get chosen for this film?
George Chakiris: I was taking classes at the American School of Dance on Hollywood Blvd...it’s not there anymore. The man who was teaching and ran the school was Eugene Loring. He was a famous choreographer who did Billy the Kid and so on for American Ballet Theatre. He choreographed The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. He needed 60 male dancers for that particular dungeon sequence, you might call it...dream nightmare sequence that the kid was having in the film.
There weren’t actually 60 male dancers in the Screen Extras Guild at the time. So, they allowed guys who were not in the union to come and audition. I got to audition and I got the job. I made enough money doing it because we worked on it a few weeks, to be able to join the union and go on from there to other jobs in movie musicals dancing in the chorus.
EDGE: Okay. I don’t think there is any other dancer around today who was a chorus man and made two films with Marilyn Monroe.
George Chakiris: God yeah, right...that was great. I was in There’s No Business Like Show Business. In that particular film, I wasn’t involved in any of the numbers that she was in. But in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the famous number of hers called "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend," I was one of the guys around her.
EDGE: To go back to There’s No Business Like Show Business, were you in the French sequence of "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" with Mitzi Gaynor?
George Chakiris: I was! I was also in "A Sailor’s Not a Sailor" with Ethel Merman and Mitzi.
EDGE: Please share what sticks out in your memory of doing the "Diamonds" number with Marilyn?
George Chakiris: Two things, first working for the choreographer Jack Cole. He’s one of the great choreographers and his influence still goes on today. Gwen Verdon was his assistant before she went on to become a star. Gwen Verdon married Bob Fosse, so it was carried on. Gwen was a Jack Cole dancer and one of the amazing ones. So, I remember the rehearsal thing working with Jack. The two choreographers who all the dancers were nuts about to work for in those days were Jack Cole and Robert Alton. They were the two fabulous guys. They did famous Broadway shows and then famous movie musicals. In fact, Robert Alton choreographed almost all of There’s No Business Like Show Business. The only thing in that movie that he did not choreograph was the "Heat Wave" number.
That’s because Marilyn Monroe...and she did it so beautifully, she really wanted Jack Cole. With all due respect to Robert Alton, she was right. Jack Cole gave her a great number. The thing I remember about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is Jack Cole was fantastic but was hard to work for...there’s a lot of knee work. Everything was always very low; he liked people keeping things close to the ground. I remember Marilyn in rehearsal of course. She’d come in very comfortable rehearsal clothes. She was always perfect without make-up or anything...she was so gorgeous. She was very, very dedicated and concentrated on her work. Then, when we were on the set, we were filming and everyone’s in costume. There’s that gorgeous set, just like you dream about when you’re a kid and the floor really is that shiny and you hear the playback and the great music.
It took three days to shoot that number and on the third day till 9 o’clock in the evening. I remember her amazing dedication and she was very serious. She cared very deeply about her work. That was the impression I got.
Auditioning for West Side Story
EDGE: So at this point in your career, you made film musicals for 20th-Century Fox, Paramount and MGM studios. It’s 1958 and you decide to head to New York. You end up playing in the London production of West Side Story as Riff.
George Chakiris: Yeah and that was in 1958. We opened in London in December of 1958 and in the presence of Princess Margaret. She came back a few times.
EDGE: How did it come about that United Artists wants you not for Riff but for Bernardo for the film version?
George Chakiris: Well...none of us ever dreamed that we would be in the movie. One day, five of us got letters from United Artists asking us to do a film test at L Street Studios just outside of London. My letter asked me to do a scene as "Riff" and a scene as "Bernardo." I could pick the scene I wanted to do. We had an exciting day and then went back to the theatre. The weeks started going by and nobody heard anything. We thought, "Well. That’s that." Then one night before the performance, there was a phone call for me. It was Jerome Robbins. He said, "We like your test but we’d like to test you further. Can you take a leave of absence for a week?" Which of course, they gave me.
I flew to L.A. and I did a test as Bernardo with Barbara Luna. Who came very close to having the role but of course, my "charita" [Rita Moreno] got the role and was just wonderful in it...terrific. I think it just made more sense in terms of film. I wasn’t fair and I had dark hair. I looked more like I could be a Puerto Rican...movie wise, than a Jet in that typical kind of thinking. I’m not saying their thinking was typical because Jerrry Robbins was one of the most imaginative people on the planet. I lucked out. Bernardo in the film is a better role than in the stage production.
EDGE: You played Maria’s brother in the film musical. What do you remember best about the great talent of Natalie Wood?
George Chakiris: Oh my God...Natalie. She was darling. She was sweet. When she came on the set, as we had already been working when she was finally cast...when she came on and it was nothing to do with the way she behaved, suddenly there was a movie star! I’m not saying that she behaved that way. We knew that. She worked hard and was a wonderful professional. She was so beautiful. She’s one of those people that when you see them in life...she was gorgeous on the screen but she was perfect. She had the most gorgeous face. She had this beautifully proportioned beautiful body, just breathtaking.
She invited me to her home sometimes and I did spend time with her. She was only 23. She was pretty young although she’d been in movies since she was a kid. That gave her the benefit of knowing something about the business and her instincts. She wanted to do more. She just came off doing Splendor in the Grass [with Warren Beatty]. Even at a young age had some knowledge and some background in film; I was just crazy about her. I just loved who she was as a person. One of the things that always give me such a kick, when I think about her is that I got to play Natalie Wood’s brother. Really, I mean it. That gives me such pleasure. She made many films after West Side Story and I know I saw all of them. She was so gifted as an actress.
EDGE: West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards. You included for Best Supporting Actor. That accolade for one film hardly ever happens. I guess that whole experience must have been a mind-blower for you.
George Chakiris: It was for all of us! We all keep in touch with each other. We get together now and again over the years. We call ourselves a "family" really, you know? Russ (Tamblyn) and all of us... we had such a wonderful time working on it. We loved what we were doing because we knew we were working on something terrific at the time. The movie went over-budget and somebody from the front office said, "We’re not at all sure that we have quote, ’a commercial piece and a potentially successful piece’ on their hands. But they felt they had something of artistic quality. That’s what everybody felt. Then, when it was released, everybody in the world loved it...it was great. It is timeless.
For more about George Chakiris and to learn about his sterling silver jewelry production, visit his website.