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At 70, George Chakiris Looks Back at His Work, 'West Side Story' & Winning the Oscar
by Scott Holleran
March 21, 2003
A smash movie musical—energetic dance scenes set to jazzy music—a story about a troubled pair in the big city—multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture—Chicago? Yes. But one could also be referring to West Side Story, the musical reworking of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that swept the Oscars—including Best Picture—42 years ago in Santa Monica, California.
It was a memorable night for actor George Chakiris, who won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal as Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, and overprotective brother to Maria (Natalie Wood.) Chakiris, now 70, attended the Academy Awards with fellow cast member Rita Moreno, who won a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as Bernardo's lover, Anita.
"Rita and I went together and had the most amazing time," Chakiris said in a telephone interview. "I was nominated with Peter Falk [Pocketful of Miracles], Montgomery Clift [Judgment at Nuremberg], Jackie Gleason [The Hustler] and George C. Scott [The Hustler]."
"The reality of winning didn't get to me," Chakiris said from his home in Los Angeles. "I wasn't aware of what it could do for my career."
While Chakiris got top billing in movies after winning the Oscar, his career never reached the critical and popular acclaim of West Side Story.
Though some might be inclined to blame the demise of the musical, which began in the late 1960s, Chakiris, who has played every part from an American tank G.I. (Is Paris Burning?) to a terrorist (McGuire Go Home), accepts responsibility.
"I was totally naive in terms of business," he said. "I wasn't even aware that I had choices. I just wasn't business savvy."
Prior to the movie's casting, Chakiris had played Jets leader Riff in London's West End stage production of West Side Story for two years. He was chosen from among dozens of actors who auditioned for the part of Bernardo and his confident ballet movements played an important role in the spectacular success of the movie.
"I really credit [choreographer and co-director] Jerome Robbins," he said. "I remember one time, when there were three of us guys doing the first dance sequence in 'America', which required a double pirouette. While we were rehearsing in front of the camera, I kept doing one pirouette. I kept trying and doing one pirouette. Jerry came up to me and asked very quietly, 'Are you going to do just one pirouette?'"
West Side Story became a phenomenon, winning ten Oscars, topping the box office and rejuvenating the movie musical. The movie's soundtrack, which effectively launched the songwriting career of Oscar Hammerstein's protégé, Stephen Sondheim, continues to be a perennial favorite and high school theater departments routinely produce the musical on stage.
Otherwise, times have changed in ways that cast West Side Story in irony. Several productions have been the subject of controversy over the casting of the Puerto Rican parts. Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants, opposes race based casting.
"Today, I don't know if I'd even be cast [as Bernardo]," he said. "Now, there's a huge Hispanic community, which didn't exist back in 1961. I don't think casting needs to be based on race. The casting director should feel free to cast regardless of national origin, not due to what's politically correct."
"I was so lucky and thrilled to be part of this movie, a piece of material that was authored by some of the most amazing people in theater history," Chakiris said. "It was a privilege just to be there and to contribute to something so wonderful. The last scene still gets me every time. It still brings tears to my eyes."
Chakiris, who said he hasn't seen the special edition West Side Story DVD, said he still takes dance classes, stays fit and trim and reads an occasional script. Currently, his main interest lies in making sterling silver jewelry, which started as a hobby.
"I've been working with a jewelry manufacturer in downtown Los Angeles for good molds and it's been this long process," he said. "Maybe I'll be lucky and maybe I won't. It was just a hobby to begin with and then I really enjoyed it. I've developed the line of jewelry—I just finished making a bracelet and a belt—and the goal is to get a quality producer and bring it to market."
Looking back, Chakiris is satisfied with his career. Chakiris has escorted Marilyn Monroe (he was one of the dancers) during the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, he recorded several albums in the 1960s, he performed Gershwin songs for audiences in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Monte Carlo, he starred in numerous television guest roles—a spot on Hawaii Five-0 is among his favorites—and he played a villain on Dallas. He last starred in a London stage production of Jane Eyre in 1997.
He knows that, for many, he will always be the intense dancer who brought Bernardo—gliding through the streets of Manhattan's west side, chaperoning young Natalie Wood, romancing Rita Moreno—to the screen. As Chakiris said: "I wouldn't mind even if it's the only thing people remember me for."
• Review - 'West Side Story' DVD
• 3/21 - West Side Story Sing-A-Long Tour