To celebrate the release of the drool-worthy “West Side Story : 50th Anniversary” Blu-ray (dancin’, dames and drama in 1080p!), we stuck a microphone in front of the gobs of two of the film’s stars Russ Tamblyn (yes folks, Dr. Jacoby from “Twin Peaks”!) and George Chakiris.
With a record-breaking ten Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Original Score, the film took home more awards than any other movie-musical in the history of cinema. This monumental production not only featured the timeless lyrics from master American composer Stephen Sondheim, but a brilliant score from Leonard Bernstein, and beautiful direction from Robert Wise. Said flick is the ageless story of Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of gang warfare in 1950’s New York. A love affair is fated for tragedy amidst the vicious rivalry between two street gangs – the Jets and the Sharks. When Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer) falls for Maria (Natalie Wood,), the sister of the Sharks leader, it’s more than these two warring gangs can handle. As mounting tensions rise, a battle to the death ensues and innocent blood is shed in a heartbreaking finale.
Tamblyn and Chakiris, who play ‘Riff’ and ‘Bernardo’ respectively in the film, revisit the classic film with MH.
What were you thinking when you looked at each other for the first time in the film?
George : What was going through my mind was what the characters were feeling, what you, what the character you were confronting and so on, so basically, what was happening in the scene, what these characters were feeling and thinking about and so on. Yes. And jury.
Russ : Enemy. He was looking at the enemy and I was looking at n intruder and what are you doing coming here and he’s, I’m here. I mean, that basically was, was what the parts were and so when we worked together, and Jerome Robbins, bless him, encouraged us to, to stay apart and not be friendly which we really weren’t while we were making the film and we used to do all these little tricks, one-upmanship’s on each other all the time. Yeah, tricks and against each other, but they were never violent or anything. They were just like jokes or something.
George : One-upmanship’s. Yeah. Yeah. Play tricks on the other gang.
Russ : He’d go up and put a banner up on a thing and I’d go up and tear it down, so we had this rivalry going all the time. It wasn’t until after, after the film, I think that George and I became friends. Yeah. Yeah, they were two gangs.
George : That we became friends. But again, what was, crossed my mind, I’m sure Russ’s too, is just basically what the scene was about and we were involved as actors in our characters and so.
Russ : I traveled around with the movie when it opened and just whenever he came on, when he did that thing when he leans up against the wall and looks, all the women in the audience would all go huh, oh. There was like this moan, so I don’t know if you can get him, make him look any better, but you can, but you will find in the Blu-ray like I said before, you’re going to see new things that you never saw before and it’s, so it’s really worth looking at.
Do you have favorite songs?
Russ : Yeah, we both do. He loves his numbers, I love mine. The American number, go ahead, I mean…
George : I love all the numbers. They’re all so, so beautiful. I Feel Pretty, Officer Krupke, Cool which is just phenomenal. Yeah, the Leonard Bernstein score is so beautifully diverse and perfect for the piece. Exactly. And he’s not too proud of them now because he’s excelled, gone way over what he did at that time, but. Yeah, but that Bernstein score absolutely is just breathtaking. Truly breathtaking.
Russ : The idea of putting people together again that, they just happened to come together in West Side Story. Everything came, seemed to make it and it’s just, it’s one of those things.
How did your chemistry work in the dancing?
George : Well, again, I think each of us approached the work as we individually needed to approach the work and the movement as well, so that’s my answer, I guess. There you are, and also, with Paul Bleise and Jerry Robbins, I mean, they weren’t going to let something, print something that wasn’t what it should be and what they aspired to and Jerry was perfectionism as well.
Russ : Yeah, I mean, we just, we both did the best we could do.
Is there any envy?
Russ : Oh my God, I’m so jealous of this guy. And the funny part is after we did the movie, didn’t you tell me you went back to London and played Riff again. He played my part again in London after the movie, so, it’s a crazy business.
George : No, never, never. Yeah.
Russ, do you wish you had some of Bernardo’s dances?
Russ : Well, I wish I had some of his moves, that’s for sure. Jerry really, he really nailed it and what he did was, what Jerome Robbins did which was brilliant was he took, he had us dance in the streets because one of the problems with dancing in the streets is, is the buildings and everything are so overwhelming and so powerful that he, he made studies of how to shoot and boy, when he did like especially George’s thing when he comes down with the other two dancers and they do that thing with the legs kicking, I mean, and with, with the background. God, it was just, it was just like such a beautiful shot, but that was arranged.
George : And that’s again, that’s, those are Jerry, Jerome Robbins’ moves.
Russ : That was just like Alfred Hitchcock when he did that, did the horror movie and actually choreographed every, every cut in the shower with Janet Leigh. He did that, so he’s amazing and we, we were rehearsed. I don’t know if you did. Did you rehearse down in L.A.? But in Los Angeles on the streets? Okay, well, we did. The Jets did and we would go down there with, in a pickup truck with a piano player in the back playing songs and Betty, yeah, Betty playing the piano and we would dance up and down the streets, so Jerry and Jerry always had his, his finder, so he was looking through to see how it would look.
And the other thing that I thought was pretty brilliant in the film was reversing the Krupke number and the Cool number so that Riff ended up the comedy. The way it worked dramatically was incredible because it was like after the deaths. It made much more sense after the deaths. It was so intense. The Cool number when everybody was like really furious. Oh, let’s go get them. Let’s get revenge and he says, wait a minute. We got to cool it and then they go into the garage and they do that number. Man that was, and that wasn’t in the show. That wasn’t in the play.
George : And then, and then the Jets in the second act in the theater version of West Side Story, sang Officer Krupke. Well, it made no sense that these young kids would be hey, jolly and singing because no, two people had died, so in the film version Riff sings Officer Krupke which takes place before the, the rumble, sorry, and Cool takes place after the rumble when everything has fallen apart and they’re trying to keep the gang together and Tucker Smith who plays Ice and he sings Cool. He does a fantastic, brilliant job.
Russ : He did a great job.
What does the 50th anniversary mean to you?
Russ : That it’s happening. That we’re both alive. Yeah, that’s fifty years, I mean, hello. I mean, think of. Yeah, I don’t either. Yeah, me too and sometimes people say, well, how did it change your life? It didn’t really change my life, I don’t think. I went on doing different things and everything. Maybe it changed it because it was like a highlight.
George : It’s just, it’s, it’s just so fantastic that something that was filmed that long ago and is, yeah, and time is so interesting because in life you know that time is going on, but at the same time you don’t really feel it. I don’t feel any different. I probably do, but then I did at that time and still the same person.
George : Well, it changed my life because it was the first I had ever been in a movie before where I had a role, so it was West Side Story that kind of did that for me and opened the door and I know I keep telling Russ, I keep, like I’ve told you as well, that I found out from Walter Mirisch that it was Jerry who cast me in the film, so you’ve heard me say I love Jerry and every, but so I’m forever grateful to Jerry. I have to be and you know what?
Russ : It was Robert Wise who casted me as Riff because I think Jerry wanted somebody else.
George : So there you go. We are, we’re grateful to different people. To the cause.
Russ : We’re devoted to the people that got us in the movie.
Russ : We get together a lot and so do by the way, a lot of the other members of the, of the cast. This is the only movies I’ve ever done and I’ve done like eighty movies in my career, but this is a movie where we keep having every, reunions, get together, we have dinner and. They should take Bob Wise to dinner.
George : The cast members. Absolutely. Reunions, get together for dinner. And by the way, Robert Wise said the same thing because the girls, the, to lunch, two or three, four times a year and even Bob said, of all the films that he had made, this is the only film where he remained friendly with the cast for years afterwards.
“West Side Story : 50th Anniversary” is available on Blu-ray today