When “West Side Story” came out in 1961, no-one expected it to break records; it was supposed to be a lovely little film that would come and then go.
As the movie exploded into the stratosphere, George Chakiris (Bernardo) would see his career break out as well, along with others like Rita Moreno. Still, both were humble on the night of the Oscar Awards; Chakiris was even practicing his best “losing face” with Moreno in the car on the way. It was a night that neither one would ever forget as they both won awards.
Now “West Side Story” is in the news again, with a remake releasing December 19 from Steven Spielberg. Chakiris, who just had his autobiography “My West Side Story: A Memoir” come out, sat down with Moviehole to discuss his amazing career and what he might advise the new “Bernardo.”
MOVIEHOLE: How did you get into the business?
George Chakiris: The very first thing I studied when I was 19, was when I took my first ballet class, and I was able to start working in a chorus, that was a great start. As a singer I didn’t take classes, singing came naturally to me and I sang since I was a kid. The singing teacher I took was a wonderful guy in New York called Keith Davis, he concentrated on going from the bass voice to the head voice without a break, that’s really important and a tricky thing to find.
I always wanted to be a dancer; like everyone I went to movies and I had a sister who loved dancing too; we used to dance together in the living room, we both loved it and she became a ballroom dancer. Of course you have to study but it was a natural thing to both of us.
MOVIEHOLE: What was your first big break?
GC: I was too naïve to know how hard it was to get in and I got lucky in different ways; I took dance at 19 which was late, I didn’t know that so it didn’t matter, and then my first big break was “West Side Story” because that opened up everything. I was working as a chorus dancer in Los Angeles in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “White Christmas,” but musicals became to be rare. I had a place to stay in November 1958 in Los Angeles when they were auditioning replacements for the London “West Side Story,” and I was hired to play Riff in that.
I played Riff in London for a year and a half, loved it, and then I started hearing stories about a movie. I did get to test for the movie, it was a test at a London studio, then they asked me to do a test as Riff and Bernardo and I was happy to do that. We did our test and then weeks went by, we didn’t hear anything and thought that’s that, then about six weeks later Jerome Robbins (choreographer) asked me to fly to L.A. to do another test. So the theater company let me go and I met Robert Wise (director) and I did a test which was directed by Jerry Robbins, then I went back to London as Riff. Weeks went by and finally after a couple of months, I got a telegram saying I had the role of Bernardo in the film. It was tremendous (after the film opened) because no matter what you are doing, you hope you’ll get another job, every opportunity was helping toward another job, so just continuing to work after “West Side Story” was great.
MOVIEHOLE: Did you expect the film to be such a big hit?
GC: Nobody expected that! I tell the story that I was standing out in an alley with a couple of kids at the time and we heard a few suits from the front office and one of them said, “we don‘t know if we’ll have a commercial success but we might have an artistic success.” We felt really good about it, about the work.
MOVIEHOLE: How did your life change? What do people on the street say to you about it?
GC: Professionally it changed dramatically — after “West Side Story,” I wasn’t just a dancer anymore, I was a star with my name above the title of a film with Yul Brynner and Richard Widmark.
People talk about my wonderful costume and they’ll say, “I loved you in the movie, just loved you.”
MOVIEHOLE: What do you think of the remake by Steven Spielberg coming out? Do you have any advice for the new Bernardo?
GC: Well, he’s a wonderful filmmaker and I’m sure it will be a wonderful film, I can’t imagine anything until I see it. As far as advice for Bernardo, I don’t think he’d (actor David Alvarez) would want to ask me anything but if he did, I ‘d just say it’s a wonderful role and you’ll be so loved doing it.
MOVIEHOLE: What were your memories of working with Yul Brynner, Marilyn Monroe and Charlton Heston?
GC: Chuck was such a lovely man, he and his wife were a great couple, a wonderful loving couple; he was very serious about his work — when he went to rushes, he made notes on what he could improve. Chuck was a serious man but he had a sense of humor. Everyone I’ve worked with have been wonderful serious people. They were just respectful with the whole process. Yul was great, a big personality as well. All had a good sense of who they were and what was expected of them.
I was one of the guys dancing behind Marilyn’s singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” we spent three days filming it; she was very quiet and serious, concentrating on her work. She was phenomenal, such a good artist.
MOVIEHOLE: What is your method of acting?
GC: I naturally fell into method acting because I hadn’t had much experience; I studied who the characters were and what they felt and put myself in their shoes. I did take classes and had people coach me on different things, but it was pretty much my own way of working, and to me what mattered was how they felt. I never acted like the character for two months on end, though!
MOVIEHOLE: What was the biggest challenge of your career?
GC: There have been challenges, I had some serious and wonderful challenges, and there were more in theater. I did the Stephen Sondheim musical called “Company” with Elaine Stritch, and I did “M. Butterfly,” that was a challenge. Everything you do is a challenge, because you have to try to do the best you can. I don’t think there is any one thing that is more a challenge than the other. Theater is more challenging though because you couldn’t do a retake.
That’s the beauty of theater, you don’t know how an audience is going to respond, it keeps you alive and vital.
MOVIEHOLE: What was your favorite role of all your films?
GC: I loved playing Bernardo, I also loved playing Frederic Chopin in a miniseries, but of course “West Side Story” because it had worldwide success.
MOVIEHOLE: What is a good story you can remember from your vast career?
GC: When Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn and I did the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre handprints and footprints, and Rita put “Morno” for her last name and forgot to put an “e,” and I noticed it and they put the “e” back. Russ and his wife and I, we have all remained good friends and also Rita, I call it the “West Side Story Family,” because that’s kind of what we are. I still have my Oscar and Golden Globe and all the other awards.
MOVIEHOLE: Do you want to do more acting?
GC: When I think of acting, you never stop learning, and if I was working on something now, I would bring something more than the past because of life experiences at this stage of the game. It’s such a wonderful profession and if you are happy with the material, you will always have a good time.
Like with my friends Eddie Verso and Jay Norman and me, there’s a famous picture with all three of us dancing. I’ve been so lucky much of the time, I’ve had such a great time working with wonderful people and great friends, it’s been a fortunate thing and I still get a thrill doing it.
MOVIEHOLE: What advice would you have for newbies?
GC: Be prepared, and most performers know that. If you take a class, you know that — no one has to be told what to do. The way actors audition is different now, you had to be in the same room as the people auditioning, but now you can put yourself on tape, that seems to be what is happening now. I think some people are better at it than others, but I loved auditioning with people in the same room. Though if you put yourself on tape, it’s also something that you approve of. If I had to put my audition on tape, of course I would.
MOVIEHOLE: What are your upcoming projects?
GC: I worked one day on “Not to Forget,” it’s a film about Alzheimer’s, and because of the subject matter I wanted to be there — that was a year and a half ago, I think it’s coming out soon. My interests changed and in recent years I have created a line of restoring silver jewelry, that’s been more of a focus for me. It’s a very gratifying thing to do. I think everyone has another creative outlet like Tony Bennett and Tony Curtis both painting.
Chakiris’s book is available on Amazon, here: https://www.amazon.com/My-West-Side-Story-Memoir/dp/149305547X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=George+Chakiris&qid=1631144650&s=books&sr=1-1
Chakiris’s jewelry can be purchased on his website, here: https://www.georgechakiris.com/