George Chakiris Interview: Academy Award-Winning Actor Talks "West Side Story"
Image attributed to George Chakiris
George Chakiris was cast in the London production of the musical romantic drama West Side Story in 1958, portraying Riff, leader of the Jets. However, he is best known for his appearance in the 1961 film version of the same play as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks gang, for which he won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The multi-talented actor, singer and dancer also guest-starred on many television shows and appeared in numerous films including Song of Love, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, White Christmas, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Diamond Head, Flight from Ashiya and Pale Blood.
"Jerome Robbins cast me as Riff and as Bernardo in the film. I always credit someone like Jerry for having a really wonderful imagination to, in fact, get past what he saw at an audition and the impression I probably gave as being part of that audition."
The 86-year-old has released My West Side Story: A Memoir, commemorating the 60thanniversary of the classic film version of West Side Story. He has not acted since the 1990s, but he’s working as a jewelry designer for his own brand, George Chakiris Collections, which consists of handmade original sterling silver jewelry.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: George, how are you doing during the pandemic?
George Chakiris: Well, wearing my mask and social distancing, all of that stuff. I’ve had my two shots. So I guess things will, in time, ease up, and it’ll get back to what we hope is normal. But the important thing is to still pay attention to the scientists and do the right thing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely. In the front of your book, you have the quote: “No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible.” I assume it is an original saying, so where did it come from?
George Chakiris: It is. A long time ago, I think it was Larry King who sent letters to different people. I got one asking me for a quote. That’s what I came up with. So it was a quote instigated by Larry King but something I thought about, of course. So that’s an original quote.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It wasn’t inspired by a life experience?
George Chakiris: I guess it might’ve been, I don’t know. But none of those kinds of things went through my mind. I don’t know it it’s a philosophy. It’s just something that came to mind because I just think it’s true, you know (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you decide to take on the monumental task of writing a memoir?
George Chakiris: I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I’d been working with a wonderful writer, Lindsay Harrison. I think the idea originated with the publishers. But I never thought about it being a monumental task. That never occurred to me. It didn’t cross my mind. I just hoped I’d remember what I’d like to remember (laughs). Since the deadline, I thought of somany things that I didn’t think of at the time. But I guess we all do that anyway.
The hardest part of doing the book was just trying to remember things. There were some areas where I did draw a blank. I needed someone to talk to me and sort of jog my memory. But I never thought of it as a monumental task at all. I just thought of it as an opportunity to just talk about my experiences, and more than anything, about the incredible people I got to be with over the course of time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there anything specific that you wished you had included in the book?
George Chakiris: I’m going to draw a blank again. But yes, there were a few things. But again, I’m hitting a wall and drawing a blank and not able to answer your question. But I’ll think of it once we finished talking. If I think of something while we’re talking, I’ll hopefully remember and tell you because there werethings that didn’t come to mine at the time, and right now, I’m not getting them either.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: George, where did you get your love for singing and dancing?
George Chakiris: As a kid, I didn’t know the theater existed, and probably where I lived, there wasn’t any theaters anyway. Of course, there were movies, and I loved going to the movies, especially musical films that had singing and dancing. For some reason, that always really appealed to me, having sung first in a Boys Choir when we lived in Tucson, then after that singing in the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church choir (for almost five years) as a boy Soprano when we moved to Long Beach. But without thinking of it and knowing the reality of anything, I just loved dancing, and I loved to sing. I still do love singing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You had three sisters and two brothers. Were they also interested in singing and dancing?
George Chakiris: Yes. My older sister Catherine, who’s five years older than me, absolutely loved, loved, loved dancing. She married when she was 18, so she never thought it it as a career kind of thing, but she continued to study dance even in her married life while raising a family. She was a beautiful, natural dancer. It was just natural to her, more natural than walking. She and I used to dance around in the living room when I was 12, and she was 17 or something like that. But we danced in the living room not especially to music but just getting up and moving around together.
You know, this sounds like a really arrogant thing to say, but when I was about 10 and a soprano, I remember thinking that I had a nice voice. I thought, “I sound almost as good as those people on the radio.” I really quite naturally loved music and movement as my sister did. It was really natural to both of us, and that was an asset, of course.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You speak of your high school and dancing with Joan Scanlon and thinking that you wanted to marry her. Over the years, have you ever regretted not staying in Long Beach and pursuing that relationship?
George Chakiris: I guess I’d have to say, “No,” which sounds not very nice. I don’t mean it that way. But I was all of 17 or 18 when I had those feelings, and actually I really did think of marriage, but I was too young to know anything. Then things evolved quickly, other circumstances came into play, we met other people and all that.
But it was Joan who introduced me to the American School of Dance in Hollywood, and that was a major thing for me, of course. It’s a great school, and when I was training there, I got my first professional job. So I never really thought it was wrong not to have gotten into a more personal marriage kind of thing with Joan. We were both too young to really know what any of that meant. But those are the feelings that we had, you know, and feelings are feelings.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Especially in the early years, you were talking about how shy and introverted you were. Was it a struggle each time you performed?
George Chakiris: Once you’re taken in by the work, those feelings of shyness take a back seat because you’re more involved in what you are called upon to do and what you were hired to do. Also, I’ve never thought of myself as a “performer.” I think part of that comes from being a quiet person in real life. But every aspect of who you are comes into play and hopefully in a good way, no matter what you’re doing.
I think the reserved shyness kind of thing sometimes gets in the way in social things and when you’re reading people socially. For example, many years ago, I had a very nice, long meeting with Elia Kazan. He wanted to meet with me for a movie he was doing called America America. I was a quiet, shy guy, and that’s who he had the meting with. But he had the foresight, fortunately, as some people did, to get past who I was as a person and recognize that perhaps I wasn’t locked in with my personality and was capable of getting past that.
Jerome Robbins cast me as Riff and as Bernardo in the film. I always credit someone like Jerry for having a really wonderful imagination to, in fact, get past what he saw at an audition and the impression I probably gave as being part of that audition. He was able to get past that and see that however reserved I looked in a room that I was capable of doing what he wanted me to do in terms of casting me however he chose to cast me. It was thanks to him, I think, that I got to play Riff in London and also to play Bernardo in the film.
My experience generally speaking over the years is that I think it’s natural for people, if they need to be in a social kind of way, to be reserved or quiet. By the way, most people are quiet, it turns out. I remember when I was first around Marilyn Monroe, and I was around her a number of times. She was quiet. She was very quiet. Cyd Charisse was very quiet. So not everybody’s not bouncing around being gregarious and talking. People are really there to concentrate on their work. But in terms of me and that kind of reserve, did it get in my way? Never professionally. Never working in the theater or on film. But sometimes socially, it could, yes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You played Jets gang leader Riff in the original West End production of West Side Story in 1958, and you played Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, in the 1961 musical film version. Which role did you prefer?
George Chakiris: I have to say it’s really hard to make a choice between those two. First of all, I loved being in the theater. That was when I got to play Riff in London. I sort of had the both of best worlds as it was in the theater, and Riff is a good role. There was more “meat on the bone.” In the film version, because the guys andgirls are in the “America” number, that added layers to whoever was playing Bernardo and what that person was able to do and accomplish, so to speak. So in the theater, I think Riff is the “better” role, and in the film, I can’t say that Bernardo was the better role because Riff is a wonderful role in the film as well.
But I guess, in a pinch, I would probably say I preferred Bernardo because of everything that did for me in playing that role and from the recognition we all got from everything we did and the film being such a tremendous success. The film was the apex for all of us no matter what any of us did on the film.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the West Side Story 1961 musical film adaptation when you played Bernardo, several of the on-screen stars’ voices were dubbed in the songs. Did you do all of the singing yourself?
George Chakiris: Yeah. In the film, you really didn’t need a singing voice to sing the little asides in the “America” number. You didn’t need a singing voice to do that material for the chorus. But I was not dubbed. Whatever you hear is me. I know a few of the other things were dubbed. Eventually, Natalie Wood was dubbed by Marni Nixon. Richard Beymer knewhe was being dubbed to begin with, and ever there are parts in it where Rita Moreno’s voice is dubbed by a couple of other people. But I did so little vocal work in the movie, it was just okay for me to be able to do it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Natalie Wood said to you, “Don’t do a costume picture.” Did you ever find out why she told you that?
George Chakiris: (laughs) I didn’t know it at the time, but Natalie was 23 when we did the movie. As a younger actress, she had been cast, I think, in roles where she wasn’t happy and in retrospect would change them if she could. She had the personal experience of being cast in a way that she didn’t feel comfortable and didn’t feel it was really right. I remember one night, Harold Mirisch, one of the producers, had a party at his house for a few people. Natalie was there with her husband, and I remember sitting and talking with her. Out of the blue, she said, “Don’t ever do a costume picture.”
I think she said it because she had not had a good experience herself in that regard. I’m sure she was giving me good advice at the time, but it turned out that movie did come up, and I was under contract to the Mirisch Company who produced it. It was what they called a “take or play.” You either did it and got paid, or you didn’t do it and didn’t get paid. I had reservations about it, but I did end up doing it. Basically, I’d say the people involved had a pretty good experience.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you were rehearsing for the London production of West Side Story, you ended up being badly bruised during the very physical rumble between “Riff” and “Bernardo,” and those injuries resulted in sleepless nights. You began taking the drug, Doriden, and became addicted to it?
George Chakiris: The truth is that Doriden, at that time, was a tranquilizer. Without a prescription, you could go to the chemist and ask for it back then. Nobody told me when those bruises came and went to stop taking Doriden. Nobody told me to do that, so I just kept taking it. Then when the Doriden was no longer available, I started taking Valium. So for a long time, I wastaking a tranquilizer, and it was just normal to me. It didn’t get in my way at all. But I did think later when I became more aware of what I was putting in my body, that it was time to stop taking this stuff.
I went to a hospital in Laguna Beach for a couple of weeks. I stopped taking Valium, and I’ve not taken it since. If that had happened to me now, somebody probably would say, “When your bruises go away, and you’re able to sleep, stop. Just don’t take this stuff anymore.” There was a totally difference awareness in 1959 as opposed to now about things like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: After doing White Christmas, you began to receive a lot of fan mail responding to your scene with Rosemary Clooney in the film. Did you think you might be becoming a sex symbol?
George Chakiris: Oh, God. The words “sex symbol” never occurred to me or to anybody else. So I didn’t think that at all, and I don’t take myself seriously enough to call myself a sex symbol. That would be kind of silly. But the wonderful thing about White Christmas and doing that number with Rosemary Clooney, there were just four guys around her, and because there were only four of us, we were more visible. There was a spread about White Christmas in Time magazine with two pages. One of the photographs had a picture of Rosemary and the four of us around her. So a lot of people cut that picture out, circled me and sent it to Paramount because they wanted to know who I was.
Robert Emmett Dolan, who produced White Christmas, was impressed by the fact those were coming in, so he made my screen test at Paramount happen. He thought if they saw that kind of reaction, they would give this young guy a chance (laughs). So they did. I did an acting test with a contract player, and I did a musical test singing and dancing. I was signed by Paramount for a seven-year contract. I didn’t understand the significance of signing with a movie studio, but I knew that it felt good (laughs). It was a “step up.” I was no longer dancing in the chorus after that.
I loved dancing in the chorus, but you always try and do more if you can. Ursula Andress was under contract at the same time. She was 19-years-old and a beautiful blonde girl who was very funny. She didn’t take anyof it seriously but obviously, she has since. It was lots of fun, and it felt goodto be under contract to a studio.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You say in the book that West Side Story changed your life, but it didn’t begin it, and it didn’t end it. So what do you want readers to takeaway from your memoir?
George Chakiris: I’ve been doing a few interviews and have had wonderful conversations like I am with you right now. It jogs your memory. As a kid, I fell in love with movies. I didn’t know what they were or any of that. But I just fell in love with that “world.” Then I sang in the Boys Choir, and I danced with Joan Scanlon. I studied at the American School of Dance, got a scholarship there and cleaned the studios and everything at the end of the day. At the end of the day, I walked down Hollywood Boulevard. I was renting a room, and I’d walk down past Grauman’s Chinese Theatre every night. It was very quiet. Nobody was there.
The thing is that I never had a specific kind of dream. But the thing that has occurred to me just with this experience of writing the book is that, in a way, everything that I thought about and dreamed about has come true. So I think dreaming, hoping and aspiring is wonderfully important and fruitful, as well as working and preparing for anything that comes along. I would say to pay attention to dreaming, hoping and wishing because it’s a positive force.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you doing any acting these days or just focusing on your jewelry business?
George Chakiris: I guess I’m focusing on my jewelry business. I have a couple of friends who say they are retired. I don’t use that word. I probably am retired, but if I am, it’s not a conscious decision. I don’t think of that very often. Careers change over time. People can’t cast you the way they did 30 or 40 years ago. Things change, and that means things in the business change. That’s all fine as long as you accept that and recognize that in a healthy way. I still don’t like to say retired only because you never know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I agree, George. You never know. Do you have any personal regrets about not finding someone special to share your life and possibly a family with?
George Chakiris: Well, a long time ago in the early 60s, I did work on a movie with someone. I don’t want to say her name because she’s got her own private life. But we had a serious relationship. She was already … it was complicated, you know. We’re still very good friends, by the way. We’re still friends today. But if I thought about being committed to anyone over my lifetime, I think about her. She’s the person that would’ve been a good choice because she’s solid and she’s professional. She’s a mother. She loves her children. So besides being a professional, she’s a family woman as well.
That was in the early 60s. It’s been a long time since then. Sometimes, I think of her, and sometimes I get to see her. But again, we’re really good friends. She has a totally other life and has been married a couple of times since then (laughs). So it crosses my mind, not often but now and again, especially as I was writing the book and looking back on everything.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I watched West Side Story again just last night, and I believe it will always be remembered for its excellent music and talented cast.
George Chakiris: I’ve seen it a few times over the years, and one of the things that comes to my mind just now talking to you is how moved I have been when I watch that movie. I know what’s coming, but it gets me every time, very specifically with Natalie Wood in that last scene. It just gets me every time, and it’s so beautiful.
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