When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way…and it turns out the same holds true if you’re a Shark.
George Chakiris, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Bernardo in West Side Story, still considers it to be one of the most remarkable and defining projects of his career.
The actor, who is of Greek descent, first played Jets gang leader Riff in the London West End stage production of West Side Story before scoring an audition for the 1961 film and switching sides to lead the Puerto Rican Sharks, as Bernardo, brother to Natalie Wood’s Maria and partner to Rita Moreno’s Anita.
Over 50 years later, the musical film still remains a gold standard in its genre and a favorite of filmgoers. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, West Side Story transposes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the streets of 1960s New York City, where the Montague-Capulet feud becomes a racially charged gang war between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and supporting acting awards for Chakiris and Rita Moreno.
West Side Story is returning to movie theaters for two days only as part of Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Big Screen Classics series with an introduction from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. The beloved movie musical will play in select theaters June 24 and 27 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. local time both days.
In advance of the special screenings, EW called up Chakiris to reminisce about the film, working with the unforgettable cast, and reveling in the real-life (but more playful) rivalry between the actors who portrayed the Jets and the Sharks. He also weighed in on the upcoming Spielberg remake of the film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the part?
GEORGE CHAKIRIS: I was doing the show in London for a year and half playing Riff. We started hearing news from the West Coast about the movie mentioning Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley. None of us ever thought we’d get near it. But one day five of us in the London company got letters from United Artists asking us to do tests. My letter asked me to pick a scene as Riff, which I was playing, and a scene from Bernardo. We did those tests and I flew to Los Angeles for one week. They gave me a leave of absence to do further tests directed by Jerry Robbins. That test was a scene as Bernardo. I met Robert Wise for the first time and then I flew back to London to go back into the show. A number of weeks passed by and I thought, “Well, that’s that,” but one day I did get a telegram, telling me I had the role of Bernardo in the film. After I finished working on the movie, I went back into the show again playing Riff, so it was an incredible time because I loved playing Riff in the theater and, of course, I loved playing Bernardo in the film. We had such a really beautiful time. We knew we were working on something of quality. That’s the thing that felt best.
Was it a big transition to switch from Riff to Bernardo and were you happy about the change?
In doing the show for a year and a half, without realizing it, you become familiar with every part in the show because you’re hearing it every night through the speaker and being onstage. Because I was able to see Ken Le Roy every night, the magnificent original Bernardo, I was learning from him. It was a change that I really loved because in the film, for Bernardo and the Shark gang, there’s a little more meat on the bones so to speak. The guys are included in the “America” number. There are additional small scenes for me with Natalie [Wood]. It was just a smooth move [because] we were so familiar with the whole thing.
This was your first major role beyond dancing in numerous films. Was that intimidating for you?
The first thing that was intimidating was when I started rehearsing to play Riff in the London company. That first day of rehearsal, I thought, “Oh my God, I’m never going to learn this. I’m too slow.” I was really new to the whole thing then. New to Jerry Robbins and this kind of experience, but you keep going no matter what happens and you hopefully raise yourself to that bar because you have to. The very first day with the London company was the scariest, most nerve-wracking [day] through the whole thing.
Jerome Robbins was an incredible choreographer, but he also had a reputation for being very demanding. What was it like working with him?
I absolutely loved Jerome Robbins. We were all so lucky to be in the same room with this man. Of course, it was demanding. Jerry was a perfectionist, but with himself first. By extension, it wasn’t something conscious, but you knew you had to try to rise what he wanted us to do. I’ve always heard the stories about Jerry, but that was never my experience with him. I never experienced him being mean or anything like that. He was thrilling. He was wonderful to be around… He really tried to spark our imagination too. Instead of just saying, “Go here when you say that line, go over there,” he asked us to use our imagination and bring something to the table as well. So we were co-working with Jerry. He made us be part of the creative process.
As a dancer, his style is so distinctive. Did you find it hard to adjust to in comparison to past choreography you’d done?
Absolutely, because all the dance numbers are dialogue — it’s a continuation of the story. You don’t stop when a musical number comes up and do the number and then take up the scene where you left off. It all moves forward. Your work as an actor was part of your work as a dancer as well. It was dialogue through movement. Every musical number was an expression of how characters felt. He choreographed for character, so it was very different [than] working in a Hollywood movie musical because there you were just a chorus dancer. By the way, I loved every second of that too. There was an added dimension because it was your work as an actor. It wasn’t just doing a step. It was…what does that step mean? What were you feeling? That was all something you had to bring to Jerry’s work.
In the film, unlike the play, you duet with Anita on “America.” When were you first told about that change and can you share memories from shooting it?
I love all the numbers, but the “America” number, we had so much fun. In the theater, it’s done just by the girls. If you have [original Anita] Chita Rivera, you don’t need much more. The beautiful thing about the “America” number in the film is the competitive playful feeling between the guys and the girls. [It] was an uplifting kind of thing to do. I loved every minute of that. One day after we finished filming, we were all walking out of the studio and Jerry [Robbins] turned to us and said, “That was very good spirit today.” That’s what it was about — the spirit, the playfulness. The guys and the girls have different experiences in America, and that’s the beauty of adding the guys to the number in the film version. It raises that number to a different level. We had such a delicious time with each other.
What was the hardest part of filming “America?” Rita Moreno previously told EW her dress with the lift in the finale was really slippery, but what about you?
There was one place in the number where the three guys have a little variation together. In that variation, there was a double pirouette, which is not that hard to do, but I hadn’t found my traction on the floor yet. So, in rehearsal, I was just doing one pirouette and Jerry very quietly came up to me and said, “Are you just going to do one pirouette?” I thought, “No, of course not. I know I have to do two,” but I love the way he said it. It was just a quiet question. There was another section in the number where the guys are playing with each other with the girls watching. Some of that we had to invent ourselves and I remember thinking I hope I can come up with something that is going to work, and I guess I did.
What makes the number work so well is the chemistry between you and Rita. What was it like working with her and are you still friends?
I’d never met Rita Moreno until the first day of rehearsal here in L.A. at the studio. She was there to work. She’s an incredibly conscientious performer and actress. She’s so gifted, and she’s so beautiful in this role. We all got to know each other very well, and we’ve all known each other since. There’s kind of a West Side Story family. We see each other whenever we can. In talking about having to raise your own level of work, there was something about the way Rita worked as an actress that made me come up to what she was doing. She was inspirational that way and she’s that way in life as well. I’ve come to know her very well over the years. I’m godfather to her daughter. We’ve had a special relationship from the first day. Jerry and Bob [Wise] allowed us to play between takes. We even ruined a couple of takes just as a joke. It was unspoken, but we inspired each other I suppose.
She was the only lead actor who was actually of Puerto Rican descent. Did you ever discuss that or turn to her for insight?
No, not really. Rita helped Natalie and me with our accents, which we tried to keep as subtle as possible. We were standing around between takes and talking to each other, I remember her saying, “I’m so sick of playing parts where I say, ‘Why do you like white girls?'” Hearing her say that made you realize that she had experienced things in the business she was trying to get past. It was a real problem she had to face but did overcome. But hearing that story made you realize that different people feel different ways because of how they’re perceived.
I understand there’s an interesting story behind the distinctive leather bracelets you and the Sharks wear. Is that true? Can you tell me about them?
We were competitive in the course of the film, trying to one-up each other with humor. The Jets would hang a sign across the street from the schoolyard that said “Sharks stink!” or wear T-shirts one day that said “Jets.” One of our Shark guys, Andre Tayir, came to rehearsal one day wearing a wristband and we all loved it, so we all got them. Irene Sharaff, the costume designer, loved them so we wore them in the film. It was fantastic. We all felt so good when we were all wearing that wristband. We all felt we’d put one over on the Jets.
Can you tell me more about the playful rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets and how it came out on set?
In the theater, the very first day of rehearsal, Jerry Robbins said, “I want the Sharks to stay over there. I want the Jets to stay over there. I don’t want you to socialize with each other during breaks. I don’t even want you to socialize after you leave the theater.” He wanted to instill that sense of tension that exists between the gangs. He wanted to cut to the chase. That was one way of doing it that was really quite effective. In the film, that existed too but in a more playful way. Like playing a joke on the gang or them wearing a T-shirt of a different color, or us with the wristbands. Things like this. The one-up-manship was constant, and it was also a lot of fun. Because your imagination was always at play.
Natalie Wood played your sister, Maria. What was it like working with her? Any particular memories?
Oh God, Natalie…beautiful, sweet, darling. I loved Natalie. She was 23 for God’s sake, but she was a huge star. I remember, the first day, we were upstairs in the studio, and downstairs on the street, at the studio, I found Natalie walking the set. She was dressed very plainly; she never wore a lot of makeup. She was just pure and simple and sweet and gorgeous. We all knew we had a movie star in our midst although we didn’t say it. She was a movie star, but she did not act like a movie star. She was graceful and she was concerned about her performance just the way everyone else was. One time I was at [film producer] Harold Mirisch’s house and Natalie was there with lots of other well-known people, and I remember one of the things she said was “Don’t ever do a costume picture.” Because I think she had had a bad experience doing costume pictures herself. I could just go on and on about Natalie. I remember where I was the day we lost her. She was so wonderfully talented, and she was ahead of the game herself in terms of the way she approached her career and managing things and producing things. That was in 1961 before actors and actresses did that. Now everybody tries to do that, but at that time, it was a really intelligent step forward for any performer to think that way and she did.
Since you were playing brother and sister, did you do anything to establish that relationship in rehearsal?
No, but it was so easy to feel protective about her. I guess it came sort of naturally.
Why do you think the film has endured the way it has?
To me, the heart and soul of West Side is the music, of course, but the work of Jerome Robbins. When Jerry was around, we came to attention a bit more. You didn’t relax around Jerry. But that’s not a bad thing. The feeling and the tension of what is going on in this piece, you can’t convey that if you’re coming from a relaxed point of view, so I loved Jerry’s tenaciousness and his perfectionism. Of course, the [Leonard] Bernstein score and the Stephen Sondheim lyrics, the whole thing, but music and movement are the things that we feel and hear most. That’s why I always tend to say that the heart and soul was Jerry. It could have never been the same without him. And that Bernstein score, which was just so beautiful.
I’m sure you’re aware Steven Spielberg has a West Side Story remake in the works. What do you think about that?
Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg and [playwright] Tony Kushner is Tony Kushner. I would assume they’ve been thinking about this for a long time. If anybody was going to do a remake, hey Steven Spielberg [isn’t too shabby]. It’s going to be really interesting to see what they do and what changes they would like to see. It’s exciting that they are doing it. I think we’re all going to be surprised and impressed and like what they do. I can’t imagine because these two guys are pretty wonderful.