The cheekiest line from West Side Story's 'America' was actually improvised
I like to be in America...
West Side Story's riotous production number "America" remains one of the most iconic musical moments ever put to screen. But it turns out one of its cheekiest moments was improvised.
While sitting down with TCM for a 60th-anniversary reunion as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn reminisced about their time making the 1961 Best Picture winner. But they also revealed some behind-the-scenes stories, including the fact that the line "I know you do!" as a rejoinder to Anita's "I like the island Manhattan" in the "America" number was improvised.
It was added by actress Yvonne Wilder, then credited as Yvonne Othon.
"The voice that you hear, 'I know you do,' that is Yvonne," explained Moreno. "That was not part of the song, and ever since then everybody who does the [stage] musical has one of the girls say, 'I know you do' and that's Yvonne Othon."
Chakiris credited Wilder with helping to instill the entire cast and atmosphere on set with a vibrant sense of fun. "One of the Shark girls, Yvonne Wilder had an extraordinary, unique sense of humor," he recalled. "I did the play in London with Yvonne so I knew her before the movie. But Yvonne's humor was adopted by all of us."
For all three original cast members, "America" remains a personal favorite. "I simply adore watching 'America,'" said Moreno. "Not only for my part of the dance, but I adore watching George. He is just so bloody elegant; he's just a super, very unusual dancer. He has that Astaire thing about him. I love watching it. I love me in it; I think I'm funny."
Tamblyn said his one disappointment, which he feels each time he sees the number, is not having shared screen time with Moreno. "The one big regret I have is that I never got to work with Rita," he mused. "I got to work with George a lot, we did a knife fight, but I'm such a big fan of Rita's."
Though Tamblyn, who initially auditioned for the lead role of Tony but was ultimately cast as Jets leader Riff, also said working with Chakiris came with its own challenges. "Working with George was awful because he was my arch-enemy in the movie, but he was such a nice guy," Tamblyn joked. "I had to do my best acting to hate him... When the movie finished, George and I became great, great friends."
For all three cast members, the movie permanently changed their lives (and scored Chakiris and Moreno Academy Awards) — and that's just how they like it. "I'm really grateful for this movie and to be identified with it," Chakiris said. "To have played the role of Bernardo and to have people think of me and remember me that way, that's amazing, and it's wonderful. It's a real blessing."
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