George Chakiris speaks at West Side Story's 60th anniversary at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Los Angeles.
George Chakiris poses near a hand-and-footprint inscription by himself and fellow cast members Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn in the forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre.
George Chakiris is interviewed at an event to celebrate West Side Story's 60th anniversary.
The TCM annual Classic Film Festival, held virtually this year on the TCM network and HBO Max, launched May 6 with a 60th anniversary screening of West Side Story, the landmark 1961 Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical which set a "Romeo and Juliet" love story against the backdrop of rivalry between two New York City gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
The program includes a cast reunion conversation between George Chakiris as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, Rita Moreno, Bernardo's fiery girlfriend Anita and Russ Tamblyn as Riff, leader of the Jets.
Chakiris and Moreno won Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories. the film won 10 Oscars overall, including Best Picture for Robert Wise and Best Director for co-directors Wise and Jerome Robbins; Ernest Lehman was nominated for his adaptationof the theater book by Arthur Laurents.
This is a big year for Chakiris; in addition to the film's anniversary milestone, he is still celebrating the March publication of his memoir, My West Side Story, co-written with Lindsay Harrison.
Though best known for his movie roles, which include dancing with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and with Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, the Ohio-born son of Greek immigrants has also had a thriving television career.
Among his appearances: an 11-episode run in Dallas and guest star shots in Murder, She Wrote, Fantasy Island, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Medical Center as well as the last episode of The Partridge Family.
These days, Chakiris uses his creative energy to design and craft jewelry, with sterling silver pieces including a Walt Disney Concert Hall-inspired necklace and bracelet, a lotus-flower line and a collection symbolizing love and hope. He spoke with emmys.com contributor Libby Slate about his television work and of course, West Side Story.
Q: You write in your memoir, "There are a lot of great things about guest starring on TV series episodes," and note the paychecks; the wide variety of roles – an Italian psychic, a womanizing industrialist, a shoplifter, a surgeon; and the opportunity to work with people you'd never otherwise meet or, conversely, with old friends. What were some of your favorite experiences?
A: Episodic television was important to do, just to be visible, and it was great to do, but of course the material was uneven, because television moves more quickly so writers have to write more quickly.
But one of the shows that I really loved was Hawaii Five-0, because it was so well written. [Chakiris played a shady district attorney, as he notes in his memoir, in the 1972 episode.] And Jack Lord, the star of that show, I think was involved in the production as well. He was great. He made sure that the show was doing what they wanted it to do.
Q: You were in 11 episodes of season 9 of Dallas (1985-1986), aka the 'dream season" because it was revealed in season 10 that the entire previous season had been Pam Ewing's dream. You played Nicholas, henchman to Angelica Nero (Barbara Carrera), a key player in her plot to assassinate J.R Ewing and his cousin Jack.
A: Dallas was such a great show. It was so beautifully produced. Everybody who worked on that show was so happy and doing such a great job. Originally, I was supposed to do just one episode – I was never contracted to do 11 – but they just kept writing me in for that many episodes. And I loved it!
Barbara Carrera was a gorgeous woman, and so great to work with. She had a wonderful sense of humor and was a real pro. When someone is that beautiful, you somehow expect something different than what she actually is, but she was down to earth and wonderful to work with.
I didn't like the way my character was killed [by Angelica] as originally written. And, the producer, Leonard Katzman, was so easy, really wonderful – calling a producer, you never feel comfortable doing that, really, but he was great. I suggested another way to die. And he was up for it. He said, "Great. Just, put it down, we'll write it in."
Q: Nicholas died when Angelica stabbed him. How was he originally going to be killed?
A: I was in a bathtub with something electrical falling into the water and dying that way, and I didn't want to be in a bathtub.
Q: Why not?
A: I didn't want to take my clothes off on television! (Laughing) I'm shy that way.
Q: You were in the last episode (1974) – and last scene – of the four-season run of The Partridge Family, playing naval captain Chuck Corwin, who was the high school boyfriend of Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones). What was that like?
A: I came to know Shirley, firstly, [as] we had the same representation, and I got to know the boys [Jones's stepson-Partridge co-star David Cassidy and sons Patrick, Shaun and Ryan Cassidy] when they were kids.
I love Shirley – she is sound and reliable and good. When I think of The Partridge Family my memory really is just Shirley, and just how wonderful she is. I think there was a kiss as well, but as a whole this is another one of those shows where everybody was great to work with. It was a happy set.
Q: You also worked in British, French and Japanese television, notably the 1974 BBC miniseries Notorious Woman, about French novelist George Sand, played by Rosemary Harris. You played Polish composer-pianist Frederic Chopin, with whom Sand had a 10-year romance.
A: Yes. The producer was a man called Pieter Rogers [who first mentioned a possible role as an Italian doctor when he was a guest at a luncheon Chakiris gave in London, before offering him a different role]. I didn't audition or read or anything to play Frederic Chopin. Pieter had the imagination to think that I could do that. I've always loved his imagination, because it allowed me to do more.
Q: Years before these acting roles, you had sung and danced on a 1957 live TV special, A Salute to Cole Porter, about which you wrote in your book: "Live television. No missing your cue, no retakes, no drawing a blank, just keep going and make it work no matter what happens. Terrifying, and indescribably exciting."
You also noted that, because of that show, you never had to dance for West Side Story creator-director-choreographer Jerome Robbins when you auditioned for the London stage company the following year, because he had seen you in the special. You were up for both the roles of Bernardo and Riff.
A: Jerry never said that to me himself, but someone else told me that. It made sense because auditioning for him in New York, I was never called upon to audition as a dancer. I simply had to read for the roles. When I heard that he had seen the Cole Porter show, I kind of understood he had seen me move and that was enough.
Q: You were cast as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and of course, ultimately played Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, for the film, for which you won an Academy Award. What do you remember most about your experience making the film version of West Side Story?
A: One of the first things that comes to my mind, of course, is Jerome Robbins. I've read different books on Jerry. One is called Dance with Demons, for example, because he had a difficult reputation. That was not my experience; Jerry was not a difficult man at all.
He was a perfectionist, with himself first. That's something I like to say as often as I can, because we tend to be stereotypical in our thinking of too many people. And I don't like Jerry being thought of as a difficult guy. He was just a complicated perfectionist.
I remember Rita [Moreno] once saying, when we were working on West Side Story, that it must have been really difficult for him when they said, "Cut and print," because then he had to move on. He couldn't go revisit it and think about another way to do it. But he was so gracious and funny.
He was fantastic to work with, and I'm almost defensive when I speak about Jerry, because that's the way I feel about him. And I think that's what he deserves.
Q: You wrote about how shocked you were when he was fired as co-director (with Robert Wise) and choreographer of the film, during production.
A: The important part of that story is that everything, every dance number, every musical sequence had been totally rehearsed like a theater production before we ever started filming. So the work had been done, so to speak. And as far as the filming was concerned, so much of it had been done with Jerry's presence before he was fired.
This film, in my opinion, could never have been the same without him. His presence, his contribution, his feeling, his caring, his perfectionism – all of that made a huge difference to this piece.
Q: There's a remake of the film, directed by Steven Spielberg, which is scheduled to be released in December. But the original West Side Story endures, celebrating its 60th anniversary. What was your virtual cast reunion like, with Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn, to launch this year's TCM Classic Film Festival?
A: I have great respect and appreciation for everybody in the film. And I always think of what I call the West Side Story family. We all had this extraordinary experience together. And because of that experience, we've all remained very, very close friends ever since.
[For TCM] we were in separate rooms. But we don't wait for an occasion like this to actually see each other; we try to make things happen at other times as well. We socialize whenever it's possible; Rita lives in Berkeley, so we can't just drive over and say Hello. Our friendships do go pretty deep, and they're there forever.
Q: What do you think West Side Story has to say to today's audiences, especially those who may be seeing the film for the first time in the TCM festival?
A: Hopefully, audiences will appreciate the work that the makers of the film put into it, to appreciate the artists who created it, because without them, it wouldn't have happened.
And I think and hope that audiences who have not seen it will respond to what the film is about, which is first and foremost, people responding to prejudice and how prejudice has always existed, and continues to exist. We see it in the news all the time today. And so to me, one of the beauties of this story is that it addresses prejudice, and the difficulty people have to work around and past prejudices.
Q: How does it feel to be a part of – and to have contributed to – something that has had such an impact worldwide and is still so popular 60 years after its premiere?
A: There's something very gratifying, and very fulfilling, for all of us to know that we're still relevant in some way, all this time later. I just remain ever grateful. I'm so lucky to have been associated with West Side Story, starting with the theater and the London company. And I think it was Jerry who ultimately cast me as Bernardo in the film.
Just like I said about my friend Pieter Rogers, who had the imagination to cast me as Chopin, I think it also took some imagination to cast me as a gang member, because if you see me in a room, I'm just this nice, quiet guy! So you have to have an imagination to get somewhere with me.
So what I think of, honestly, is just how lucky I was to be part of this amazing piece, and how wonderful it was. I loved every minute. It's a real blessing.