Sunday Profile: Oscar winner George Chakiris is enjoying the 50th anniversary of “West Side Story”
It has been nearly five decades since George Chakiris won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his performance as Bernardo, leader of The Sharks, in the musical West Side Story.
On Tuesday, he will reunite with co-stars Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn for a morning handprints ceremony at Gruman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. That night, there will be a special screening of West Side Story at Grauman’s to mark the film’s 50th anniversary and a new Blu-Ray DVD of the film being released by Fox.
“All this stuff going on here is kind of nice, we’re all enjoying it,” Chakiris told Greg In Hollywood a few days ago. “It’s a circle because West Side Story premiered there and here we are 50 years later. There’s something very nice about that.”
“There are lots of friends coming. It’s a celebration of West Side Story which really is a wonderful film that has continued to have a life since 1961. It just keeps going. We are all so grateful to have a part in it.”
While Chakiris and the rest of the cast (which also includes Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony) could not possibly know then that they were making an enduring classic, he said they did know they were making something very special.
“We did feel we would have an artistic success, everyone felt wonderful about what we were doing. It was something of quality.”
The film won 10 Oscars including best picture. Even after all these years, Chakiris is still invited to high school, college and local theater productions of West Side Story and always finds it gratifying.
“The material is absolutely for young people and when kids are involved in doing this, they fall in love with the process,” he said. “It’s a piece that has a life of its own. There was nothing like it before or since. This was a collaboration between men – Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, [directors] Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins – who were all so amazing in their respective fields.
Chakiris was familiar with the piece prior to filming because he had played Riff – not Bernardo – in the London production.
“They had asked me to audition for Bernardo but I was selected to play the other role. People are sometimes surprised by that,” he explained. “Playing Riff in the theater was equally fantastic. The English theater community just loved West Side Story because they had never seen anything like it.”
Although he had appeared in musical numbers with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, Chakiris was not a big movie name at the time and had no expectation of landing a part in the film.
“None of us thought we’d ever get close to this movie, we were hearing names like Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley. Then we got letters and mine said to pick a scene for Riff and one for Bernardo and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to play Bernardo!’”
He was given a week off from the London production to fly to Los Angeles and do a screen test directed by Robbins. More than two months later, he received a telegram saying he had won the role of Bernardo.
“The thing that really changed my life was being in West Side Story and the exposure we all got from being in the film,” he said. “A lot of people say winning the Oscar doesn’t make a difference but it does. Even today, when there is an ad for a movie, it will point out the Oscar winner in the advertising – even the Oscar nominees. They do make a point of that.”
Chakiris remembers a far more intimate Academy Awards experience that the spectacle that currently takes place at The Kodak Theater with its worldwide audience the months of hype leading up to it.
“That night was great,” he recalled. “Rita Moreno and I went together, the car picked me up first then her. She said, ‘I am practicing my loser’s face.’ It was at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and Bob Hope was the host. Supporting actor was the first category and they called my name. After it was over and I did the press, I went back to sit with Rita then she won. The fact that we went together, we were such good friends and both lucky enough to win made it somehow sweeter.”
Did he expect to win?
“If you buy a lottery ticket, you really don’t expect to win, you sort of hope, It was something like that.”
Decades of film, television and stage roles followed but Chakiris is currently on a showbiz hiatus.
“I never stopped performing,” he said. “I was working up until 2000, doing a lot of theater work and TV is Japan and France. Because of West Side Story, those areas were open to me because they love West Side Story so much.”
After finishing a play more than 10 years ago in London, Chakiris decided to take a break from performing.
“I didn’t call my agent or anything or make a big announcement, I decided I was just going to stay home.”
He began taking classes in jewelry and it quickly went from a mere hobby to a passion.
“I turned my garage into a studio. Making jewelry absolutely took over. I loved doing it so much. I have 25-30 pieces I’ve made which is now a collection. I have a distributor in Japan and now I’m thinking I should make the effort to try and do something in the states.”
(More information about the jewelry can be found at http://www.georgechakiris.com/)
So would Chakiris, a youthful 77, ever consider returning to his original line of work?
“I’m open to it,” he said. “I love theater more than anything. It would depend on the material.”
But reuniting with his West Side Story castmates this week is first on the agenda.
“We are kind of like a family,” he said. “I recently went up to Oakland to see Rita in her one-woman show. We’ve all stayed friends all this time.”