BWW Interviews: George Chakiris - Fifty Years After WEST SIDE STORY
To those who've seen the Oscar-winning screen adaptation of WEST SIDE STORY, the recollections of George Chakiris' performance as Bernardo remain vivid. His acting is top notch, his singing is superb and his dancing comes darn close to burning up the celluloid it is preserved on. He was awarded an Oscar as "Best Supporting Actor" for his work on that film and now, fifty years later, he is about to imprint his handprints and signature outside of the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Sometimes the film industry can be a little slow on the uptake, won't you agree?
Speaking by phone from California, where he lives, the actor sounds as vibrant as he was when he was kicking up his heels in such movie musicals as WHITE CHRISTMAS, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS, BRIGADOON, FLOWER DRUM SONG and a host of others. His geniality comes across on the telephone and his recollections of his career are crystal clear. He's an absolute pleasure to converse with.
Dancing seemed so come naturally to Chakiris. "It was the first thing I studied," he comments. "It was at the American School of Dance which, incidentally, is only a few blocks from Grauman's Chinese Theater. I worked during the day to support myself and took classes at night. I just loved it. I was surrounded by people who were involved in the movie industry and were part of the projects that were being produced in those days; films like SINGING IN THE RAIN. It just felt right and I was very happy. People from various ballet companies were there, too. They'd come in to take classes and those classes were of very high quality. It was the place to go to. As far as dancing was concerned, I always wanted to do it. To actually be performing was thrilling for me. Of course, my head was in the clouds. I was young and naïve...all those nice things," he adds with a laugh.
Born to Greek immigrants living in Norwood, Ohio, Chakiris' first movie role was that of a young choir singer in 1947's THE SONG OF LOVE, a movie about Robert and Clara Schuman. Eventually he was cast as a dancer in a series of musicals and was prominently featured with Rosemary Clooney as she sang "Love You Didn't Do Right By Me" in Irving Berlin's WHITE CHRISTMAS, and with Marilyn Monroe as she performed "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the screen version of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in 1953. It's obvious that working with Monroe holds a special place in Chakiris' memory. "The ‘Diamonds' number was choreographed by Jack Cole who was Marilyn's favorite choreographer and Marilyn was absolutely right," Chakiris comments. "Jack choreographed for women unlike any other choreographer. One of my favorite credits is to say that I worked behind Marilyn Monroe and I love saying that. She was phenomenal. She only about twenty six when she made that film but Marilyn was an actress who was deeply concerned about her work and was very conscientious. Let me give you an example of her professionalism: If there ever was a cut for any reason, she never went back to her trailer to check her makeup. She'd be there on her starting mark and ready for the next take. Of course, she was extremely beautiful. I mean, what you see on film was what you'd see in person. There was a certain quality about Marilyn that I found to be kind, sweet and I'm sure she was a person who would never hurt a fly. I also remember her as being very quiet. She was not gregarious but was very concentrated on her work and it was phenomenal to watch her."
Speaking of Marilyn Monroe's dancing skills, Chakiris goes on, "She may not have been a trained dancer but she was musically gifted. She moved really well, she sang very well and she was a beautiful actress. She was a knock-out in every way. Her personal qualities came through on film. It's like Audrey Hepburn whose personal qualities modified by her talent as an actress automatically came through on the screen. The person she was is what set her apart from other actresses. It was so rich and beautiful. Natalie Wood had that ‘beautiful person' quality as well. That's what made these ladies so special."
Chakiris recalls working on THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS which starred Ethel Merman, Mitzi Gaynor, Donald O'Connor and Marilyn Monroe. There was a cocktail party to which the dancers had been invited. Monroe walked in quietly with a few of her friends. "My partner in that film, Drusilla Davis, decided to ask Marilyn to come over and kiss me on the cheek. Marilyn sweetly looked over in my direction and said to Priscilla, ‘But I don't know him' and gently refused. I think little things like that are rather telling. She was very ‘correct' in her behavior and I admired her for that."