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."
When it comes to Ethel Merman, Chakiris thinks for a moment and explains, "She was the Broadway professional who knew what to do. She was gregarious and playful. I found her fun to be around and to work with. I don't remember having any real contact with Ethel, but she was famous for going on the stage and doing her thing and belting out her songs. She was a totally professional performer. Hey, she was ‘Ethel Merman' and could get away with that!"
In 1958, Chakiris auditioned for and was cast as Riff in the London production of WEST SIDE STORY. "I did that for a year and a half," the actor states. "I was just in my 20's and was invited to audition at the Elstree Studio (outside of London) for the film version. The WEST SIDE STORY producers gave me a two week leave from the show so I could fly to the Goldwyn Studios in California so I could audition there under the direction of Jerome Robbins himself. Unbelievably I landed the part of Bernardo. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have expected something like that. It was fantastic. I couldn't believe I was working with Jerry Robbins-a genius. He was an amazing, amazing man. The Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim score was absolutely beautiful and nothing else could be quite like it. It was a collaboration of some incredible people and it turned out to be quite special. I don't think there's ever been a musical like it."
He continues by saying, "We all felt that we were doing something very personal. That--and the fact that we were working for Jerry Robbins. We all knew we were participating in something of beautiful quality. I remember one day during a break in shooting, I was standing out in the alley and there were a couple of men who I assumed were from the head office. I heard them talking and they seemed to say that they weren't sure whether the film would be a commercial success but they were positive that it might be an artistic success. Well, of course, they wound up having both." After a pause, Chakiris adds, "I was very lucky. It was a beautiful experience," the dancer recalls. "I was so lucky to have been chosen to be part of that film."
Luck continued for George Chakiris at the 1961 Oscars ceremony when he received filmdom's most coveted award. What was it like? "I felt wildly lucky. You know, if you buy a lottery ticket you really don't expect to win. However, if you do win, it's a different story. The same is true about getting an Oscar. Of course I knew I was nominated but I never expected my name to be called. When it was, I'm still at a loss to describe the feelings that I experienced. Certainly it was exciting and terrific, it was also wonderful and I was sort of ‘walking on air' as I got to the stage to receive the award. It was fantastic in every sense."
The actor goes on to remember that he attended the ceremony with his WEST SIDE STORY co-star Rita Moreno. "My category, for supporting actor, was called first, but when Rita's category was called she also won. We were together, we both won awards and it was just a fantastic evening for both of us."
Fifty years after receiving his Oscar, Chakiris is rather modest about displaying the award. "I keep it in a small alcove in the hallway in my home. It's not exactly a quiet place but it's rather discreet and I like it that way. People pass by and usually don't even see it."
For a while, George Chakiris was a recording artist and did three albums that sold fairly well. "To be honest," he says, "I think I have a nice voice. A good voice...and I loved recording. I made an album while I was playing Riff in London. A record company approached me and asked if I'd do an album of Gershwin music. Hey, you can't go wrong with Gershwin. Then one of the agents at William Morris knew I had some vocal ability and so he arranged a meeting at Capitol with Dave Cavenaugh who had worked with Peggy Lee and all those singers. They listened to the album I did in London and I sang for them. They signed me and I made four albums. I should have made more but I had a manager at the time by the name of Ruth Aarons. I loved her a lot and we had great times together. I realized later, though, that she was the kind of person who needed to be in control. One of the things she asked me for power of attorney when I first met her. At the time I didn't know what that was and I went ahead with her request. It was stupid but I was young and I was working on a French movie called LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT with Catherine Deneuve and Gene Kelly. Ruth called me about something concerning the film and at the very end of the conversation she mentioned that she'd cancelled my Capitol contract. It went right over my head because I was so concerned about the movie. In that decision, Ruth brought my recording career to an end. She never liked the producers I had at Capitol. She didn't like the material I was recording. She didn't like anything. I'm so sorry that I allowed that to happen."
What's truly sad about this is that Chakiris has a marvelous voice and his recordings really were enjoyable to listen to. Many people consider them collector's items. "I loved recording," he continues. "I loved singing and I love music. Preparing an album and selecting the songs, working with the musicians and then going into the studio to record was marvelous. In those days we recorded live with the entire orchestra. We didn't lay down the vocal tracks afterwards the way it's done today. It was fantastic! It was absolutely heaven! I really regret that it ended so abruptly. Unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to say, ‘Wait a minute, what do you mean you cancelled my contract?' Perhaps she could have gone back to re-instate it or something. I wasn't very good at handling things like that because I was so naïve and I didn't like confrontations. I still don't."
Chakiris didn't actually stop singing, though. He went on to perform in musical theater, most notably in the first national tour of Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY opposite Elaine Stritch. "I actually rehearsed opposite Jane Russell, who was going into the Broadway company as Elaine's replacement. We had a great time rehearsing the show and once the tour started, I was working with a different Joanne, but it was Stritch and I can't say enough good things about her. I mean, she originated the role and was absolutely fantastic."
More recently George Chakiris has branched out and has created a line of jewelry that is selling quite well. "It started as a hobby about ten years ago," the dancer says. "I have a little dog; an ItalIan Greyhound and when I take him for a walk around the neighborhood the kids call him Bambi because he looks like a little deer. I love him very much. Then I did a play in London and was gone for a few months. When I got back I looked at him and thought that eight or nine months is a long time out of his life. It was then that I decided I'm wasn't going to do that anymore. I'm going to stay here so I can be with Sami. So that's what I did. I took a hiatus or sabbatical and started taking jewelry-making classes in the evening. It was great. I have a free-standing garage that I turned into a studio and I could be with Sammy and I could walk out to the garage and be a slob if I wanted to. As time went by I was making pieces and I wound up with what we call a ‘collection'. There's a small company that I work with when I need the help and they put me in touch with this Japanese distributor who likes my stuff and so he bought it and started selling it in a department store in Japan called Mitsukoshi and I have a website that is also selling the line. What I have to do now is to learn about marketing. I'm not a business person so I need help in that department. Phyllis Diller is a friend of mine and her next door neighbors are experts in the area of marketing. I met with them about three weeks ago and I'm hoping that I'll be able to work with these people so we can become partners. I may eventually go back to acting but this is just until the kick is over and I love doing it. Besides, it's pretty creative and it all started because of my little ItalIan Greyhound."
The ceremonies at Grauman's Chinese Theater on November 15th have Chakiris very excited. "Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn and I are doing our hand and footprints there. It's a real honor. You know WEST SIDE STORY premiered at Grauman's Chinese on November 15, 1961. It's really nice. All three of us are happy that's happening and that we're doing it together. It's like completing a circle or something. It's great. Just great!"
George Chakiris takes a little bit of umbrage when people feel that he's retired. "I may not be acting but this jewelry thing is very creative. I mean when you make a piece, you can hold it in your hand to look at and it's very gratifying to have an image of what you want to make and then go ahead and then finally make it. I've always liked making things. No, I'm not retired. It's just that designing jewelry has taken over and I enjoy it very much. I don't think about acting right now and haven't called any agents to find out what's happening because I enjoy doing this." It's safe to say, though, that Chakiris still has performing in his blood because he admits to working out almost every day and keeping himself in shape. Still, it's more probable that we'll be seeing him sitting opposite Rick Domeier and scorching sales records on QVC than burning up the screen with his dancing in WEST SIDE STORY II in the near future.