During this year’s Oscar broadcast, one of the commercial breaks featured a trailer for a remake of the classic Oscar-winning 1961 film version of the hit Broadway musical “West Side Story,” which is scheduled to be released in theatres this December.
One main aspect that raises the pedigree of this new version of this contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which takes the form of a heated rivalry between two juvenile gangs on the mean streets of New York City circa 1960, is that it was directed by none other than two-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg himself. However, after watching the trailer – and being impressed by it – I automatically made comparisons to the lead actors of both versions. That was so with the actor who portrayed Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican street gang, the Sharks. He probably turned in a good performance in that role; however, this thought kept playing in my head: “He is no George Chakiris”.
Let’s face it. There are some phrases that are taken too lightly, such as “the role of a lifetime”. But let’s be honest, George Chakiris’ captivating performance as Bernardo 60 years ago was indeed his role of a lifetime. No matter the TV, stage and movie roles he did before and after “West Side Story” – whether it be as a dancer, singer or actor – Chakiris will forever be associated with Bernardo, a role that earned him a Golden Globe Award and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, in which he beat out such distinguished competition as Montgomery Clift, Peter Falk, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott.
However, Chakiris’ road to “West Side Story” (both onstage and onscreen), and how he managed to maintain an acting career without ever having to deal with the burden that this star making role could have had on the rest of his life and career, is recalled in his entertaining memoir “My West Side Story.”
Chakiris was born in 1932 in Ohio, the son of Greek immigrants, who moved west to Arizona with his large family when he was three. It was while growing up in Arizona that he developed his love for performing, first off as a singer in two choirs. At 19, he moved to California when he was accepted to study at the American School of Dance in Los Angeles. During his days as a student there, he got his first onscreen movie job, which was as part of the 60-man dancing troupe in the 1954 Stanley Kramer production “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T’. This led to more dance chorus appearances for Chakiris in a number of classic movie musicals such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “Brigadoon” and “White Christmas”.
After 1961, Chakiris racked up numerous movie, TV, stage and nightclub appearances to his resume, proving to a great degree that he could look beyond Bernardo and West Side Story. This included war and spy thrillers like “633 Squadron” and “McGuire, Go Home”; other movie musicals like “The Young Girls of Rochefort”; TV sitcoms like “The Partridge Family” (in which he appeared in the show’s final episode as Shirley Partridge’s naval officer former boyfriend); performing as the opening act for Greek singer Nana Mouskouri’s 1975 tour; and the 1971 production of the classic Broadway play “Company”, in which he co-starred with legendary Broadway actress Elaine Stritch.
But in between, “West Side Story” occupies a substantial chunk of the book; and as it should, because this was a role that will always be a career-defining one for him. Chakiris chronicles his four-year association with the show, first performing the part of Jets leader Riff in the West End of London production starting in 1958, to performing Bernardo in the 1961 film version, to all the acclaim and awards that were bestowed upon him in 1962, to even the cult status that the film and his fellow cast mates have attained beyond that.
Chakiris gives the reader plenty of behind the scenes stories of what went on during both productions he was involved with, which will certainly satisfy and fascinate generations of West Side Story fans. One of the great thrills he had working on West Side Story was being directed by legendary Broadway choreographer (and co-director of the movie with Robert Wise) Jerome Robbins, whose masterful, yet demanding style got he best out of the dancers who portrayed the members of the Jets and Sharks, especially during the memorable finger-snapping opening scene (which was the only scene that was filmed on location in New York City during the summer of 1960; the rest of the movie was filmed at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood).
“He (Robbins) expected every one of us to put thought into their character, who they were and why, where they came from, what they expected out of life, anything that would deepen the performance,” he writes.
Chakiris also recalls that in order to develop a sense of camaraderie between the members of both gangs, Robbins prohibited the actors from fraternizing with each other; he only wanted the Jets and Sharks to hang out with their own throughout the production. This even went as far as before shooting began one morning in the New York neighborhood that was the disputed turf, the “Jets” hung up a banner on an apartment balcony that said “Sharks Stink!”, which led to a concerted effort by the “Sharks” to take down the banner.
Accompanied by never seen before production photos, readers get that rare glimpse of the making of a classic movie musical from one of its principal cast members, which makes Chakiris’ book such a treat to read. We don’t always get first-hand accounts of how a classic movie was developed and filmed, and I am glad George Chakiris took the opportunity to share such a fascinating, credible account with his fans. And why does he believe that West Side Story still has an enduring appeal with movie buffs exactly 60 years since its premiere?
He writes at the end of his memoir that West Side Story is “a dazzling, irreplaceable work. It inspires audiences, and it inspires everyone who takes part in keeping its unprecedented legacy alive.”