George Chakiris Tells His 'West Side' Story

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday May 6, 2021
Originally published on March 8, 2021

George Chakiris in "West Side Story"
George Chakiris in "West Side Story"  (Source:IMDB)

In the opening sequence in "West Side Story," there is an iconic image of George Chakiris. In a close-up, he stands with one hand pressed against a red brick wall brooding with anger after being harassed by members of a rival teen gang, the Jets. Stepping away, he begins to snap his fingers joined by two other Sharks. Then to surging Leonard Bernstein music, the three break into dance, first on a street than framed against the tenements of New York's West Side that were razed after the filming was completed.

In this moment, the smoldering Chakiris establishes a formidable presence in this musical retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" set amongst infighting between juvenile gangs in New York. Hollywood agreed, awarding him (along with co-star Rita Moreno) a supporting performance Oscar.

George Chakiris  

Up to that point, Chakiris had been in numerous films, but largely in small roles, usually as a dancer or chorus member in such films as "The Great Caruso," "Stars and Stripes Forever," "Call Me Madam," and "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T." He is famously seen in 1951's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" as one of the men with Marilyn Monroe in the "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number. And in 1953 opposite Rosemary Clooney in "White Christmas" performing "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me." A publicity photo from that scene generated so much fan mail to Paramount that the studio offered him a contract; but unhappy with his career, he moved to New York City in the late 1950s to pursue a stage career. After being cast as Riff in the London production of "West Side Story," he was flown to Hollywood to audition for either that role or his rival Bernardo for the film version, and worked with the show's creator Jerome Robbins for his audition. This led to him being cast in the film, overnight stardom and an Oscar. Then in November of 2012, he had the honor of placing his hand and footprints in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in honor of the film's 50th anniversary.

Other film and television roles followed, as did a successful recording contract; but Chakiris was something of a Hollywood recluse, moving from acting to start a second career and new career designing and creating silver jewelry. Now some 60 years after the release of "West Side Story" and a remake (by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner) delayed a year because of the pandemic, Chakiris tells his life story with the recently completed "My West Side Story: A Memoir." As Rita Moreno puts it: "You will savor this story of a Greek boy in America who did well — very well, indeed."

George Chakiris (upper right) with Marilyn Monroe in the  

EDGE: Impeccable timing for the release of your book. Did you coordinate the release in honor of the 60th anniversary of the film?

George Chakiris: To me it's coincidence, but maybe the publisher thought of it that way. I just wrote the book and hoped it would get published with no control of the release day.

EDGE: Does it seem like 60 years ago?

George Chakiris: No, not at all. Time is funny. It doesn't seem like 60 years. I don't know what 60 years is supposed to feels like. "Where did the time go?" is really what I am thinking.

EDGE: As someone who has had a reputation as a recluse, how does it feel to be in the spotlight again promoting your book?

George Chakiris: It feels nice, but at the same time it feels odd. I have always enjoyed being quiet and not drawing any attention on myself unnecessarily. I really enjoyed the process of writing the book and I have really enjoyed connecting with people for this reason.

EDGE: While you were writing the book what was it like revisiting your life?

George Chakiris: Some of it was nice, but my mistakes were not fun to revisit. I would just think "why did I do that?" and "how come no one stopped me?" If I could go back and change my mistakes I certainly would. Sometimes I was just so stupid.

EDGE: What will the readers be most surprised to learn about you?

George Chakiris: Oh gosh! I don't know because I don't know what anyone thinks or knows about me. Maybe about some of my experiences and that I did have some insecurities about myself and my career. I am hoping that some of my life experiences will be interesting and fun to read.

EDGE: As a dancer, it must have been a dream come true to work with Jerome Robbins. He was one of the best choreographers, but he also had a reputation for being very demanding. What was it like working with him?

George Chakiris: When I auditioned for Jerry, I had been working as a chorus dancer in musicals. I knew of Jerry, but he was in NY and I was in LA. The truth is I knew next to nothing about him. When I met him for the first time, I was not intimidated by any of that. I was just nervous about auditioning. Ultimately, working with Jerome Robbins was awesome, inspiring, and incredible. Jerry was a perfectionist, but with himself first. He was demanding and you knew you had to raise the bar on your performance. I think the word genius is not a word to throw around lightly, but he was a genius.

Actors George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, who played Bernardo and Anita in the film  (Source: Associated Press)

EDGE: What has dancing given you that you couldn't get from anything else?

George Chakiris: Discipline. You can't be a dancer without serious discipline. The daily routine, the work, and the training that goes into dancing is not easy, but it's beautiful.

EDGE: Do you have any particular memories about working with either Marilyn Monroe or Rosemary Clooney that you can share?

George Chakiris: You don't think of it when it's happening but after time you certainly appreciate it. One of my favorite credits is saying I was one of the dancers between Marilyn in that number. Dancing in the chorus in those movies, especially in "White Christmas" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was just great. I so appreciated that time and those experiences, because as a kid I loved movies and especially musicals. Rosie was just one of the sweetest people in the world and everyone loved working with her. That number was great, because there were just four of us, so we were noticed more.

EDGE: You also design jewelry. Tell us about your jewelry line and what inspires your designs.

George Chakiris: It started as a hobby. I kind of accidentally started working with sterling silver and really enjoyed it. So, I enrolled in school to learn how to do it professionally. I have always been inspired by Egyptian art and jewelry. The Scarab beetle was a very prominent part of Egyptian culture and art, so a scarab design was one of my first designs. It is really fun to create something that can be given as a gift to a loved one.

EDGE: Where do you keep your Oscar?

George Chakiris: I have a shelf in my bedroom that houses a few of my important things like my Golden Globe, my Oscar, and a photo of my parents.

EDGE: Who's the audience for "My West Side Story: A Memoir?"

George Chakiris: Great question. The truth is I never stopped to think of that. I just wanted to share my life and experiences with everyone.

"My West Side Story: A Memoir" is now available for purchase. For more information about George visit www.georgechakiris.com