September 16, 1934- George Chakiris:
“I don’t believe I was jinxed or hexed by winning an Academy Award in my first picture, West Side Story.”
In 1957, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim were four very smart, gay Jewish guys in their 20s, all at the very heights of their talents when they created West Side Story, one of the most groundbreaking and important musicals of the 20th century.
In the Steven Spielberg film version of West Side Story, set for release for holidays 2021, Bernardo will be played by 26-year-old David Alvarez, the Tony Award-winning dancer and actor, who was one of the three original Billys in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot The Musical (2008) making him one of the youngest winners to win a Tony. Writer Tony Kushner, who gave us the greatest gay-themed play of the 20th century, Angels In America, and who previously worked with Spielberg on Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012), has done the screenplay, stating he is leaving most of the musical numbers intact, but that the story would be more like the original Broadway musical than the 1961 film. I certainly appreciate the casting of Latin actors to play Latinx characters (my husband who is impossibly white, played Bernardo on stage in 1975).
Purists are upset about this film version, but I think 65-years-old West Side Story can live with a little tinkering. And before getting to the Spielberg film, three of the most daring artists working in the theatre today, gay director Ivo van Hove, choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and designer and Van Hove collaborator in life and art, Jan Versweyveld offered their radical interpretation of the iconic work. This West Side Story opened in February 2020 with Amar Ramasar of New York City Ballet playing Bernardo. This WSS died, not because of bad reviews, but from COIVD-19 weeks after opening.
I first took note of George Chakiris when I was a little seven-year-old gay child watching the first film version of West Side Story (1961), which my parental units smartly took me to see at the historic Fox Theatre in downtown Spokane. I found the film to be absolutely enthralling, but I think my folks must have found it odd that Chakiris’s character, Bernardo, was the one I was somehow fixated on.
Chakiris won an Academy Award for his work in West Side Story. He was only 27 years old, winning against such heavyweights as Montgomery Clift and George C. Scott. Chakiris beautifully combined the sexual seriousness of Marlon Brando with breathtaking, powerful, athletic dancing talent, especially in the famed opening sequence on the streets of New York City and in the America number, one of the greatest dance sequences on film, where he is well matched with Rita Moreno, who also won an Oscar, playing Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Moreno is playing “Doc” in the Spielberg film).
Director/choreographer Jerome Robbins gave Chakiris his first big break in showbiz when he cast him as Riff, the leader of the Jets, in the original London production of West Side Story. Before that breakout part, he had appeared in several small roles as a dancer in films including: one of Marilyn Monroe’s escorts in her iconic Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend number from Gentleman Prefer Blonds (1953), and also alongside Rosemary Clooney doing Irving Berlin‘s Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me in White Christmas (1954). If you look close he can be spotted in the demented Chop Suey production number in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1961).
Often playing various, sometimes mystery ethnic characters, Chakiris is actually the son of Greek immigrants. He was born in Ohio but grew-up in Long Beach, California where he sang in the boys choir at the local Episcopal Church. He is a great vocalist and he had a recording contract with Capitol Records in the 1960s, releasing four popular albums.
In 1971, I saw him in San Francisco doing the first national tour of Sondheim’s Company along with the original Broadwat cast. He was the third actor to play the lead role of Bobby after Dean Jones and Larry Kurt. My little 17 year old musical theatre fanatic self was over the moon with his acting performance, his singing, and his good-looks, complete with an award winning “package”. I waited at the stage door to meet him. Chakiris was warm and welcoming as he signed autographs.
He made several films after the Oscar-winning West Side Story. My favorite is opposite Catherine Deneuve and Gene Kelly in Jacques Demy‘s charming French musical Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (1967)
Chakiris also appeared in many stage roles in the USA and London, and as a guest star on several television series including Murder She Wrote, which I was also on (who wasn’t?); one of the few things we have in common, aside from being openly gay. My research never finds him matched up with anyone, or, for that matter, involved in any scandals.
Chakiris, still trim and handsome, lives quietly in Los Angeles with his dog and he now concentrates his artistic expression on jewelry design, showing his modern inspired silver pieces in galleries on both coasts.
About his most famous film, Chakiris wrote:
“I’d been playing Riff in the London stage show for over a year when the movie was announced. They were still floating around names like Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford. So none of us thought in our wildest dreams we’d be cast. Then five of us were invited to do a test scene, so we stole our stage costumes for the day. Weeks went by and then I got a call from Robbins, who asked me out to LA. They wanted me to be Bernardo. I concluded that the Sharks parts had more meat: we sang America and had more scenes with Natalie Wood, who plays Bernardo’s sister Maria. None of us put on very heavy Puerto Rican accents. The danger in going too strong is that it will show up the cracks. Rita Moreno, who played Anita, is Puerto Rican, so we all turned to her if we had trouble pronouncing our lines.”