Mon. Aug 3rd, 2020

'West Side Story's' George Chakiris, An Exclusive Interview

20th Century Fox is doing a 50th Anniversary of West Side Story at Grauman’s on Nov. 15, where it premiered 50 years ago. Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakiris will be placing their hand prints that same morning. In 1962, George Chakiris’ portrayal of Bernardo in “West Side Story” took the silver screen by storm, earning him an Academy Award. Forty-eight years later George spoke with Highlight Hollywood on Tuesday, to answer questions about his life lived under, next to, and out of the spotlight. When asked whether “West Side Story” was a big hit in the beginning, the handsome star said, “Tommy, it was instantaneous. It was always a hit and we knew it from the beginning. It’s sad to us that Natalie [Wood] won’t be there with us to celebrate our anniversary, but you do realize that she already had her ceremony, it was done years before she died. I cannot believe it’s been 30 years already.”

George Chakiris made his film debut at the age of 12 singing in the chorus of “Song of Love” (1947). Following his graduation from high school, he supported his night-time dancing, singing and dramatic lessons with a daytime job clerking in a Los Angeles department store. Later he started his acting/dancing career appearing in musicals such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953);he is one of the ballet dancers escorting Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” “White Christmas” (1954), “The Girl Rush” (1955), “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954), “Brigadoon” (1954), and “Meet Me in Las Vegas” (1956). George is very proud of his days as a young star, and he shared his connection to Grauman’s.  “Tommy, when I was young I walked past the theatre every day on the way from work to class at night at the American School of Dance, just one block from the theatre.  I was so proud of the kids from ‘Twilight’ just having their ceremony last week, Tommy. But at my age, it means everything, we’ve had an opportunity to absorb what it all represents. I watched my icons, like Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable attend this very type of ceremony in that era, so it really means a lot,” said the talented star, in an exclusive interview with Highlight Hollywood.

 In 1957, he made his debut as a dramatic actor in Under Fire (1957). In 1958 he traveled to New York hoping for a Broadway ‘break.’ Hearing that Jerome Robbins was casting the London company of “West Side Story,” he auditioned and was awarded the co-starring role of Riff. He played the part for almost two years on the West End stage before acting, singing and dancing as Bernardo in the Robert Wise film version (“West Side Story” (1961)), a performance that earned him a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Since then, he starred in a succession of films, including Diamond Head (1963) with Charlton Heston, “Bebo’s Girl” (1963) with Claudia Cardinale, “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967) with Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac and Gene Kelly, “The Big Cube” (1969) with Lana Turner, “Why Not Stay for Breakfast?” (1979), “Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again” (1982), and “Pale Blood” (1990).

The prolific actor credits his parents with being a major reason for his success. “They were extraordinary people, Tommy. I cannot thank them enough, and wish they were here to see the ceremony next week,” said George.

He is one of the most traveled stars in motion pictures, having been to such locations as Hawaii, Japan, Mexico, Italy, England, Spain, and France. His nightclub career was launched to rave reviews at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe. In the 1970s and 1980s, his career focused on television and music. He appeared as guest star in several TV series such as “Hawaii Five-O” (1968) (“Death is a Company Policy” – 1972), “The New Adventures of Wonder Woman” (1975) (“Death in Disguise – 1978”), “CHiPs” (1977) (“Fox Trap” – 1983), “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” (1983) (“Lost and Found” – 1984), “Murder, She Wrote” (1984) (“Weave a Tangled Web” – 1989), and he joined the cast of “Dallas” (1978) from 1985 to 1986.

He has also released several records: “George Chakiris,” “Memories Are Made of These,” “The Gershwin Song Book,” “West Side Story’s Dynamic…”. He has appeared in several plays and stage musicals: after “The King and I” in the US in 1995, he performed in Britain the role of Rochester in “Jane Eyre.”  All of this sounds exhausting, but George still remains very active and still very strong willed and multi-talented. Adding, “The recognition for this great film still resonates with me as well as Russ and Rita.  Tommy, it’s amazing, when the film opened in Europe it was also a hit.  Even though in Spain, musicals are not their thing, the film stayed open for five years there.  Having been a part of such a legendary and celebrated film, I feel very blessed and honored,” concluded George Chakiris.

The ceremony in front of Grauman’s will be on Tuesday, November 14. 

 Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
Photograph is Courtesy of the actor’s private collection
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