Audiences sat up and took notice when they saw standing near Rosemary Clooney, arms crossed as she crooned “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”
Later, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his best known role, as Bernardo in WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
Earlier this year, he published his memoirs, “My West Side Story: A Memoir,” co-written with Lindsay Harrison.
Reading Chakiris’s memoir makes you feel like you’re sitting down to coffee with an old friend. “My West Side Story” is incredibly personable, charming and kind. I found myself smiling as soon as I was reading the first couple of pages.
To discuss his book and career further, I interviewed Mr. Chakiris over the phone on Nov. 16, 2021. You can read a transcription of that interview below and also listen to it here:
So I am here speaking with Academy Award-winning actor George Chakiris. Thank you for speaking with me today.
Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
I feel like I already know you after reading your memoir. Because it’s probably the friendliest memoir I have ever read. It felt like I was chatting with an old friend.
Oh, my. Well, good. I hope that’s a good sign.
Certainly. I know you discuss this in the intro of your book, but do you mind discussing when you started writing “My West Side Story” and what made you decide to write it?
Well, it’s not anything I ever thought of, because I couldn’t take myself seriously enough to think that I should do anything like that. But I coincidentally met a wonderful writer, Lindsay Harrison, who I ended up doing the book with. Lindsay’s done some wonderful books. She did a really good book with, Tippi Hedren. I knew Lindsay, not well, but I knew her socially. And being a writer herself, she’s the one who thought I should do that, or think about it at least. And so thanks to Lindsey, I finally thought, “Well, why not?” There is something to talk about, and I got started really more thanks to Lindsay’s advice.
And, you know, you said you never thought of yourself writing a book, and you describe yourself in your memoir as being quite shy. So what sort of response have you gotten from your friends and fans?
Well, let’s see. My friends have read the book and have said nice things about it. I have been to a few book signings and gotten really nice responses from some people, generally speaking.
I’ve had reservations myself since the book. I did this with Lindsay as a Q&A when we would speak, because that’s the best way for me to jog my memory, so to speak. And it was that kind of discussion that helped me remember some things. Since we finished the book, I’ve since thought of a lot of things, “Why didn’t I put that in the book?” I just didn’t think of it, but I guess that happens to everybody.
And, you know, like I said, it was a really friendly read. You know, so many memoirs are … they’re fine, but sometimes they get a little catty and they bash people a bit. And there’s not a lot of that in there (Chakiris’s memoir). It’s overall, a very positive, feel good read, I thought.
Well, you know, one of the things I have thought about with my book, and I thought about it while I was doing it was, “How honest should I be?” I want to be honest, but do I want to talk about people? Because I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years and known quite a few people of some really, really famous people.
And there are things, personal things, I know about a number of people, but I wouldn’t dream of repeating in a book, much less even in company. I respect people’s privacy, and I think that makes my book a little boring. But it really comes from respecting everybody’s privacy. I really do feel strongly about that.
You know, throughout your book — it’s a very brisk read, as well as being really pleasant, as I shared — But you discuss your stage and your screen roles that you’ve done and obviously also television. Do you have a preference of live performances or films?
Well, it’s really kind of both.
It always depends on the material, but as an actor, I’ve always loved the theater. I think a lot of people say the same thing, because you’re sharing that evening with an audience. There’s no director around anymore. It’s up to you. The ball’s in your court. It’s an exciting kind of process. You come alive in a really wonderful, wonderful way on stage. But it is a bit different from film in that regard.
Performing in front of a live audience has a different energy excitement and everything throughout the theater, certainly for the people on stage. The audience, without saying anything, always lets you know how you’re doing. The live theater is what I would have prefer, because after the rehearsal process, and you’re out of the rehearsal room and the director is no longer available, it’s really your ball game. The ball is in your court and. And that’s a beautiful feeling, because you’re free.
Things come and go and things change from night-to-night too, because it’s live and people are people. That’s the most exhilarating way of working as an actor: in live theater.
One role you played in live theater was your first connection to West Side Story. That was playing Riff in the West End production of “West Side Story.” And then you played Bernardo on screen. You came very close to both characters. Do you have one you prefer now?
Well, you know, first, I loved playing Riff. When they first asked me to — When United Artists asked me to do a scene as Riff and a scene as Bernardo, I very arrogantly thought to myself, “I don’t want to play Bernardo, I want to play Riff. I’m having such a good time playing Riff.
But when all is said and done, now with all of that behind me, I think I would say I would prefer the role of Bernardo. There’s not just more meat on the bones, but I can identify and understand Bernardo better than I understood Riff.
It’s interesting. Riff in the theater is a slightly better role than Bernardo, only because Riff gets to sing “Cool”.
In the film version, the role of Bernardo becomes a better role. There’s a little bit more meat on the bones, because the guys are involved and the American number with the girls and there’s some small additional things. So that became a better role.
Was that difficult? Seeing someone else playing a role that you had learned so closely?
No no, not at all. Because, you know, of course, Russ (Tamblyn) is a great friend. No, it didn’t bother me at all. I was concentrated on what I was doing at the time: That was playing Bernardo. So nothing else really entered my mind. Other than the work at hand. And that’s what I had to do and what I ultimately really loved doing.
Obviously you’re a trained dancer, and there are so many fabulous dance numbers in WEST SIDE STORY. So this may be a difficult question, but do you have a favorite dance number from that film?
I’ve always thought that the “America” — all the numbers are great — but “The America” number’s a wonderful number, and we had such fun doing it. We worked hard, but we played, we laughed and it was such a glorious, uplifting kind of experience.
We all had such a great time doing the “America” number. The guys and the girls playing with each other. That spirit was, was with us while we were shooting, and between takes as well. We never stopped playing and we never stopped having fun. So that’s one of the reasons I love the “America” number, because I remember the experience and I loved working, you know playing with each other. It was great to play fun
I think that shows on screen too.
Yeah, you know, I think that does show on screen, because it’s really quite genuine all of it. Yeah. I’m glad you think that, thank you.
But about two weeks ago, or something like that, WEST SIDE STORY was on the Turner Classic Movies. And I hadn’t seen it for like 50 years or something. And I watched it and I was so moved by “Cool.” The number “Cool.”
Tucker Smith who plays Ice sings it. And Tucker is just amazing. He’s so true, but it’s such a great number. The scene that proceeds it and the scene that follows it, are all of the piece. And Jerry Robbins, always choreographed for character and for the type of feeling. And “Cool,” that’s exactly what that number is about. It’s about feeling and the way they feel, and they want to explode and pop and do all that. And Tucker as Ice brings them down saying, “You’ve gotta be cool.” So they’re controlling the way they feel. And it’s so evident in the lyrics and in Jerry’s staging and in Tucker, all the performances. I think, “Cool” is just a sensational number.
So we were just discussing, you playing Riff on the stage and how you’ve become so well known for the character of Bernardo, which you won a Best Supporting Actor for. How do you feel that the Academy Award changed your life?
It really, completely changed my life. I think I still always think basically as a dancer, and don’t take myself as seriously as an actor. So winning the Academy Award, first of all, opened a tremendous door to future projects and all of that. It really made a tremendous difference. It’s a tremendous honor. But you know that was such a tremendous year, because when I think about the other actors in the category it was a very, very strong year.
I mean, come on: George C. Scott, Montgomery Clift and then me. So I feel very modest about it.
I think it was tremendous. Now, I don’t apologize for my performance, by saying this, I don’t mean that. But I do recognize that the success, tremendous success of WEST SIDE STORY, of course, catapulted all of us, whoever we were, and whatever our association with the film was.
But I’m really grateful for that and even more grateful when I consider and think about the other actors who were in that category. I mean, Montgomery Clift has always been one of my favorite actors, period. You know?
So it was it was a tremendous what can I say?
So moving on a little bit from WEST SIDE STORY — That obviously catapulted your career into various film roles — I wanted to talk a little bit about DIAMOND HEAD. I have to first give you a little background on myself. I first saw WEST SIDE STORY when I was 14. And truthfully, I don’t know that I would have my website or would be talking to you if it wasn’t for seeing that film. It has such a large influence on me and made me seek out other musical films.
So I also wanted to watch every film that all the stars were in. I sought out DIAMOND HEAD, and I just remember you, James Darren, Yvette Mimieux and Charlton Heston. Do you remember a lot of experiences about working on that film?
I do. First, everybody on that film was great to know and, by extension, to work with. Charlton Heston was just a wonderful, wonderful man. His wife was with him, and I really respected them and their marriage and the way they were with each other. They were beautiful couple. He was modest. He was a very, very professional, and when he went for rushes, he always took a yellow legal pad with him to make notes on his own performance. So he never stopped working on that performance while he was filming. And by the way, years later, I was in London — I think it was 1978 or ’79 — doing a play, and he and his wife were in town, they came to see the play, and they came backstage. So that was awfully nice, as well.
But Jimmy Darren — I mean, it sounds really boring to say — but is just a sweet, sweet guy. He and his wife are still good friends of mine.
I didn’t get to know Yvette (Mimieux). She was very quiet. That’s not criticism. She was just quiet. I think most people are can tend to be quiet when they’re working, because they’re concentrating on what they’re doing.
By the way, to say quickly, sometimes, because I was “one of the guys behind Marilyn Monroe” in the number “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, people always ask if I know anything about Marilyn Monroe. Of course I don’t, I’m just in the background. But the thing I remember about her — thinking back — is how quiet she was, and how concentrated she was on her work. So I think that’s basically true of most people on the job.
By the way, I have friends and know a lot of people in the business, men and women, very often feel typecast. Of course, I’m sure you know in DIAMOND HEAD, I played the “Hapa Haole,” who is half white and half Hawaiian. So I suppose I was typecast to some degree as well. I didn’t mind it and I didn’t think of it at the time, but in retrospect, because of these political statements going on today, I realize I was having to put up with that too, and I didn’t mind it. But it was going on. I think it always has gone on, and probably always will go on in different ways.
(The film) was a great experience. The location was Kauai, a beautiful, beautiful island, and at the time there were only two hotels on that island. One of them does not take show business people. But all the people were great, the hotel was lovely. I loved the weather. I mean it was almost like a vacation.
But I’ve never seen that movie, by the way.
Another movie I wanted to mention, that you discuss in your book is THE BIG CUBE. I know it’s a wild movie, but I like it for some reason, because you’re in it, Lana Turner’s in it. What were your experiences in that role?
Well, I’ll tell you. I sort of feel like a broken record, but that was a nice experience. I turned that movie down twice before I actually did it, because I wasn’t happy (with the script.) I don’t remember why specifically. I don’t consider myself a very good judge of scripts, but I thought that one was lacking in some way. And they said, “We’ll make changes,” whatever they made. But I ended up doing it, and Tito Davison, the director, was lovely, lovely man.
You know, just as I was saying I was, “one of the guys behind Marilyn Monroe,” I love being able to have made a movie with Lana Turner. She was great, by the way. She was very gregarious, very friendly to everyone. To everyone. There was no class problem with her. I think I had already heard this about her even before, that she was such a proficient movie actress. More than a movie actress, but in movies she really was capable, because she was so prepared of doing things in one or two takes and being great every time.
So you were in many dance numbers even before WEST SIDE STORY. You know, you mentioned Marilyn Monroe and obviously WHITE CHRISTMAS. Do you have a favorite dance number on screen where you were in the chorus?
You mentioned GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES and WHITE CHRISTMAS. Those two are my favorites for different reasons. In WHITE CHRISTMAS, Rosemary Clooney does a number called “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” with just four guys. Because there were just four of us, we were more visible. I love the song. Rosie, she was a lovely person. Rosie was just so great.
And then the other one that I really loved to drop a name: Marilyn Monroe. Who doesn’t want to drop that name?
It gives me such a kick and such pleasure to be able to say, “I was one of the guys behind Marilyn Monroe in the ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number.” And by the way, you know when you’re working on something, you concentrate on the work and one of the things in retrospect thinking back that I noticed about her, at least I thought I noticed about her, was she was very quiet.
They save their energy, because they’re concentrating on the work. I’m saying it about her (Monroe), especially, because there are so many pre-conceived opinions about her. I like pointing out what a serious, reflective, devoted performer she was.
I think something I didn’t know before delving into your memoir, is that you had a recording career, and put out some records. Do you mind speaking a little bit on that? Sounded like that was something you really liked?
No, I don’t mind. You know, I was playing Riff in London, in 1959 into 1960. But there were recording, companies there. A small recording company called Saga Records. In the theater version (of WEST SIDE STORY) Riff does sing.
So they asked me to do some recordings, and I ended up doing what I think was a pretty good album. All Gershwin songs, and you can’t go too wrong with Gershwin.
After I made that album, and it was released, I paid no attention to it. I was just thrilled to have done it. I really loved doing it, because I loved singing so much, live orchestras and all of that. But there, there was a really high falutin kind of hi-fi magazine and Richard Attenborough gave me a really good review in that magazine.
So I have always remembered that. But, and then a little bit later, after WEST SIDE STORY, Capital Records signed me to a recording contract, and the thing I can say about recording is how much I loved it. Some songs, were obviously better than other songs. Now in the recording business, people sometimes would do albums together and they weren’t even in the same room or even in the same country.
For Capital Records, I was in the studio with the full orchestra, and it was just thrilling. Just thrilling to hear all of those musicians play together and then be able to sing with them. Recording was one of my very — maybe my favorite thing. I really loved it so much.
How many records did you put out?
I think it’s only three. Could be four, but I can only think of three at the moment. My recording … part of my life, was cut short. Not a very good decision on the part of the woman who was my manager. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like what Capital was doing. I had no problem with it, I always loved. I was working on a movie musical in France called THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT. And we were on the phone. Her name was Ruth. Ruth and I were on the phone about something, catching up. I can’t remember what. And at the very end of that phone call, she said, “By the way, I’ve canceled your Capitol contract.”
Well, it went right over my head. I was so concerned about thinking of other things. So that kind of brought that to an end. That’s one of my really deep regrets, because I loved recording and music so much, you know. So that’s why I didn’t do more albums. I should have. And Capitol was ready to do that.
Do you mind talking about your Jacques Demy experiences (on the YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT)?
No, not at all. I know in the book I said he was kind of temperamental. And he was. But he had a tremendous imagination. Talented. I mean, he was actually terrific. You did have to tread lightly with him. Not just me. But the bottom line is he was, no matter what he did, he was right. You know, one thing that my agent in France said: in France the movie belongs to the director.
And that basically is correct. But lots of times, in my experience, too, the movie didn’t always belong to the director. For example, working with Yul Brenner, it really belonged to Yul. But in France that was not the case. No matter who the star was, the director was the star of the piece.
Gene Kelly, as you probably know, was in that film as well. And of course no one new movie musicals better than Gene. No one. I didn’t watch him film his musical sequences — but I heard, because everybody talks to everybody — One of the things that he (Demy) was doing that he (Kelly) did not like, and he felt he didn’t need to do, was to do extensive and long takes. Because when Gene created a number, he created each section of a number for a particular camera angle. Jacques Demy didn’t like working that way. The way Jacques worked, and its fine, was to do as many takes as he needed to do, and then to edit the film in the editing room. And that’s the way he shaped a musical number.
He did a beautiful job. The only person who wasn’t happy in the working process with that was Gene, because he was having to do — We all did — long takes of things that would never be seen on film. But Jacques Demy was a really immensely talent guy.
So veering a bit from your film career, I understand you do some jewelry design. How did you get into jewelry design, in addition to being a dancer, actor and now jewelry designer?
Well it was a hobby. You know, because I think most of us have hobbies. Like painting. Tony Bennet, as an example is a prolific painter, artist. But that’s how jewelry, started with me. Just as a hobby, and turned out to be something that I really, really enjoyed doing. And I got familiar with the jewelry district downtown Los Angeles.
I ended up making, I can’t remember how many pieces. Maybe six or seven pieces, something like that. And I was working with a manufacturer downtown that was helping me. There was a Japanese distributor who saw my things and liked them and wanted to represent me in Japan. So it became more than a hobby just via that association. I still work with that same distributor in Japan and I sell online and in Japan.
So besides writing your memoir, what is George Chakiris doing today in 2021?
I’m a pretty quiet person, you know. I have my friends, I have my family. And that’s how I spend my time. I’m pretty good and okay spending time alone. I still exercise. Not dance classes like I used to, but I still exercise. That’s a need. I don’t feel good without it. I’m working with jewelry in a more limited way. Just living my life that, that way. The jewelry thing continues, again, it’s more than a hobby. But I don’t feel as if I need to create, keep creating pieces every month or something like that. So it’s a lazier kind of hobby right now.
But that’s how I spend my time, socially with friends, my family. Just now, hopefully, getting back to theater and things like that because for so long we haven’t been able to do that. I’m very politically interested in what’s going on in the country, so that takes up a lot of my time.
And just because I’m curious: I know — especially growing up — You were a major musical fan. Like how you say that you went to see all the movies. What is your favorite musical?
Oh boy, wow. Well, I’ll tell you one, one of that comes mind: There’s a movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their first, after all their RKO black and white musical, they did a movie at Metro called the THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY in color.
And when I knew that movie was coming to town, I couldn’t wait to see it. I was holding my breath practically. And I even got, I got kind of superstitious. “Oh what will happen if I don’t get to see it?” And you know, I did get to see it. They’re tremendous. There are so many other musicals I love but that one comes to mind because I was so eager to see it.
You can buy “My West Side Story: A Memoir” by George Chakiris and Lindsay Harrison at most major booksellers.
About the Author:
Starting Comet Over Hollywood in 2009, Jessica Pickens is a writer based in the Carolinas. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of classic films, she enjoys exercise, Chad & Jeremy, and the original “Dynasty” television show. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.