Dancing in the chorus of classic musicals to dancing as a star in West Side Story.
It was simply amazing to speak to a gentleman of the arts in dance. George Chakiris appeared as a dancer in motion picture musicals such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, There’s No Business Like Show Business, White Christmas and one of the most phenomenal explorations in choreography, the Academy Award-winning West Side Story released in 1961. A banner year for this musical, Mr. Chakiris and one for me as well… the film premiered in New York on October 18, 1961. I was born the next day that year.
If memory serves me right, Mr. Chakiris was receiving a “Spirit of the Dance” award the year I spoke with him. Here, he talks about his career in Hollywood and his life as a dancer. Along the way, there are memories of Marilyn Monroe, memories of the movies and his remarkable achievement of winning the Academy Award for best supporting actor in West Side Story.
Showbiss: I believe you were 18-years old at the time and you were in a film adapted from a Dr. Seuss book called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
George Chakiris: Yeah, that was my first job.
Showbiss: How did you get chosen for this film?
GC: I had been taking classes at The American School of Dance on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not there anymore. The man who ran the school was Eugene Loring. He was a famous choreographer and he did Billy the Kid and others for American Ballet Theatre. He choreographed The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. He needed 60 male dancers for that particular “dungeon” sequence, you might call it. It’s a nightmare sequence that the kid is having.
There weren’t 60 male dancers actually in the Screen Extras Guild as it was called at the time. So, they allowed guys who were not in the union to come and audition. I got to audition and I got the job. I made enough money doing it because we worked on it a few weeks; to be able to join the union and go on from there to audition for other jobs to working in musicals and dancing in the chorus.
Showbiss: At this time, you weren’t contracted under a specific studio?
GC: No, not then.
Showbiss: I don’t think there is any other dancer I could talk with who was a chorus man and made two films with Marilyn Monroe.
GC: Oh god, yeah right! That was great. I was in There’s No Business Like Show Business and in that particular film I wasn’t involved in any of the numbers that she was in. But, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and in her famous number “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” I was one of the guys around her.
Showbiss: Just to go back briefly to There’s No Business Like Show Business you were in the French version of Mitzi Gaynor’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
GC: I was and I was also in “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (‘Til a Sailor’s Been Tattooed).
Showbiss: Please share what sticks out most of doing the “Diamonds” number with Marilyn?
GC: Two things… first of all, working for the choreographer Jack Cole who was one of the great choreographers. His influence still goes on today. Gwen Verdon was his assistant before she went on to become a Broadway star. And of course as you know, Gwen Verdon married Bob Fosse. So, the influence was carried on because Gwen was a Jack Cole dancer and one of the amazing ones. She was just so extraordinary.
The two choreographers that all the dancers were nuts to work with were Jack Cole and a man whose name was Robert Alton. Their styles were very, very different but they were the two fabulous guys who did Broadway shows and of course, movie musicals.
In fact, it was Robert Alton who choreographed There’s No Business Like Show Business. The only musical number in that movie that he did not choreograph was the “Heat Wave” number because Marilyn Monroe; and she did it so beautifully… she really wanted Jack Cole. With all due respect to Robert Alton, she was right. Jack Cole gave her a great number, “Heat Wave.”
The thing I remember about working on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number was Jack Cole’s choreography and he was hard to work for. It was really exciting and a lot of knee work; he liked dancers staying close to the ground. I remember Marilyn in rehearsal, of course. She’d come in very comfortable and easy in rehearsal clothes. She was always perfect without make-up… she was so gorgeous. She was very, very dedicated and concentrated on her work.
Then, when we were on the set, and we were all filming and everybody was in costume and all that kind of stuff and there’s that gorgeous set. It’s like when you dream as a kid and you see the floor and it really is that shiny. You hear the playback and the great music and everything but she and we were part of it and directly behind her. It took three days to shoot that number. The third day it went until 9 o’clock in the evening and it was just her amazing dedication and she was very serious. She cared so deeply about her work. That was the impression I got about her.
Showbiss: Then, I see you again in White Christmas, which is such a classic. Robert Alton did the dance numbers for the film. And you’re in the musical number with Rosemary Clooney “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”
Showbiss: The men dancing around Rosemary Clooney in “Love.” It’s the arms up and moving away with the palms that you did, circling around her like airplanes.
GC: Oh, that one! Yes.
Showbiss: Some of the dance movements are so similar to Madonna’s “Vogue” number.
GC: You know. What is interesting when you stop to think about it is she did her version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” on the stairs and that same kind of dress. And also, when you think of Michael Jackson and some of his videos… “Beat It” is West Side Story. I mean, he took from that. He took stuff from Fred Astaire. Good stuff and he did it beautifully. I think that they had examples to go by that was stuff that they probably loved. Whoever was choreographing would emulate the influence by things they had seen.
Showbiss: You were also in the “Mandy” number with Vera-Ellen in White Christmas.
Showbiss: If it’s true that the camera adds ten pounds, I have never seen anyone with a waist as small as she had. The way the dancers throw her down the steps in the finale of that number. Vera-Ellen is an amazing and under-rated dancer.
GC: I couldn’t agree with you more. One of my favorite numbers in White Christmas that she does is the one she does with Danny Kaye called “The Best Things Happen While You Dance.” That is so beautifully created by the choreographer. But, my gosh, she’s incredible in it. She was a really trained dancer and she also was a terrific hoofer and tap dancer. She did everything.
Showbiss: So, you have made motion pictures for 20th Century Fox, MGM and Paramount. It’s 1958 and you decide to head to New York and you end up playing in the London production of West Side Story as “Riff.”
GC: That’s right and that was in 1958. We opened in London in December of 1958. It was in the presence of Princess Margaret. She loved that show. She came back a few times.
Showbiss: What was it like for you being in this production in London and how it did come about that United Artists wants you not for Riff but Bernardo?
GC: None of us had ever dreamed that we would be in the movie. One day, five of us got letters from United Artists asking us to do a film test in London. I could pick a scene as Riff and they also asked me to do a scene as Bernardo. So, the five of us were driven out and we had a really exciting day for all of us. Then we went back to the theatre. A week went by and nobody heard anything. We thought, “Well, that’s that.” Then, one night before the performance, there was a phone call for me at the stage door. It was Jerome Robbins. He said, “We like your test and we’d like to test you further. Could you get a leave of absence of a week?” Which of course, they gave me and I flew to L.A. I did a test as Bernardo with Barbara Luna; who came very close to having the role. Eventually, of course, my “Chirita” (Rita Moreno) who was just wonderful in it. She’s terrific.
I think it made more sense. In the theatre for casting, there is more latitude in the way you cast people. You don’t necessarily always have to cast them to “quote unquote” physical type. Since I wasn’t fair and I had dark hair. It made more sense in terms of film for those who considered me for Bernardo. I looked more like I could be a Puerto Rican probably movie-wise than a “Jet” in that typical kind of thinking.
I’m not saying their thinking was typical because Jerry Robbins was one of the most imaginative people on the planet. He was such an amazing guy and Robert Wise who produced and co-directed was wonderful too. They saw me as Bernardo and you know, I lucked out because Bernardo in the film was a better role than Bernardo in the stage production.
Showbiss: The dance in the gym in West Side Story hits me immediately as one of the hottest and best numbers in motion picture musical history.
GC: Oh wow. Jerome Robbins; I mean and of course, the Leonard Bernstein score… the combination. These two men were genius. They were above and beyond what we normally would get to see.
Showbiss: The whole film is truly excellent. I’m a huge film buff and primarily musicals. I have over a
hundred musical soundtracks.
GC: That’s great. They are the best, aren’t they?
Showbiss: Yes, for fun and escapism. Now in West Side Story, you played Maria’s brother. What do you remember best about the great talent that is Natalie Wood?
GC: Oh my god. Natalie. First of all, she was darling, she was sweet and when she came on the set… we had already been working before she was finally cast. When she came on and it had nothing to do with the way she behaved; she was just there and very sweet. Suddenly, there was the movie star on the set. I’m not saying that she behaved that way, I’m just saying that we knew that. The other thing is that she worked hard and she was a wonderful professional. She was so beautiful. She was one of those people who when you see them in life; she was gorgeous on the screen but she was perfect. She had the most absolutely gorgeous face! She didn’t need any make-up. Beautifully proportioned and wonderful body, she was just breathtaking. She invited me to her home and the few times I did, I spent some personal time with her… the same thing. She was only twenty-three. She was pretty young. Although, she had been in movies since she was a kid so that obviously gave her the benefit of knowing something about the business and her instincts. She wanted to do more; she had just finished Splendor in the Grass before she went into West Side Story.
This was someone that even at a young age had some knowledge and background in film. I just was crazy about her. I just loved who she was as a person. One of the things that always gives me such a kick when I think about her… is “Oh my god, I got to play Natalie Wood’s brother. Really, that just gives me such pleasure to know that. She made many films after West Side Story and I know I saw all of them. She was such a wonderful actress and she was so gifted but she also was knowledgeable. What’s that film she made with Robert Redford?
Showbiss: This Property is Condemned?
GC: Yes! Thank you. So wonderful. She was meant to be photographed because she was so beautiful.
Showbiss: West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards and an honorary Oscar for Jerome Robbins. This was just a phenomenal achievement for a musical film. I bet this experience was just a mind-blower for you.
GC: I’ve got to tell you what… for all of us. We all keep in touch with each other and we get together now and then over the years. We call ourselves a family really… Russ (Tamblyn) just all of us. We had such a wonderful time working on it. We loved what we were doing because we knew we were working on something terrific. At the time, the movie went over-budget and someone at the front office said that they weren’t sure we had a “commercial” piece but something of great artistic quality. That’s basically what everybody felt. When it was released… wow! Everybody all over the world enjoyed the film. It was great.
Showbiss: It’s a timeless piece.
GC: Yes it is.