“I don’t think I was good enough,” confesses George Chakiris. “I was too nervous.” Zooming from Los Angeles, the 86-year-old star is not appraising his Oscar-winning role in West Side Story or his stints as a chorus dancer in golden age musicals with Marilyn Monroe and Cyd Charisse. He is recalling appearing alongside Compo, Clegg and Foggy in an episode of Last of the Summer Wine. What sort of country-lane hijinks did that involve? “I was a movie director or something. I don’t remember … Isn’t that awful?”
Not really – it was 25 years ago and he has pretty much retired. But IMDb lists Chakiris as playing a bank manager in the forthcoming movie Not to Forget. He seems to have forgotten about it. “Do you know what? I did do one day on a movie,” he recollects. “Why would I want to go and do one day on a film? I asked myself that question, then did it anyway. It was a very nice experience.”
Chakiris is promoting his memoir, which sits on a shelf behind him next to the Oscar shining among bric-a-brac. His greyhound occasionally lopes into view. My West Side Story, written with Lindsay Harrison, is pivoted on his performance as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, in the movie and his earlier role as Riff, head of the Jets, on stage. The book was prompted by new versions of West Side Story: Ivo van Hove’s Broadway production, with choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Steven Spielberg’s film, written by Tony Kushner. Chakiris wanted to give his account of “the brilliant, complex template Spielberg had to work from”.
Chakiris charts a love of dance that began in early childhood, spent above the Ohio candy store where his parents worked after moving from a Greek village in Asia Minor. He shares the romantic image of dancing with his sister in the family’s later home in California. “In the living room there were two windows and they’d become like mirrors at night. We’d dance and watch ourselves.”
When he began to take dance classes he heard others speak of their family’s disapproval, but Chakiris and his six siblings “couldn’t have asked for better parents”. He spent days working an office job in Los Angeles, then took night classes at the American School of Dance. “The main thing we did was ballet. That’s what I loved. If you’ve studied ballet, it makes everything else look better.” He has sought out a regular class wherever he has lived. “Once you’ve had that experience, you don’t feel the same [without it].”
He made his film debut singing with his local choir in a Katharine Hepburn movie, Song of Love, shot at MGM studios where he spotted Frank Sinatra strolling through the lot. Then, at 19, came a role as a dancing green trombone in a nightmare sequence for the fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T. “We were sprayed green every morning. Some days I walked home green. Nothing matters when you’re young and having a good time.” He talks warmly of camaraderie with dancers and says there was never any sense of competitiveness.
His next assignments included donning a tux as one of the suitors flanking Marilyn Monroe in the Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend routine choreographed by Jack Cole for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It took three days to film. “What I remember about Marilyn is that she was quiet. She didn’t waste her energy. Whenever they called cut, she didn’t look in the mirror, she went right back to her position to start over again.”
Hired by Paramount for Meet Me in Las Vegas, he was persuaded to change his surname. “In those days nobody really kept an ethnic name.” He became George Kerris – but not for long. When he was casually told that his song and dance number was being cut: “My heart hit the cement. At that moment I thought: My name is not Kerris. My name is Chakiris.”
Soon, there weren’t as many movie musicals in production due to the rise of TV. He headed to New York, planning to sleep on a friend’s couch, and landed the role of Riff in the UK tour of West Side Story, the modern-day spin on Romeo and Juliet that was the talk of Broadway. He auditioned for the choreographer Jerome Robbins. Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Anita and undertook the UK tour, has remembered Robbins as a genius “but demanding and easily offended”. Chakiris says he always feels defensive about Robbins, adding that he was gracious, warm and a “wonderful perfectionist”.
Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim reinvigorated the genre, he says. In most musicals, “the story would move along, then stop while a musical number took place, then resume. In West Side Story, every musical sequence, song, dance, is all the story.” The choreography continues the characterisation – it’s never “dance for the sake of dance”.
In London, Chakiris hung out with Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney, saw plays at the Royal Court, went to Julie Andrews’ Christmas party and, one day, received an invitation to screen-test for the West Side Story film. He was asked to read for Riff and Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks. Once Natalie Wood had signed up as Maria, Chakiris was cast as Bernardo, her protective brother. He plays the part with a piercing gaze, occasionally broken by a winning smile. In the theatre, he says, Riff is the better role partly because he sings Cool. The film gives that number to another character. The best character in either version, he believes, is Maria’s friend Anita, played on screen by Rita Moreno.
He and Moreno won two of the film’s haul of 10 Oscars. Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, has a part in Spielberg’s new version and has criticised how a uniform “very dark makeup” was used in the 1961 film, instead of recognising differences in Puerto Rican skin tones. Sixty years on, casting has at last grown more authentic – Spielberg’s Sharks are played by performers with a Hispanic background. When I ask about improvements in inclusivity over the course of his career, Chakiris says “it’s fair and correct” and “it makes sense to do that of course in today’s world.” What were reactions like to his casting at the time? “No one ever had a problem thinking that I was not Puerto Rican. It didn’t matter. Anthony Quinn [was] in Zorba the Greek – a Mexican actor playing a Greek. Who cares? He was incredible.”
He continues: “The obligation to be politically correct is worth paying attention to, but I think it will be difficult for people to adhere to all the time and for people to do artistically what they really want.” He has seen several versions of West Side Story and none of the actors, he says, bettered Wood’s performance. While he recognises that it “bothers some people” to see him and Wood play Puerto Ricans, he is not uncomfortable with it and disputes that “heavy” makeup was used. “We wouldn’t do that on film anyway.” Chakiris expects Spielberg will do “something wonderful” and admires his choreographer, Justin Peck. But “with all due respect … I don’t want younger audiences to think that Stephen Spielberg created West Side Story. Because he didn’t.”
Life, he writes, gets “overwhelming” after winning an Oscar. He followed it with blockbusters, war films, disaster movies and European features including Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a pastel-splashed carousel of coincidence directed by Jacques Demy. It’s an homage to the sugar-spun musicals Chakiris has adored since childhood.
He returned to London theatre as Dracula, competing against a rival West End bloodsucker played by Terence Stamp. Chakiris’s was a bigger hit, despite his nerves at giving his opening words: “Good evening!” He realised that when Dracula enters a room: “Nobody around him can say, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ The energy in the room changes. The other actors have to respond accordingly and help him be Dracula.”
Chakiris, who had a Vegas show, also played bachelor Bobby opposite Elaine Stritch in Sondheim’s Company. Singing is the art closest to his heart. “As a boy soprano, I knew I had a good voice. You couldn’t do Company and not be a serious singer … I had a kind of confidence in singing that I maybe didn’t in other ways.”
He opens the memoir by saying he is intensely private. Has it been difficult to keep his personal life to himself? “It’s been really easy for me to be a private person. No one pays attention to anything I do!” Any career needs a stroke of luck – and he’s glad to have had a few. Is he still open to acting offers? “I don’t pursue anything.” But then again, he adds: “I never have.”