Original 'West Side Story' stars George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn remember 1961 classic and discuss its lack of diversity
There may be a rumble among movie musical fans when Steven Spielberg's West Side Story remake premieres in theaters on Dec. 10 — 60 years after the beloved 1961 version, co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. But George "Bernardo" Chakiris and Russ "Riff" Tamblyn already know which side they'll be on... and this time, it's the same one.
"I think ours is the best West Side Story," Tamblyn says about the earlier film, in which he plays the leader of the Jets opposite Chakiris's leader of the Sharks. "I mean, it won a few Academy Awards!"
To be fair, neither Tamblyn nor Chakiris — who reunited for a special Yahoo Entertainment chat — have seen Spielberg's West Side Story yet, and both actors are looking forward to being in attendance for the movie's New York City premiere in early December. They also have good reason for being proud of their version, which returns to theaters on Nov. 28 and Dec. 1 as part of TCM's Big Screen Classics series, organized by TCM and Fathom Events.
After all, as Tamblyn correctly notes, the 1961 film dominated the competition at that year's Oscars, dancing away with 11 statues, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress trophies for Chakiris and Rita Moreno, who played Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita (and who appears in the new film, too, as store owner Valentina). To this day, it's considered one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, and the gold standard when it comes to translating a Broadway favorite to the big screen.
Tamblyn says that he was able to spend some time on the set of the new film, and even had a heart-to-heart with Mike Faist, who plays the new Riff. "I asked him, 'Are you doing some acrobatics too?'" remembers Tamblyn, who cheerfully admits to being more of an acrobat than a dancer. "He said, 'No,' and I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm ahead of you on that!'"
One area where the new West Side Story pulls ahead of its predecessor is in the diversity of its ensemble. Spielberg made a point of casting Latinx performers as the movie's Puerto Rican characters, with Colombian-American singer Rachel Zegler making her big-screen debut as Maria, whose star-crossed love affair with Tony (Ansel Elgort) bring the already-rival gangs into further conflict. Natalie Wood famously played Maria in the 1961 version, and other key roles were similarly occupied by non-Latinx actors.
That includes Chakiris, who was cast as Bernardo despite being of Greek descent. The actor had played Riff in the West End production of West Side Story for almost two years before he auditioned for the film version. "In London, I played opposite Ken LeRoy, who was the original Bernardo [on Broadway], and he was incredible," Chakiris remembers of how he approached the role. (LeRoy was also a non-Latinx actor.) "I watched him for a year-and-a-half eight times a week, and he showed me everything. Seeing him do it was like osmosis — you couldn't help but take things in."
Chakiris acknowledges that the movie's lack of diversity is out of step with most modern versions of West Side Story. "It does reflect the times, of course," he says. "We had quite a few Latin actors in the movie, and on stage, [but] there's so many more people in the business now and it makes sense to do it [Spielberg's] way."
The actor also had his skin darkened to play Bernardo, although he notes that he wasn't the only cast member whose complexion was altered. Moreno's skin was similarly darkened to play Anita, which she's expressed regret for since. "I really resented it when they put very dark makeup on me because that’s not my color," the Puerto Rico-born performer told the Associated Press in 2019.
For his part, Chakiris is at peace with his casting, and onscreen appearance in West Side Story. "I had no problem with any of that — we had to do what was appropriate for the piece, and that was part of it," he says, pointing to another contemporaneous example of cross-racial casting: Anthony Quinn as the title character of 1964's Zorba the Greek.
"He was Mexican, but who else could have played that role? Nobody. So it was appropriate casting. Were they going to insist on a Greek man? No, they did artistically the right thing and got the right actor for the right part. You can watch TCM and you'll see all kinds of parts where casting is not a problem." (TCM has taken steps to tackle some of the contemporary complexities that come with viewing classic Hollywood fare, including the Reframed series, which launched earlier this year.) Tamblyn backs up his former onscreen rival-turned-offscreen friend: "George was the best Bernardo they could possibly have found, and I think I was the best Riff. I didn't hear any complaints!"
In a laugh-filled conversation, we talked with the longtime pals about the pranks they pulled on the West Side Story set, collaborating with Robert Wise and shooting classic musical numbers like "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke."
I understand that the actors playing the Jets and the Sharks kept pranking each other during shooting to keep tensions high. What were the best pranks?
George Chakiris: We were always trying to think of things to one-up someone on the other side. One day, Andre Tayir, who played Chile — one of the Sharks — came to rehearsal with a black leather wristband. So we all decided to get them, but we waited for the right moment to show them to the Jets. It was in a rehearsal during the mambo scene, and that's how Russ and his gang first saw them. It felt so good to do that!
Russ Tamblyn: One of the big pranks that I remember was when we were on location in New York. I can't remember who went up the fire escape first and put a sign up there. It was either me putting a Jets sign, or it was George putting up the Sharks sign. But I climbed up and ripped theirs down! That was our prank.
Chakiris: That was a good one! I remember seeing the Sharks sign up there.
Tamblyn: We did those kind of little pranks all the time. We were encouraged by Jerry Robinson, who also urged us to not talk too much together, in order to keep our gangs separate. I know that I called my dressing room a clubhouse, and it was only for the Jets. So we stayed pretty separate to help the scenes that were coming.
Russ, you originally auditioned for Tony. Were you disappointed to lose that role to Richard Beymer?
Tamblyn: I auditioned with a lot of different Marias, because they were testing for that part. I also tested with Michael Callen, who played Riff on Broadway. I remember that he asked me, "You've done a lot of movies and I haven't done very many. Can you give me any advice?" So I gave him advice on how to play Riff [on camera], and then I ended up getting the part! I was under contract with MGM at the time, and they turned it down. They said, "You have to say all these [mean] lines, and it's going to ruin the nice, sweet reputation you have here." I had to talk them into it, because they already had me booked in the Connie Francis movie, Where the Boys Are. In fact, I got residuals from that movie for years even though I wasn't ever on set, let alone in the movie! [Laughs]
George, Rita Moreno was in a relationship with Marlon Brando during production. Do you remember him visiting the set?
Chakiris: I wasn't looking for him, but no. Russ, I don't think he was ever there, was he? I think we would've known if he was there. But to my knowledge, he was not ever there.
Tamblyn: I heard Rita say that he did come, but he kind of stayed in the background. When you're doing the "America" number, he came and watched some of it.
Chakiris: Whenever I have a chance to talk to Russ, I always learn something that I didn't know!
George, what's your favorite memory of shooting "America"?
Chakiris: First of all, we just had so much fun. We were having a great time with each other trying to please Jerry. And that was the hardest part! If you pleased Jerry, then you knew you were doing it right. At the very end of the number where the guys lift the girls up onto their shoulders and hold it, I'd get Rita up there and then she'd start to slide! [Laughs] So we had to do that a few times until I finally got her up there securely. I know in "Cool" there were other problems; I wasn't there for that, but I've heard some things. I think Russ knows more about that than I do.
Russ, what were some of the problems with "Cool"?
Tamblyn: They switched the numbers in the movie: Onstage, Riff does "Cool," and I was very nervous about that because I didn't think I was that good of a dancer. I'm mainly an acrobat who does a lot of the dancing. Then my agent told me: "Well, they've switched it. Now you're going to do the 'Office Krupke' number." And that was great for me because the Krupke number was right up my alley. But "Cool" and "America" were two of my favorite numbers.
Chakiris: Tucker Smith, who sings "Cool," was so tremendous. The scene that leads into the number, and then the scene that follows it is all of a piece. It's so beautiful and amazing, because it's all about feeling. Russ, I'm not sure if you heard this, but there was a lot of knee work during that number, and I heard that when it was over, the cast took their knee pads, put them in front of Jerry's dressing room and set them on fire! [Laughs] It was a playful prank, but it was making a point.
Russ, let's talk about the opening number, which was shot on streets of New York. Did that make it feel special to you?
Tamblyn: Oh yeah, I enjoyed that a lot. If you watch it again, you'll see that I didn't do much dancing — I did a lot of strutting. [Laughs] I really just strutted the whole time, and everybody was just kind of dancing behind me. Every once in awhile, I'd jump up and down or something. Jerry was very good about using me for what I was best at. I remember the first time I met him after agreeing to play Riff, he said to me, "I have to tell you, Riff is not an acrobat. I've seen all your movies, and I want you to do straight dancing, no acrobatics." It was until Jerry was fired and Tony Mordente took over that he said, "Let's do some tumbling here." [Robbins was let go midway through the film when his methodical process led to production delays. Wise still sought his advice, and ensured he would receive a co-director credit.]
I understand that you weren't confident about your performance in the movie until Fred Astaire complimented you at the premiere.
Tamblyn: Yes, they invited everybody in Hollywood to the premiere of the movie, and people were telling me, "Hey, congratulations" and all that stuff. Then I got a tap on the shoulder and turned around, and there was my hero-in-dancing, Fred Astaire! He said, "I'm such a fan of your dancing," and I was like, "What?" Later on, I saw him again when we did a photo shoot at MGM with a whole bunch of dancers. He had a neck brace on, and when I asked him what happened, he said, "Oh, I was playing around on a skateboard in the backyard and I slipped and fell." I said, "It's about time!" He didn't smile, but I thought it was funny. [Laughs] It was true, though: If you watch him, so many of his dance numbers look like they were filmed in slow motion. He was just so fluid in everything he did. He's a lot like George in that way.
What was your experience working with Robert Wise?
Chakiris: The thing that comes to my mind right away is what a lovely, lovely man he was. He was so gracious, so kind and was such a gentleman. As a director, Jerry worked differently, and I think they complemented each other. I don't know how they felt about each other, but it was important that they both were there for different reasons.
Tamblyn: I've done a lot of movies, and the directors that I liked the least were the ones that were sort of insecure and would give you line readings or tell you "Walk over here" and "Stand there." My favorite directors were the ones that were like traffic cops who would point you in the right direction, but not get in the car and drive it. And that was Bob Wise. Some people complained about his approach. I know Rita did and also Richard Beymer, who said, "I was expecting more direction." Mostly what Bob did was come in if it was really off. He told me one time that what he liked to do was hire people who were really talented and that he didn't have to push too much.
I had a couple of problems with Jerry in the very beginning of the movie. There was one scene where I run into George, and I look at him and say, "Beat it." Jerry said, "No, no, no — you have to say that out loud." And I said, "I've got a camera in my face!" We talked and argued about that, and then Bob smartly said: "Let me solve this now. Let's shoot it both ways, and we'll pick the best one." So we shot one where I said it quietly and another where I said it loud, and they used my version.
Chakiris: Jerry was a theater person, and maybe he was thinking in those terms still. It made sense for him to ask you to do that, but it doesn't mean it was right. Bringing it down is what gave the moment the strength that was necessary. You were absolutely right.
We definitely have to talk about the big rumble towards the end of the film where Bernardo and Riff kill each other. Tell me about filming your death scene.
Chakiris: As I recall, what we did in the film was pretty much identical to the stage version. It was staged and choreographed by Jerry, so we learned those moves and then did the scene.
Tamblyn: It was a dance routine, really. What can I say about dying onscreen? I mean, you just die. [Laughs] I run at him, make a big face because I've got a knife in me and fall down.
Chakiris: The thing I remember is that once we were killed, I had to be very careful about not breathing. Because your body can't move when you're dead! So that was my objective — to be absolutely still. It's hard to hold your breath for that long.
Tamblyn: That's true! I've been dead in a few movies, and the problem is always not moving and holding your breath.
Chakiris: Yeah, because audiences look for that. I know as an audience member that I'm always checking to see if they're really going to be still. If you move, it's ruined! [Laughs]
West Side Story returns to theaters on Sunday, Nov. 28 and Wednesday, Dec. 1; visit Fathom Events for showtime and ticket information.