I first took note of George Chakiris as a 7 year old watching the movie version of West Side Story. I found the film musical enthralling. I think my parents must have thought it odd that his character- Bernardo was the one I was fixated on. Chakiris won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role. Before his breakout role, he had appeared in many small roles as a dancer in films including: one of Marilyn Monroe’s escorts in her Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend number & along Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas. If you look close he can be spotted in the Chop Suey production number in Flower Drum Song.
I saw him in the National Tour of Company in 1971 with the rest of the original cast. He was the 3rd actor to play Bobby after Dean Jones & Larry Kurt.. My little 17 year old musical comedy queen self was over the moon with his performance, his singing voice, & his good looks, complete with an award winning “package”. Chakiris has appeared in many stage roles in the USA & in London & as guest star on several TV series including Murder She Wrote & Dallas. He is now retired, living in LA & concentrates his artistic expression on jewelry making. He is openly gay.
“I'd been playing Riff in the London stage show for over a year when the movie was announced. They were floating names like Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty & Robert Redford. So none of us thought in our wildest dreams we'd be cast.
Then 5 of us were invited to do a test scene, so we stole our stage costumes or the day. Weeks went by & then I got a call from Robbins, who asked me out to LA. They wanted me to be Bernardo. I concluded that the Sharks parts had more meat: we sang America & had more scenes with Natalie, who plays Bernardo's sister Maria, based on Juliet. None of us put on very heavy Puerto Rican accents. The danger in going too strong is that it will show up the cracks. Rita Moreno, who played Anita, is Puerto Rican, so we all turned to her if we had trouble pronouncing our lines.
There was great camaraderie. One day, one of the Sharks went to a sports store & bought a leather archer's wristband. We all ended up buying one & the costume designer- Irene Sharaff liked them so much we got to wear them in the film.
I was asked to take 10 weeks' leave to make the film, which turned into 7 months. Others had been rehearsing long before that, so the project lasted over a year. But we loved it; we played, we laughed, & we always felt we were working on something of quality.”