Read it. Digest it. And after coming up for air after a whirlwind read of George Chakiris’ autobiography, My West Side Story: A Memoir (Lyons Press, $24.95), you realize you were dazzled.
We will explain.
It’s obvious Chakiris loved dancing, a skill so streamlined and stylized that it launched him into a pretty nice career, most notably for West Side Story.
The actor/dancer was first cast in the London production as Riff, gang leader of the Jets. The musical premiered in London in late 1958, and Chakiris received rave reviews, playing the role for almost two years.
The actor, who is of Greek descent, then auditioned for the film version, but the producers thought Chakiris’ dark complexion made him more suitable for the role of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. (Russ Tamblyn got the role of Riff.)
Switching sides to play Bernardo, brother to Natalie Wood’s Maria and partner to Rita Moreno’s Anita, secured him the role on Broadway after seven months of filming. The film (also co-directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins) returns to theaters for two days only as part of Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Big Screen Classics series with an introduction from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. The beloved movie musical will play in select theaters June 24 and 27 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. local time both days.
The movie not only gained Chakiris a huge following but also the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in Motion Picture.
West Side Story, all three versions, made him a star.
“I know exactly where my gratitude belongs,” Chakiris writes, “and I still marvel at how, unbeknownst to me at the time, the joyful path of my life was paved one night in 1949 when Jerome Robbins sat Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents down in his apartment and announced, ‘I have an idea.'”
It’s obviously Chakiris was not best friends with Jerome Robbins, the legendary choreographer who was a former Communist Party member and named 10 communists in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins did propel Chakiris into WSS stardom and the actor dishes Robbins. Up to a point. He doesn’t tap dance the legendary truths about the mercurial, relentless Robbins, but in a few breaths he credits him with shaping Bernardo into such a memorable character.
Yet, before his became known for his stage work, Chakiris had made a bunch of films—dancing, of course, but unbilled and in teeny roles He was one of the dancers in Marilyn Monroe’ “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
It’s sad to know that, though Monroe was 23 years old and Chakiris was 19, they did not became friends, something he misses.
As he writes: “Marilyn had a quality that can’t be taught, or created with wardrobe and makeup, a quality you’re either born with or not. . . . Many decades later I accepted an invitation to participate in a documentary about her. I said then what I’ll always say—I’m sorry I didn’t get to know her, but I’ll always be grateful I had the pleasure working with her.”
Can you spot him in the snippet below?
He appeared as a dancer alongside Rosemary Clooney, as she warbled “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” in White Christmas (1954). See him?
TV shows, two record albums, sundry stage work and more films were wedges between his years. It’s sad that his film career was so spotty. Two films made in France—Is Paris Burning? (1966) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) are really good and still hold up; The Big Cube (1969, watch Lana Turner on LSD!) and Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again (1982) are jokes.
Today, the 86-year-old thespian still creates, this time making sterling silver jewelry—pendants, bracelets, earrings. What started as a hobby blossomed into a full-time business. Chakiris’ stunning works can be seen (and bought) at georgechakiris.com/jewelry.
And before you ask, the answer is no. In the book, Chakiris refuses to confirm his sexual orientation.
He has kept details of his love life hidden from the media’s attention, yet it is widely believed among Hollywood actors and actresses that he is gay – even the popular movie and TV series rating website IMDb has featured him in their “500 Gay Actors & Personalities” list. Some have even claimed that George secretly married his long-term partner sometime in the 2000s, but no proof has been provided to support the claims.
His is a terrible bother to me, born one day after Chakiris came out (of his mother) and into the world. If he is gay, it would serve as a great benefit to those boys and girls, men and women, questioning their sexuality, fighting the bullying, dancing around suicidal thoughts. I have the same feeling about Lily Tomlin and Barry Manilow’s queer denials—the singer especially. Everyone knew he was gay yet for decades he made up girlfriends and excuses. When he finally married his long-time partner and manager Gary Keif in 2004, his excuse for the delay: “I thought it would hurt my career.”
That’s why my Manilow CDs have been destroyed and why Chakiris book was given away.
Not all acting succeeds.