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Oscar winner George Chakiris recalls how ‘West Side Story’ changed his life

March 10, 2021
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Academy Award winner George Chakiris will always be remembered for his career-defining role as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks in the 1961 film version of “West Side Story.” As the classic movie musical celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, Chakiris marks that milestone with the release of his memoir “My West Side Story” (Lyons Press).

Chakiris chronicles his formative years, growing up in Ohio as the son of Greek immigrants, and his steady rise to stardom, working alongside legends including Marilyn Monroe (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”) and Natalie Wood in “West Side Story,” for which Chakiris beat out some stiff competition to bring home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His Oscar date that night was his co-star, Rita Moreno, who won the statue for Best Supporting Actress.

As Chakiris recalled during an interview with The Maine Edge, winning an Oscar afforded him the privilege of never having to search for work again. The eternally youthful Chakiris appears to be at least three decades younger than his actual age of 86, and that’s where our interview began.

The Maine Edge: Do you ever become tired of people asking “George, what is your secret?” Your appearance doesn’t match your true age. You obviously take good care of yourself.

George Chakiris: That question always surprises me because I don’t think of myself that way. My mother lived to be 104, her father lived to be 108, so I have longevity in my genes it seems. Having been a dancer most of my life, I think most dancers somehow manage to seem younger physically and in spirit. Most of the dancers I know, I would never think they were their actual age.

The Maine Edge: This year marks the 60th anniversary of the classic film version of “West Side Story,” for which you won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. You were up against some heavy hitters competing for that statue: George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason, Montgomery Clift and Peter Falk. I watched video of that telecast this morning, and the expression on your face when Shirley Jones announced you as winner is priceless. You didn’t expect to hear your name, did you?

George Chakiris: I really love Shirley Jones. She has been a great friend for all of these years. You can never really describe how it feels to win an Oscar or a Golden Globe. When you buy a lottery ticket, you never expect to win, but you hope that you might. That’s the best way I can explain to you what it felt like.

I’m glad you mentioned the other actors who were nominated. It was kind of wild, wasn’t it? For me to have been selected from that group, it’s kind of extraordinary. One of my favorite actors of all time has always been Montgomery Clift and to be included in the same category as him is kind of amazing to me.

The Maine Edge: The film version involved seven months of shooting – an intensive shoot by any era’s standards. Did you have any inkling then that the film would be so well received?

George Chakiris: No, and I’ll tell you about something that happened during a break in filming which took place at Goldwyn Studios here in Los Angeles. There were two gentlemen from the front office in suits and ties talking amongst themselves, and I overheard them say “We don’t know if we’ll have a commercial success but we think we might have an artistic success.”

I don’t think anyone stopped to think about winning awards or anything like that, but everyone loved working on this project. There was an atmosphere of love for what everyone was doing no matter how they were attached to it.

The Maine Edge: Over the years, we’ve kind of gotten used to Oscar acceptance speeches that go on forever. I think your acceptance speech should be mandatory viewing for every Oscar nominee. Here it is in its entirety: “I don’t think I’ll try and talk too much, I just want to say thank you, very, very much, thank you.” That is how it’s done!

George Chakiris: I kind of agree with you, and by the way, Rita Moreno’s speech was just as brief. The two of us went together and had a fantastic evening. I watched The Golden Globes last night, and I think everyone is obligated in today’s world to thank everybody from the producers to the networks. I think it’s just politically what they have to do but it does make for a long speech. I agree with you, I like it when it’s short and from the heart.

The Maine Edge: How did winning that award change your life?

George Chakiris: When that happened, I no longer had to look for work (laughs). Being a dancer, I always had to look for work. It was West Side Story and the Academy Awards that really opened the door for me for the rest of my life.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 March 2021 06:19

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