West Side Story is one of my all-time favorite movies. I first saw it when I was little girl, maybe at age eight or nine; I watched it with my mother, also a huge fan, and was amazed by the cast, the songs, the dancing, the NYC setting, and all the emotions it made me feel. I think I discovered West Side Story at around the same time as The Sound of Music, and I thought of the two as a pair: Nazis aside, The Sound of Music was bright and hopeful while West Side Story was grittier and sad—and ultimately more substantial and powerful. To this day, the film and its soundtrack hold a special place in my heart.
George Chakiris played Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks, brother to Maria (Natalie Wood) and paramour to Anita (Rita Moreno). I had a childhood crush on Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff, the head of the rival Jets, so—spoiler alert—the fact that Bernardo killed Riff initially made it hard for me to love him. But upon multiple viewings, I found Bernardo charming and sympathetic, as much a victim of the Jets’ prejudice as the Jets were of the Sharks’ animosity. He had cool leather cuffs and a mesmerizing on-screen intensity, and, boy, could he dance.
Today I had the privilege, not only of hearing George Chakiris speak in a Q&A session, but also of meeting him one on one. Over fifty years after West Side Story, he spoke articulately and with great insight and humor about his dancing career (he performed, for instance, the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number with Marilyn Monroe), his experience playing Riff (Riff!) in the West End production of West Side Story, working with director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, the movie (for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1962), and his life since—including the devotion to his Italian greyhound Sammy that eventually led to a career in silver-smithing and jewelry design (he discovered this new passion after deciding that acting too frequently took him away from his dog). Later, I spoke to him; he was warm and gracious as I told him about my love for West Side Story and my mother’s adoration of him (she still swoons over his luxurious hair and cleft chin, and I had to call her immediately afterwards and brag that I had hugged him twice). This opportunity was incredibly meaningful, given the importance of West Side Story in my life and Chakiris’ iconic role as Bernardo. What a thrill to find this talented man so giving of his time, so congenial, so lovely. Every now and then, a day feels magical, and this was one of those special days. Thank you, Mr. Chakiris.