Academy Award winner George Chakiris (“West Side Story”) chatted with HNA’s Markos Papadatos about his illustrious career in the entertainment business, and his highly-anticipated new book “My West Side Story: A Memoir.”
George Chakiris once said, “No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible.” This wise quotation by him is as relevant as ever.
Regarding his new book, My West Side Story: A Memoir, he said, “I had never thought about doing a book. When this happened, I looked forward to doing that. I thought it would be a really nice experience to stay connected to people and to audiences. I really appreciated that part of it. Writing this book was cathartic.”
He was born in Norwood, Ohio. He is the son of Steven and Zoe Chakiris, both of which were immigrants from Greece. He was a graduate of the American School of Dance.
On his Greek heritage, he said, “The very first time I went to Greece was in 1974. I had just finished working on a BBC series in London, and then I flew to Mykonos. My parents were from Platiano, a Greek village in Asia Minor. My background is Greek but it’s based in Turkey.”
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“There is nothing like the Greek islands to visit,” he added.
“I loved being on ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ she was so good and so kind,” he said. “I enjoyed doing a Greek dance on her show. As a Greek, you simply cannot do it. It’s important to dance because of the way that you felt and because of your background. Everybody loves Carol, and everyone loves doing her show.”
In 1974, Chakiris made his film debut in the chorus of Song of Love. Later he appeared in several small roles, usually as a dancer or a member of the chorus in various musical films. He was one of the dancers in Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes released in 1953. He again appeared as a dancer alongside Rosemary Clooney in “White Christmas” in “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me.”
In 1961, George’s greatest success came with the film West Side Story, for which he won the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor” for his role as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. “Winning the Oscar was an indescribable feeling. When my name was announced at that time, it was exciting, and I knew something wonderful had happened,” he said.
“It’s impossible to describe that feeling,” he said. “It’s like a winning lottery ticket but not expecting to. You really don’t dream for that to happen, and when it does, you are so surprised.”
Chakiris still keeps in touch with his West Side Story co-star Rita Moreno, whom he describes as his “great friend.” “Rita is so wonderful,” he said.
Ironically enough, both actors (Chakiris and Moreno) had two of the shortest Academy Award acceptance speeches on record. “My speech was short and hers was equally short,” he admitted.
His brief but gracious Oscar acceptance speech may be seen below.
He had also appeared as Riff, the leader of the Jets, in the West End in London. He starred as a doctor in the film Diamond Head released in 1963, opposite Charlton Heston and Yvette Mimieux, and in 1967, he appeared alongside Gene Kelly in Jacques Demy’s French musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort).
He shared that he was thrilled to receive the Honorary Orpheus Award at the 12th annual Los Angeles Greek Film Festival. “Oh my gosh. That was a great evening,” he exclaimed. “I so appreciated that. It was a beautiful happening for me, and it was a fantastic evening.”
For young and aspiring actors, he said, “Don’t ever give power of attorney to anybody since nobody needs that. Also, be prepared for any opportunity that comes your way such as working in the theater. Working in the theater is a great way to be with an audience and to learn. The audience always lets you know how you are doing. Keep working on your craft, of course.”
Aside from movies, he has performed on Broadway and on television. In the early 1960s, he embarked on a career as a pop singer, resulting in a couple of minor hit songs. In 1960, he recorded one single with noted producer Joe Meek.
He worked more in television in the 1970s and 1980s, appearing on such shows as Wonder Woman, Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, Dallas, Murder, She Wrote, and the daytime soap opera Santa Barbara, where he played Daniel Espinoza.
In Superboy, he appeared as Professor Peterson during the series’s first two seasons from 1988 to 1990. His last role to date was in a 1996 episode of the sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.
On the key to longevity in the entertainment industry, he said, “Longevity happens or doesn’t happen based on circumstances, or what becomes available to people over the course of their careers. If you really love what you are doing and you want to stick around as much as possible, then longevity is possible, but it all depends on the circumstances in your life and your career as well.”
He listed West Side Story as a career-defining moment for him. “I remember, as a kid in school, I never liked kids bullying other kids,” he said. “Working with Jerome Robbins and playing that character [Bernardo] was really close to my heart since it tackled racism. I care about people and I feel that people should be cared about.”
If he weren’t in acting and entertainment, he revealed that he would be a lawyer as his alternate career choice. “Lawyers can take care of people and help people,” he said. “I care about how people are treated. I want to be of social service. I would love to be in a profession where I can help people get treated well.”
His passion for making sterling silver jewelry has turned into a new occupation. For more information on his jewelry, click here. “That was a hobby and it became a small business,” he said. “We all like to be creative, make things, and do things.”
He defined the word success as “how you deal with people in your life and being fair, kind, and helping people whenever you can.”
For his fans, Chakiris concluded, “I hope anybody that reads this book enjoys it. To write this book was an interesting endeavor. It’s basically a book about growing up and my experiences before I became a professional, and most importantly, the experiences that I’ve had over the years with so many incredible people that I have maintained lifelong friendships. It’s about my work and my career, and it’s about people.”
My West Side Story: A Memoir is available on Amazon.