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Interview With Oscar-winner George Chakiris, Part 2

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Oscar-winner George Chakiris talks about his career, Marilyn Monroe, and his dog Sammy.

Beth Accomando: Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast I am Beth Accomando, here is the second part of my interview with Oscar winning actor and dancer George Chakiris, my first interview with him was by phone with saws and hammers buzzing in the background as some construction was being done at the home he calling from, this interview was in a nice quiet conference room at The Old Globe Theater, Chakiris was in San Diageo on Monday to discuss West Side Story before a crowd at the festival’s stage, he takes the stage at The Old Globe on September 16th for the world premiere of in your arms, here is my interview with him. First of all I just wanted to find out how did you first get involved in dancing, what first drew you into it?

George Chakiris: Oh I go kind of back in my mind to like 6 years old just as a kid going to movies, I loved all the movies whether they were musical or not, but the musical ones sort of did grab me more and they always did and I loved a musical film because when I would leave I would be trying to sing and dance what I had heard you know and they stayed with me for a long time and so that is where my imagination kind of went and it was a great place to go, so but I didn’t actually take class till I was at 19. So I started class when, it was a little late but I am so glad I did, I went to a wonderful school it was the best school at the time Eugene Loring famous choreographer he created Billy the Kid for ballet theater but it was a really great school that I accidentally found out about and it was the school that all the ballet people from New York when they were in Los Angelis always went there because it was really a serious place, so I was lucky to start even though it was late at this particular school called the American school of dance, I don’t know dancing is just, I love to watch beautiful dancing and I have just thought of Sylvie Guillem, I think she has just now turned 50 and she is going to retire this year, she is so extraordinary and I think she raised the bar because all the ballerinas that I see now are all echoed but she just, what she did with her body was and still be perfectly place was just mind boggling, it still is.

Beth Accomando: So what about dancing really appealed to you and why do you dance, what is it about dance that you love?

George Chakiris: Oh god, well just moving to music that makes you want to move I guess, yeah I think it’s such a beautiful means of expression whether it is just people going ball room dancing, I had a friend who did a, who sang a song at some club downtown about 3 or 4 weeks ago and it was a place where you the ball room floor was opened for couples to dance it was really interesting to watch because I hadn’t seen it for so long, all these different people, different shapes and sizes and everything but how they loved moving to the music, everybody loves dancing it is just, it is a beautiful means of expression.

Beth Accomando: I understand you were in the dance number with Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, what was that experience like?

George Chakiris: Well the experience when I think I mean afterwards I thought about it more you know but while it was happening the thing was you know you have to do the job and Jack Cole, the incredible choreographer, extraordinary choreographer choreographed that number, he did so much more but he was her favorite choreographer, he did I think anything that she did in the movies starting maybe with that and everything else that she did and probably including, anyway Jack Cole was her and she was, her instinct, I thought was perfect to want him (song plays).

You know people say what was it like to be around her and I, you know she was quiet and whenever they called cut for any reason she didn’t look in the mirror, she didn’t go to her dressing room, she went right back to her starting position just like we did, she was so concentrated and so wonderfully interested in her work and that is kind of what I remember and I remember her, I was around for other times as well you know not close, just around, she was and hey well the girl the woman that we see on film is I mean she really is kind of extraordinary, I worked on another movie in the chorus of There Is No Business Like Show Business (song plays).

And the final number of that is all 5 stars coming down the stairs singing that song and they are like a ton of people around them, I remember when they all showed up to shoot the first day at the Mormon a beautiful white gown and Missy in a fantastic red gown and you know Donald O Connor and when Marilyn Monroe came to work, came to the set that day and again quietly everything else disappeared, everything else disappeared that's my best way of saying what it was like just for her to walk into a room, she wasn’t looking for attention, she would sit there to do what she was supposed to do and she had no fuss, no nothing just she really was kind of extraordinary, beautiful.

Beth Accomando: You originally had played Riff on stage first, so what was it like to be cast as Bernard or were you surprised at that?

George Chakiris: You know it is so funny how high and mighty you can get when you are lucky to be considered for anything, I don’t know if I was surprised my heart was playing Riff and I thought that is, but I was very lucky that things turned out the way they did, they are both wonderful roles, it is kind of interesting because and I think in the theater version the role of Riff has a little bit more meat on the bones so to speak, but in the film version The Sharks, Bernardo and The Sharks, there is more for them to do, the guys are in the American number with the girls, so it is so wonderful, there are a couple of scenes with Maria and Natalie, and how wonderful to be around her. But the transition kind of felt, I didn’t think, to me there wasn’t a transition because I was so familiar having done the show with all the characters and the piece without realizing you are hearing it, you are learning it and also I was opposite, the original Bernardo ever what was Kendall Roy and I did the [indiscernible] [00:07:39] in London with Kendal Roy and Chita Rivera, I was watching Bernardo every night and without realizing that I was learning something, I was I kind of slipped into it kind of maybe I shouldn’t say comfortably but my guess in a way what am I saying, it was a nice change in a way and when the film was over I still had to go back to the show, back under Riff again for a while and it was so great to leave the theater playing Riff, come to Los Angeles and be Bernardo and then therefore it was over to go back and be in the theater again I was so lucky.

Beth Accomando: And talk a little bit about why you think West Side Story has remained so popular for so long, talk about what it is still connecting with audiences about?

George Chakiris: Well you know the story, you know the Romeo and Juliet story but prejudice is still alive and well (movie plays), so we can all still connect with that we probably always will just to put it in kind of simple terms but the score Leonard Burns score is so beautiful, so moving, so emotional and I think Jerry Robins work, all of the all of Jerry’s choreographic work, it is all based on, it is character based – everything that Jerry has people do is based on what the character is feeling at that particular time, but I just think it is the theme of it, it really is universal I can think of some of the just very short little lines that, there is one that Natalie says to Richard Beymer, Tony and Maria it is not us it is everything around us, I mean just that one line says so much and that is kind of what life is like right isn’t it, it is not us, it is everything around us and the beat goes on, yeah.

Beth Accomando: Well if you listen to the lyrics of America, there is some very powerful lines, I mean I think a lot of people remember how vibrant the music and the dance was but those are really strong lines too and the lyrics.

George Chakiris: Yeah Stephen Sondheim, what an amazing collaboration of talents you know Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robins, [indiscernible] [00:10:25], Leonard Bernstein, but yeah because the girls on one side are saying it is better here and the guys are saying well no it is not better here (movie plays), oh my God if you are white in America of course I forgot that one absolutely and the prejudice against people of color, how about that, that's another really, everybody is aware of that today, look at with all the younger these younger black guys who end up being, their lives are ended by the police and I subscribe to Time Magazine and there was one cover article because of that front cover was about what it’s like to black still today, so it resonates, it absolutely resonates and I think any of us can, we get that, we understand it because all of us in some way or another we manage to encounter prejudice in some small way whether it is not getting a job that I am putting it badly, but and I only say it to narrow it down to just prejudice but that is such a strong component.

Beth Accomando: Do you think that that the theme resonates even more because so many of those dances were done on the real streets of New York I mean that just seemed to make it come across a lot more vividly?

George Chakiris: Yeah the prolog, the opening sequence, actually doing it in New York on those streets, actually I remember the locations, 91st and Amsterdam I think or 90th and Amsterdam and another one there is school ground where it is still there and they duplicated that playground as a set in the studio, yes I think starting at the film in a real place that would clearly was a real place and not a set I don’t think the sets looked anything but real anyway, but those opening helicopter shots that get closer and closer and closer and finally on the streets with these kids these, young people and defending their turf, but defending their turf and on real streets and knowing that they are real streets, I think had an impact, you know one of the things that they did, they got because they were concerned about you know gang members in the area and so what they did was they got kids from gangs to help us you know keep people away and I thought that was a really smart way to first of all you know keep people away and to engage those people at the same time.

Beth Accomando: Did any of those gang members react to what you were doing on screen, give you any comments?

George Chakiris: I don’t you know because when you are working you are so concentrated on what you are doing you don’t, at least for me I don’t always notice everything else around me, so but ask somebody else and they will probably say they might have said something yeah.

Beth Accomando: Tell me how Jerome Robins was as a choreographer how did you work with him and did he kind of inspire you to kind of do more?

George Chakiris: His inspiration absolutely, he was inspirational all together his choreography is so brilliant, I mean the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was working being hired by Jerome Robins and getting to work with him, he was such a perfectionist first of all with himself and of course by extension to everyone else and he said it is just something you felt, everyone who worked with him and there were a lot of people who didn’t like working with him and you know are open but I never saw any of the things that you heard about him, I might just remember I loved working for him, I loved his work and still do, I haven’t been to a screening for a while but every time I go to one I always see something that I haven’t seen before, the last time I saw it I noticed Elliot felt as baby John because he is so wonderful but Jerry’s work is just what can you say, it is all character based and the beauty of what Jerry does in West Side unlike other musicals, a scene does not come to an end, a scene goes into and the scene continues with either music or movement and when that is over it still continues, so it’s not stopped for a musical number and then picked up after the musical number is over, which you know we kind of got used to that and I think that is fine, but Jerry did something very different and I don’t know if anybody has done it before but I don’t think anybody has maybe really done it since the way that Jerry did and maybe that is not fair because I don’t see everything but I love Jerry Robins what can I say, I really-really do, I thought he was so fantastic and we were all so lucky to be around him.

Beth Accomando: How would you describe his dance style, his particular style of choreography?

George Chakiris: Well I am not sure that for example Bob Fosse, there was absolutely a style, a style that you can recognize, I am not sure that Jerry had a style because I am guessing now, but I don’t think he went for a style, I think he went for a movement that was appropriate for the piece that he was doing whether it was a ballet that had a theme or West Side Story, so I think his movement because of the way he works did not have a style again I think Bob Fosse is a good example of explaining that because in his work you really do see the style and I think that is great too but it is a good way to compare somebody who has worked as a real clear kind of style as opposed to somebody who works in another way.

Beth Accomando: How would you describe it in West Side Story in particular because it seemed to be like you said it seemed to be very organic in the sense of like there is a lot of running these guys do and kind of athleticism that seems to come from the gang members?

George Chakiris: All of that was from Robert Wise and from Jerry were, it was directorial stuff that was appropriate for what was happening in a particular scene, what was out of the characters and I think the story, everything came and was inspired by the story and what that meant that characters should do whether they are running or dancing or you know rumble or climbing a fence or but it all evolves from telling a story.

Beth Accomando: Well it didn’t seem like you couldn’t tell sometimes where the dance ended and just the physical activity came on it was seamless.

George Chakiris: Exactly that is a perfect way to put it, that is exactly right you couldn’t tell because it was all seamless because it was all the same it wasn’t the end of the scene and the beginning of a number, they were connected. So that going into, like the America number let’s see, the guys are saying oh and Bernardo was saying to Anita about oh she is all brainwashed and she loves Uncle Sam, she says oh no -- and then she starts saying it is not so great there but so it is seamless (movie plays), the scene continues yeah and when a musical sequence is “over” it is not really over because it goes into the next and you are right to say it the way you did.

Beth Accomando: In that America number I just watched it recently and it seems like those dresses, the dress particularly that she wore seemed to be really a part of that choreography as well.

George Chakiris: Chita Rivera and the original production wore exactly the same dress, Irene Sharaff who did the clothes for West and a lot of other things too, that is such a beautifully designed dress because it moves so beautifully and you are right that none of the other girls have this dress and the skirt quite like that, yeah it moved beautifully an Rita and Chita both used what they were wearing beautifully and I think that was taken probably I am sure, I am not sure but I would guess that in creating the number with a rehearsal skirt you still have to play with it and that helps you decide on things that you can do with that skirt and ways to move yeah it was a lot of fun and hard work.

Beth Accomando: Now you have just been cast in the globes production in your arms, so what is this going to be like?

George Chakiris: I don’t know, I really don’t know, I am a little nervous, I have no idea, I think the idea this evening is really a beautiful ideal, there are 10 different pieces by 10 different writers, some wonderful writers I don’t know all of them but the piece that I am involved in with Donald Mackechnie and the fabulous Donald Mackechnie wow is written by Terrence McNally it is a beautiful piece that's, I don’t know how much movement is involved in this because it really is telling a story about 2 older dancers, which is about rightful decision where I am you know and speaking of being older I hope I can do what he asked me to do, we will find out that is why it is still a mystery to me and I am little apprehensive to put wildly because I know in this, through this entire evening of these 10 different pieces you are going to see some beautiful work by different dancers I can’t wait to watch them in rehearsal myself, yeah.

Beth Accomando: So how long has it been since you have danced on stage?

George Chakiris: Wow the last time I actually danced on stage was in the 80’s maybe since then but I go back to the 80’s because I remember that I was doing some personal appearance tours that took me to different parts of the world, so yeah to create your own evening and there was a wonderful choreographer that I worked with his name was Claude Thompson but there was some serious dancing that we had to do and then sing after, but it has been a while, somebody said it’s like riding a bike and I am not so sure that it is, but I will find out.

Beth Accomando: But have you ever stopped dancing?

George Chakiris: Yeah I don’t take class, I am so sorry I ever let that happen I have never stopped exercising because that is really important to the way I feel, so my way of exercising is to go to the gym and do my own thing so to speak but I always end my own sessions at the gym with stretching the way you do in a ballet class at the bar at the end you know before you go center floor and start doing combinations, after the bar right now I am very sorry that I haven’t been in class for too long.

Beth Accomando: So do you really have no idea at all what this choreography is going to be like?

George Chakiris: No, not at all but Christopher Gattelli he is, you know there are three really strong reasons to want to do this, one of them is him Christopher Gattelli, then of course is Donna I mean she is just so wonderful and then Terence McNally I mean, so things were like I said doesn’t get better, I have seen Christopher’s work only on television when I got to see the Tony’s because he has choreographed this new production of America in Paris and it looks so beautiful that I mean it came out of the blue and I just I am just kind of lofting along and here I am I don’t know we will see what happens, yeah.

Beth Accomando: So I was looking up some information on you online and I was very surprised to find that you do jewelry?

George Chakiris: That is probably why, how I stopped taking class because I had a little dog, little Italian grey hound his name was Sammy, beautiful when I would take him for a walk the kids would call him Bambi, he looked like a little deer and I was, when I was working I was away for 8, 9, 10 months at a time and I came back I was doing a play in London when I came home I looked at Sammy and I thought to myself that is a long time out of his life, so I decided that I was going to stay home with Sammy and that is kind of I don’t know it was stupid or not but that is what I did and I ended up I can’t remember how I found out about these silversmithing classes, but I started taking them and really started enjoying them because you were working with other people as well so it was, but it was another creative kind of thing to do and I have always enjoyed making things and working in metal and silver, so I have only done silver and I love silver and without trying to over 4, 5 years or something that I have gotten into it, it has now been like 15, I have created a collection and I got to know a lot of the people down town in the jewelry business and there was a, I got involved with a manufacturing company down there as well and there was a Japanese distributor who knew them and wanted to see my stuff and I met with him and he liked what he saw and he made, placed a really big order so I was kind of like in business so to speak It is a very small business but that is kind of how it really happened because I wanted to stay home and be with Sammy, it sounds so corny but it is true you know.

Beth Accomando: Well I looked at some of the designs online and I have to say that there is this very nice sense of movement in it which probably comes from your dance maybe.

George Chakiris: Well maybe thanks for that I didn’t think of that yeah because actually jewelry does move, a design can have movement in too, I have really enjoyed it, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it and, but it could have been something it was just a hobby, I wasn’t happy with it as just a hobby, but because it came more it has kind of taken over in a way that took me out of class I guess and so I am sorry about that I should have never stopped if I ever meet a dancer I will say don’t ever stop taking class no matter what you do, don’t ever stop taking class, it is the best in the world.

Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast I am Beth Accomando. George Chakiris will be appearing at The Old Globe Theater in the world premiere of In Your Arms opening on September 16th you can main line film with me every week with new film reviews each Thursday and interviews every Friday you can follow me on twitter @cinebeth and like the Cinema Junkie page on Facebook and since the podcast is still new I would love some reviews on iTunes, thanks again for listening.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place