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George Chakiris celebrates 60 years of 'West Side Story' at Redford Theatre


    George Chakiris vividly recalls winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Bernardo in 1961’s “West Side Story.”    

    “(It) was kind of an out-of-body experience,” said Chakiris, 87, of Los Angeles. “At the time, I had no idea what difference an Oscar can make. I was professionally naive. I certainly knew it felt good!” 

    Chakiris will attend three “West Side Story” screenings Friday through Sunday at the Redford Theatre in Detroit. Chakiris will also attend a VIP event on Saturday to share memories of the filming the 60-year-old classic. This marks his first time in Detroit. His appearance is rescheduled from March 2020, which was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway play, which won 10 Oscars. It occurs in New York City in the late 1950s as rival gangs, the Sharks (led by Bernardo) and the Jets (led by Riff, played by Oscar nominee Russ Tamblyn), battle for control of the neighborhood. 

Riff tries recruiting Tony (Richard Beymer), who’s left the Jets and has no desire to fight. Tony falls in love with Maria (Oscar nominee Natalie Wood), Bernardo’s younger sister. Although Bernardo demands that Tony stay away from Maria, the two continue to secretly meet and plan to elope, escalating the enmity between the two gangs. 

“West Side Story” also stars Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Chakiris has fond memories of working with Moreno.

“Working with Rita was, of course, great! We’ve remained friends all these years, as has most of the cast. We all share in this spectacular and meaningful experience that’s very special and — I think — rare. And wonderful,” said Chakiris. “Rita and I have attended the Oscars and other (events) together… (We) really bonded. Also, I’m godfather to Rita’s beautiful daughter Fernanda. Of course, I knew Rita’s husband (the late Leonard Gordon). We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years, usually filled with lots of laughs.”

Chakiris’ involvement with “West Side Story” began on the stage, the creation of Jerome Robbins (who won the Oscar for Best Director with co-director Robert Wise for the film version), Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents. He was cast as Riff in the London production in 1958. When Chakiris auditioned for the film version, he was cast as Bernardo, based on his screen test. 

“First, none of this would have happened were it not for (Robbins). Of course, the magnificent Bernstein score stands alone as a musical experience,” he said. “But it was Jerry who directed us in the theater and in the film.”

Chakiris said he isn't concerned about Steven Spielberg’s remake of the iconic film,  which will be released later this year.

“I’m sure (Spielberg) will do something really good," he said. "In my opinion, though, we must recognize the extraordinary template he was able to use to inspire him. He is not ‘creating’ ‘West Side Story’ — that was done years ago by Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents.”

Besides “West Side Story,” Chakiris is known for the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” dance number with Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” 

“‘Diamonds’ is a really great number,” recalled Chakiris. “I remember Marilyn being beautiful to look at, of course, but I remember, too, she was very quiet, very concentrated on the work – no small talk with anyone. When they called ‘cut’ for any reason, she didn’t go to her dressing room, she never (checked) her make-up, she went right back to the starting position to be ready for the next take. To me, that showed her professionalism and commitment.”

He’s also known for 1954’s “White Christmas,” starring Hollywood legends Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

For Chakiris — who, for the most part, has been semi-retired from Hollywood since 1996 and currently designs jewelry — it all goes back to “West Side Story.” 

“First of all, I think it’s a beautiful film,” he said. “I do not mind at all being remembered for this film. I’m so glad I was part of it! We had a great time. We worked hard and we laughed a lot too. We were totally caught up in the spirit of the piece… I think the movie resonates because of the basic elements of the story are still with us. Prejudice and discrimination are, unfortunately, alive and well. We can all feel that.”

Visit www.GeorgeChakiris.com. 

'West Side Story' VIP event featuring Oscar winner George Chakiris

5:30-6:45 p.m. Saturday

Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser Road, Detroit

Tickets: $45, which includes a meet and greet with Chakiris, a Q&A session and an autographed poster; $10 for movie screenings

Chakiris will also attend screenings set for: 

8 p.m. Friday

8 p.m.  Saturday

2 p.m.  Sunday

For more information, call the Redford at (313) 537-2560 or visit redfordtheatre.com.