‘West Side Story’ star George Chakiris recalls working with Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood: 'I'm very lucky'

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EXCLUSIVE: George Chakiris has had a remarkable life – and now he’s ready to share it with the world.

The Academy Award and Golden Globe winner has just released a memoir titled “My West Side Story,” which details his upbringing as a son of Greek immigrants in Ohio, his rise to stardom, as well as what it was really like bringing the iconic 1961 musical to life.

The 86-year-old, who retired in 1996 after a decades-long career in plays, films, and TV shows, now lives quietly in Los Angeles.

Chakiris spoke to Fox News about working with Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood, as well as how he reacted to his Oscar win.

Oscar-winner George Chakiris has released a new memoir about his life and career titled ‘My West Side Story.’

Fox News: Before “West Side Story” you worked with Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and 1954’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” What was that like?
George Chakiris: The first thing that comes to mind is she was very quiet. She seriously concentrated on her work and trained tirelessly to give her best performances. Whenever we would stop filming a scene, many cast members would just go back to their dressing rooms. But she would just go right back to her starting position, ready to begin again. That’s how concentrated she was in her work. And I really admired her for that. Not everyone did that.

I do remember one time while filming “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” a little boy approached her and she greeted him with a huge smile on her face. And she took the time to talk to him. I watched her and she was practically glowing. It was such a sweet, genuine connection she had with this child. She wasn’t like “leave me alone, I’m busy.” She was generous to take time from her day just for a child. 

Actress Marilyn Monroe and her acting coach Natasha Lytess on the set of the film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ in December 1952 in Los Angeles, California.
(Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

I remember this other time, she was talking to [choreographer] Jack Cole and behind him was her acting coach Natasha Lytess. I couldn’t exactly hear what Jack was saying, but I remember Marilyn’s eyes went to Natasha, who was just standing there shaking her head, as if she was saying, “Don’t pay any attention to what he’s saying. We’ll talk later.” *laughs*. I thought it was funny. But Marilyn was so sweet that she just stood there and tried to listen to both of them at the same time. 

Marilyn Monroe performing in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’.
(Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

Fox News: Did you develop a friendship with Marilyn?
Chakiris: No because we were all there to work and we all wanted to make sure we were providing the best performances that we could on set. But I do remember that she was present every day and always ready to work. She was very sweet to those on set. She would arrive and leave quietly.

I never understood how people could say such terrible things about her over the years. I can only speak from my experience, as just a dancer in the background, but my impression was that she was very sweet, kind, incredibly polite and eager to work hard as the rest of us. I always appreciated that about her. I have a feeling that if we had the chance to become friends, she would have been just the same. But truthfully, we were just there to work. 

Portrait of Marilyn Monroe in a light-colored, beaded gown, as she leans against an open trailer door on the 20th Century Fox studios set during the filming of director Walter Lang’s film, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ 1954.
(Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images)

Fox News: How were you discovered as Bernardo in “West Side Story”?
Chakiris: Well, I started my career as a dancer, not as an actor. And despite having some success in it, work was beginning to dry up by the late ‘50s. So I bought a one-way ticket to New York because, well, what else was I going to do? I stayed with some friends who knew their way around the city. And one of the most important things happening in New York at the time was all these plays were coming out. There were a lot of castings and replacements going on. And the London company was in town.

Greek-American dancer and actor George Chakiris, circa 1962.
(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Well, when I audition for “West Side Story,” I was cast as Riff, leader of The Jets, for the London production. To be honest, I was in shock and nervous about all of this. After doing the London West End stage production of “West Side Story,” I audition for the film. This time I was cast as Bernardo, leader of The Sharks.

Honestly, I felt at ease with the switch because when you do theater, you learn the ins and outs of every character on stage. It stays in your memory. You absorb it without realizing it. It felt natural and I had a good feeling about it all. So by the time we began making the film, I felt like I had long trained for the experience.

George Chakiris (center), US actor, in a publicity image issued for the film adaptation of ‘West Side Story’. The musical, directed by Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) and Robert Wise (1914-2005), starred Chakiris as ‘Bernardo Nunez.’
(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Fox News: It sounds like you and co-star Rita Moreno developed a strong bond.
Chakiris: Oh my God, absolutely. Talk about having fun. From the moment we met, we were always just laughing and having a great time. Of course, everyone on set worked incredibly hard. We certainly didn’t know how much of an impact this film would have, but there was a feeling in the air that something magical was happening. And she just made it so much fun. 

I remember when we began filming “America,” she came up with the heaviest Puerto Rican accent you could think of for the song. It was just hysterical. So we were doing things like that constantly. She’s a friend for life. We have stayed in touch with each other constantly. I would say that’s one of the greatest gifts that film gave me, her friendship. And I’m so grateful for it.

Rita Moreno listens while George Chakiris speaks with her in a scene from the film ‘West Side Story’.
(Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)

Fox News: What was your initial impression of Natalie Wood?
Chakiris: You know, I can still see it right now as if it happened yesterday. I remember when she first walked in. She was quiet and by herself. But the first thing you immediately noticed was her beauty. It was impossible not to be struck by how beautiful she was. She just radiated. 

George Chakiris with Natalie Wood filming ‘West Side Story’.
(Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

But in getting to know her on set, I realized she was just as beautiful on the inside. She was sweet, funny and easily got along with the cast. You knew she was a star because of her beauty alone, but she never acted the part. And she worked incredibly hard, just like the rest of us. She would always arrive on time for rehearsal casually dressed and just ready to take on whatever was thrown at us. Whenever she performed, you couldn’t help but just stop whatever you were doing. She was so incredibly lovely to work with. That’s how I remember her.

George Chakiris after his Oscar win.
(Photo courtesy of George Chakiris)

Fox News: You went on to win the Oscar for “Best Supporting Actor.” What was going through your mind when you heard your name?
Chakiris: I remember I went with Rita. I walked up the stairs, knocked on the door and there she was, so beautiful. And the first thing she said to me was, “I’m practicing my loser’s face.” *laughs*. She’s really funny. So anyway, we were just at the ceremony, not expecting anything to come of it for us. Then my category came up. And all of all sudden, I heard my name. It’s like my life flashed before my eyes honestly *laughs*. It’s really hard to describe that moment because I truly wasn’t expecting to win. Needless to say, it was a surprise. A nice surprise.

Just to be nominated is honestly wonderful because it means the business recognizes your work. But when my name was called, I just got up to the stage, said something very short, and that was it. There were so many emotions but it all happened so fast. I was so grateful. I didn’t see myself as very important, but I knew I had always worked very hard. So it was a very good feeling. And Rita also won so it made the moment extra special. It was truly one of the greatest moments of my life. 

Fox News: How did your life change after winning that Oscar?
Chakiris: To be honest, I didn’t change. I was still the same inexperienced naive person always eager to learn. I don’t think I was cast any differently. I didn’t get special billing just because I had won an Oscar. But I appreciated what was happening to me. I just rolled with the punches in the best way possible. 

I remember I was offered [1964’s] “Flight from Ashiya” with Richard Widmark. I turned it down twice. For some reason, I just didn’t want to do the film. I didn’t think it was right for me. I went to the head of William Morris Agency and he told me, “It’s important to keep making movies. You need to keep working. Look at the billing you’re getting. Look at the money you’re getting.” 

George Chakiris (center) said he was eventually typecast once he began doing television.
(Photo by United Artists/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

He never said, “This is a good career move you should make.” I don’t think he thought that. It was more, you have to keep working. And I’m not sorry that I did the film. But, that was a lesson I had to learn [in Hollywood]. When I did television, I was certainly typecast. But overall, I’m very lucky with how my life turned out. 

George Chakiris lives a quiet life in Los Angeles.
(Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Fox News: “West Side Story” is being remade. How do you feel about that? 
Chakiris: I expect something wonderful from Steven Spielberg… He obviously takes on projects that he cares about as a filmmaker. And this is a beautiful, beautiful story. I’m sure any person with imagination can do a lot with this film. I just hope [the original] will always be remembered because, without it, there would be no Steven Spielberg film. I just hope the new film pays absolute respect to what we did. So I’m hoping something beautiful will come from it.

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