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Re-Uniting 'West Side Story' actors Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris for my Audio-Book
By Paul Kyriazi
Of course, everyone discovered George Chakiris in West Side Story in which he received the academy award for Best Supporting Actor. Rita Moreno says of George, "There are only two elegant dancers I can think of, Fred Astair and George."
I had not thought of him to play the part of a Puerto Rican loan shark for my audio-book Rock Star Rising. I just didn't make the connection when I first thought about Russ Tamblyn to play the lead in it. This was probably because it was too much of a stretch to dream that big, that it never entered my head. But by chance the two of them appeared at a photo signing convention and then the idea clicked.
And if I could pull it off, not only would he be perfect for the part, I'd be making movie history, of a sort, by putting these two actors together for the first time since they both got stabbed and killed below that highway, so many years ago. A sort of resurrection for Riff and Bernardo.
Too much to dream? Probably. Russ got the script to George and, after a weeks wait, he told my agent he would do it. Out of the blue, I got a call from George saying that he would like to make some changes to the script and wondered how I felt about it. I told him that the overall story was of more concern to me than each individual word, so it would be fine. And of course, I wanted each actor to make the part his own, thusly putting more of them into my project then just showing up and performing what was on the page.
George asked where could we meet. Using what I had learned from my James Bond Lifestyle techniques I asked him if there were a big five star hotel near where he lived, as they would always have a comfortable lounge where we could talk with beverages available. He said the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, and we set the time and date.
I got there early and checked the place out. The lounge looked like a scene from a badly designed movie about Hollywood. A set too much "in character" to be believed. It was beautiful with three connecting lounges with a bar in the middle one. Seated at tables were men with laptops and talking over the cell phones about about making script changes.
I picked an a comfortable sofa with a chair and table next to it for George to sit in when he arrived, ordered avian water from the bar tender and opened my script on the table. George arrived right on time and I stood. I told him people had recently said, I looked like Michael Caine, so he recognized me right away.
He looked just like Bernardo and still definitely in shape as he trains at a gym daily and still does dance exercises. I warmed him up talking about the fact the we were both Greek decedents. His parents coming from Greece, both sets of my grandparents coming from Greece.
We talked about some of his movies like Diamond Head. He said he is still friends with James Darren from that movie. I didn't know then that James Darren would end up in the project, and not through George. Then we went to work on the script.
Basically his changes were more of the editing nature. Condensing longer speeches into more concise dialogue between him and Russ' character, with whom he had most of his scenes, besides the character of his sister.
At one point, George started to act out his dialogue and from the corner of my eye I notice people turning and looking at him and then me. Normally, being basically a shy person, this would have bothered me, but being it was academy award winning George Chakiris that I was working with, it didn't bother me at all. In fact, surrounded by all those "in" Hollywood types, I felt like that I was "in" with them. But I only thought about that for a second and then put my mind back on the script.
Two hours later, and after some more movie talk, both George and I were satisfied with his dialogue. At the recording studio, Russ and George sat facing each other, and did all their twenty or so scenes together. We would record each scene one by one talking a break between them to analyze and prepare for the next one. We first ran the scene where Russ' Puerto Rican girlfriend introduces him to her brother, so it was a three mike set up and we got it in one take, with the actress sounding like Rozie Perez. Then she took a break and Russ and George continued with scenes they had to do alone.
Once in a while they would stop and have to go over what they had agreed to do, and the changes that George had made only with me. I had typed up and copied the changes, which I had ready for both of them if need, but they preferred to work off their own scripts.
It was great to hear the two of them set up what they would say before the start of each scene. After two hours, their scenes together were done. Next George had to do his remaining scenes with the actress playing the part of his sister. It was great to hear the two of them, in character, argue about what was happening in the story.
When George finished all his scenes, I had Russ back in the booth continuing on with his scenes. I was happy to see that, even though finished, George sat in the back on a sofa with his "sister" and talked and enjoyed the atmosphere. It turned out they were both cat lovers and George told her that he would design a special piece of jewelry for her. I love it when the cast gets along.
Finally during a break, George said his farewells. I shook my hand and said, "It was a pleasure working with you." I replied, "I'll always remember The Four Seasons. It was very productive."
After he left Russ turned to me and said, "You know Paul, these days, George hardly does anything, but after meeting you, he decided to do this." I replied, "I'm really happy about that." It turned out that he had not been 100% sure about doing the project until after our first meeting.
Later, I hired Robert Culp, James Darren, and Kevin McCarthy to play parts in the production, with Rod Taylor narrating.
Now as I write this with a photo of Riff and Bernardo knife fighting on my PC table in front of me, both signed by Russ and George. I still can't believe that I have their performances safely preserved in my audio-book.