It can still bring tears to your eyes watching the final scene of this musical romantic drama, when two New York City teenage gangs unite to carry Tony’s lifeless body away in a funeral procession, marking the end of the Jets versus the Sharks gang warfare and introducing the world to West Side Story and the original West Side Story cast.
The 1961 film, an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, became the highest grossing movie of that year and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 10.
The music was composed by none other than Leonard Bernstein, with so many numbers that they were split into Act I and Act II. Inspired by Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story focuses on two gangs competing for control of the Upper West Side of New York City.
The Jets are a group of white boys led by Riff, while the Sharks are Puerto Rican teens led by Bernardo. The Jets challenge the Sharks to a rumble to be held after an upcoming dance, ultimately leading to tragedy and tears.
West Side Story, and the original West Side Story cast, is regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time and was designated as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. So significant was the film, that Steven Spielberg took the reins of a remake released in 2021.
The original West Side Story cast, then and now
Let’s take a look back at some of the original West Side Story cast from 1961.
Natalie Wood as Maria
Maria, Bernardo’s younger sister, has an arranged engagement to Chino, another Sharks member, but she falls in love with Tony.
Natalie Wood, born July 20, 1938 in San Francisco, began her career as a child actress at age 5 in Happy Land, where her one scene saw her billed as the Little Girl Who Drops Ice Cream Cone — which lasted a whopping 15 seconds.
She would successfully transition into teenage roles, young adult roles and middle-aged roles, but the part that first gave her a taste of fame was, at age 8, that of Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). At that point she became a sought-after young star and appeared in over 20 films as a child actress, learning how to cry on cue.
She found more success at age 16 with the role of Judy, longing to get her father’s attention in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Wood was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, which resulted in more mature roles as an ingenue.
Life magazine dubbed her “The Most Beautiful Teenager in the World” in 1955. She then appeared in John Wayne’s The Searchers, a film now considered a masterpiece of Western filmmaking. Yet as happens in Hollywood, movies do fail and Wood’s failure was in All the Fine Young Cannibals in 1960 — for the first time in her career, she was seen as a has been. That is until she was cast as the sexually repressed Wilma Dean Loomis in Splendor in the Grass as the female lead opposite Warren Beatty.
Her next important film was West Side Story, where she represented the restlessness of youth. Her role as Maria is still seen as one of the finest performances of her career, alongside her role as burlesque entertainer and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy (1962). Wood took her hot career into a dramatic role in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) opposite Steve McQueen, and received her third and final Oscar nomination at age 25.
While her professional life was on an upward trajectory, her health status was not. She was suffering from depression and seeing a psychiatrist. Seeking self-care, Wood retired for a while and spent three years away from the bright lights of Hollywood. Feeling more like herself again, she made her comeback in the comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), which was a huge box office hit and Wood’s percentage of the gross afforded her another five years away from Hollywood.
Motherhood took center stage and Natalie Wood became a stay-at-home mom, appearing in only four more films before her tragic drowning death in 1981 off the coast of Catalina Island.
Ironically, Wood suffered from a deep fear of drowning after having barely survived an accident when she was a little girl on a movie set. “I hate the ocean,” she once said. “I hate the water. I can’t swim and I don’t like to be around it.” Pallbearers at her funeral was a list of Who’s Who in Hollywood: Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Fred Astaire.
Richard Beymer as Tony
Tony was initially the co-founder and one-time member of the Jets and Riff’s best friend. He works at Doc’s drugstore and falls in love with Maria.
Born in Avoca, Iowa, Richard Beymer moved to Hollywood in the late 1940s and acted in various films while still attending North Hollywood High School. With his 6’2” stature, Beymer was made for Hollywood with his debut in Terminal Station (1953).
He worked steadily up till his big break as part of the original West Side Story cast. “I was sort of caught up in my own web of illusion”, he has said on seeing West Side Story for the first time. Beymer actually hated his performance in the movie and left the London premiere halfway through the film’s screening before he could be presented to Queen Elizabeth II. “I was miserable in West Side Story. I didn’t know enough at the time, because I lacked certain knowledge in acting.”
After his breakout performance, Beymer had a big role in the WWII epic The Longest Day (1962), which garnered him very good reviews. His acting work was sporadic in the 60s and 70s due to his decision to travel to the South as part of the Civil Rights movement. Yet, out of that experience, Beymer made an award-winning documentary on the topic.
Beymer lived in Switzerland on a commune, working on the TV series Insight. “I never left the movies,” he said. “I just made different kinds of movies. But I never started out to be a star or leading man type.”
Back to Los Angeles in 1982 to restart his career, Beymer’s roles included Paper Dolls, Moonlighting, Dallas, and he was widely seen in Twin Peaks. The actor, filmmaker and artist lives in Fairfield, Iowa where he continues to create, making films, writing, sculpting, and painting.
(Click through to our sister site for behind-the-scenes facts about the original Dallas cast!)
Rita Moreno as Anita in the original West Side Story cast
Anita was Maria’s closest confidante and Bernardo’s girlfriend.
Rita Moreno is one of a select few performers to win as Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy, thus becoming an EGOT, an achievement many aspire to but never attain. Other accolades refer to her talented career.
Born in Puerto Rico on December 11, 1931, Rosa Dolores Alverio Marcano began her career in supporting roles in classic musical films such as Singin’ in The Rain (1952) and The King and I (1956) before her breakout role as Anita in the original West Side Story cast. She won an Oscar for her role, becoming the first Latin American woman to win an Academy Award.
Other film roles followed and, in 2021, Moreno portrayed a newly created character, Valentina, in the West Side Story remake. She also executive produced the Steven Spielberg adaptation.
Moreno’s film career actually began in the Golden Age of Hollywood’s later years, and she acted steadily in films throughout the 1950s. Of her Singin’ In The Rain co-star Gene Kelly, she has only praise for his courage in casting her in the non-stereotypical Hispanic role of Zelda. “He just thought I’d be fine for it. It was a privilege working on that film.”
Soon after West Side Story, Moreno had a major role in Summer and Smoke (1961), later making her return to film in 1968’s The Night of the Following Day, costarring Marlon Brando, and followed that with Popi and Marlowe, both in 1969.
From 1971 to 1977, Moreno was a main cast member on the PBS children’s series The Electric Company while simultaneously appearing in films and other television series. It was her appearance on The Muppet Show that earned her a Primetime Emmy.
Not to sit back on her laurels, Moreno appeared in several dramaa and comedies throughout the 80s. In 1993, she was invited to perform at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration and, later that month, performed at the White House. And have you ever wondered whose voice that was coming out of Carmen Sandiego on Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? Well, wonder no more. It was Rita Moreno!
Her appearances on the HBO series Oz as Sister Pete garnered her several ALMA awards. More recently, Moreno starred in the sports comedy feature 80 for Brady, and played Abuelita Toretto in Fast X, the 10th installment of the Fast & Furious franchise.
(Click here for our exclusive Woman’s World interview with Rita Moreno and her 6 pieces of wisdom for living a purposeful life!)
Russ Tamblyn as Riff in the original West Side Story cast
Riff is Tony’s best friend and leader of The Jets.
Never one to be shy, Russ Tamblyn discovered show business when he was five while attending a Saturday matinee with other youngsters in Inglewood, California. On that sunny southern California afternoon while waiting for the show to begin, Tamblyn got on the stage and did an impromptu dance and tumbling routine, which the kids loved. That was the beginning of Tamblyn’s show biz career, though his real ambition was to be a circus performer.
Born December 30, 1934 in Los Angeles, Russ trained as a gymnast and had a small non-speaking role in The Boy with Green Hair in 1948. He made his official film debut in 1954’s musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Switching genres, three years later Tamblyn co-starred in the drama Peyton Place as Norman Page for which he earned an Oscar nomination.
Then came his time in the original West Side Story cast, but throughout the 70s, he made several exploitation films and then worked as a choreographer in the 80s.
David Lynch took note of Tamblyn’s career and cast him in the quirky TV drama, Twin Peaks in 1990, giving him the chance to reprise the role in the drama’s 2017 revival.
Russ has worked alongside his talented daughter Amber in a few projects, among them General Hospital, Joan of Arcadia, Rebellious and Django Unchained. In 2004, the Academy Film Archive preserved the mid-60s works First Film and Rio Reel by Tamblyn.
George Chakiris as Bernardo in the original West Side Story cast
Bernardo was the charismatic leader of The Sharks, older brother of Maria and Anita’s boyfriend.
George Chakiris made his film debut at the age of 12 singing in the chorus of Song of Love (1947). After high school graduation, Chakiris supported his nighttime dancing, singing and dramatic lessons with a day job clerking in a Los Angeles department store.
He appeared in small roles, usually as a dancer or member of the chorus, in various films, including Call Me Madam, Second Chance and The Great Caruso. Then he escorted a pink-gowned Marilyn Monroe down the stairs for the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. His explosive yet silky dance style has kept him on the short list of professional dancers ever since.
In 1958, he switched gears and traveled to New York hoping for a Broadway break. Instead, he auditioned and was awarded the co-starring role of Riff in the London company of West Side Story, playing the part for two years on the West End stage before acting, singing and dancing as Bernardo in the film version of West Side Story. His performance earned him a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Since then, he has starred in a succession of films, including Diamond Head, The Young Girls of Rochefort (with Catherine Deneuve and Gene Kelly), The Big Cube with Lana Turner and many more. It seems travel has done him well, his having been to such locations as Hawaii, Japan, Mexico, Italy, England, Spain and France for various projects.
Chakiris filled in his dance card with guest starring appearances in everything from Hawaii Five-O to Murder She Wrote, and joined the cast of Dallas from 1985 to 1986. Besides acting, he has released several albums and appeared in several plays.
Mostly retired now, Chakiris spends his time making sterling silver jewelry for his own brand. Looking back on his Oscar winning role as a member of the original West Side Story cast, the actor has said, “I wouldn’t mind even if it’s the only thing people remember me for. It was a privilege just to be there and to contribute to something so wonderful. The last scene still gets me every time. It still brings tears to my eyes.”
Keep reading to discover more of our favorite classic Hollywood stars!