“West Side Story” became a runaway success with both critics and moviegoers upon its release in 1961, ranking as the year’s highest grossing film and winning 10 Academy Awards including best picture. The beloved romantic musical is an adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway musical, a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” revolving around New York street gangs. The tragic drama becomes complicated when a member of one falls in love with a rival’s sister. The film, which solidified the superstar status of performers like Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno, was deemed culturally significant by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for the National Film Registry in 1997. Sixty years later, a remake directed by box office titan Steven Spielberg is hitting theaters. In honor of the film’s release on Dec. 10, 2021, Wonderwall.com is taking a look at what happened to the stars of the original movie…
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Natalie Wood leads the story as Maria, the younger sister of the leader of a Puerto Rican street gang on New York City’s Upper West Side in the ’50s. The doe-eyed heroine lands in trouble when she falls in love with Tony, the co-founder of a rival gang, much to the dismay of her family and friends. While everyone in her life advises her to stay away from her new crush, she can’t help but follow her heart.
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Natalie Wood was one of Hollywood’s biggest rising stars when she landed the role of Maria. After her turn in “West Side Story,” Natalie starred in hit films like 1964’s “Sex and the Single Girl” and “Inside Daisy Clover” and 1969’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” She nabbed an Oscar nomination for 1963’s “Love with the Proper Stranger,” making her the youngest person, at the time, to have scored three Academy Award nominations (her first two were for her work in 1956’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and 1962’s “Splendor in the Grass”). Natalie was twice married to actor Robert Wagner, with whom she had daughter Courtney; in between their marriages, she wed British producer Richard Gregson and welcomed daughter Natasha. She acted in only two feature films during the ’70s, focusing instead on television parts like her Golden Globe-winning work in the 1979 remake of “From Here to Eternity” and a 1976 adaptation of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” opposite Robert. Sadly, Natalie’s career was cut short when she tragically drowned off California’s Santa Catalina Island in 1981 (she’s seen here earlier that year at the Golden Globes) at 43 during a holiday break from production on her final film, 1983’s “Brainstorm.” She was staying on a boat with Robert and co-star Christopher Walken the night she went into the water; the events surrounding her demise have been the subject of controversy. Decades later in 2012, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, under the instruction of the coroner’s office, listed her cause of death as “drowning and other undetermined factors.” In 2018, Robert was named as a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.
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Richard Beymer stars as Tony, the co-founder and one-time member of the Jets, a white street gang whose members are constantly fighting against the Sharks, a rival Puerto Rican gang, for control of New York City’s Upper West Side. Tony, who works at a drug store, is trying to distance himself from the more violent pastimes of his friends. Upon attending a dance with his crew, he falls for the stunning Maria despite discouragement from everyone he knows. The pair continue a secret romance, which ends tragically for the two young lovers.
Richard Beymer won a Golden Globe Award for new star of the year for his work in “West Side Story.” The Iowa native next made a series of hit films including 1961’s “Bachelor Flat,” 1962’s “Five Finger Exercise,” “Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man” and “The Longest Day,” and 1963’s “The Stripper.” But by the mid-’60s, Richard had stepped away from features. He instead filmed the award-winning documentary “A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer” in 1964 and guest starred on television shows like “The Virginian, “Dr. Kildare,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Death Valley Days.” He next starred in, wrote, produced and directed 1973’s “The Innerview” and a few episodes of television before leaving Hollywood to live in a commune and work in Switzerland. In the ’80s, Richard returned to Los Angeles to focus on acting again, appearing in films such as 1989’s “Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!,” 1994’s “My Girl 2” and 1996’s “Foxfire.” He also had numerous small screen spots on shows like “Moonlighting,” “Dallas,” “Flipper,” “The X-Files,” “Profiler” and “Family Law.” In the early ’90s, he found renewed success with a supporting role on the hit series “Twin Peaks,” a part he reprised for the 2017 third season. Since the ’00s, Richard (seen here at a 40th anniversary screening of “West Side Story” in 2001) has mostly retired from acting. He moved back to his native Iowa and has remained focused on directing documentary shorts as well as writing, sculpting and painting.
Rita Moreno shines as Anita, the girlfriend of the leader of the Sharks who’s also Maria’s closest confidante. Maria keeps her romance with Tony secret from most but feels safe sharing her controversial feelings with Anita. While Anita doesn’t agree with the relationship and chastises her friend for fraternizing with the enemy, she eventually acts as a messenger for the two parties when they’re kept apart by their respective crews.
Rita Moreno won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her work in “West Side Story.” Despite her win, the Puerto Rican actress struggled to find projects that didn’t cast her as a stereotype ethnic girl so she took a seven-year break before returning to films in 1968’s “The Night of the Following Day” opposite future on-off love Marlon Brando. She also appeared on Broadway in musicals like 1969’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” 1970’s “Gantry” and “The Ritz,” for which she won the 1975 Tony Award for best featured actress. The ’70s saw Rita successfully move into television with turns on “The Electric Company,” “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” The latter two both earned her Primetime Emmy Awards and made her only the third person in history, at the time, to reach EGOT status (earn an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony). Rita’s remained consistently busy in the decades since with featured roles in countless films and TV shows. Her movies include “The Four Seasons,” “I Like It Like That,” “Slums of Beverly Hills,” “Blue Moon,” “Rio 2” and “Remember Me.” Her small screen work includes spots on “The Love Boat,” “The Cosby Show,” “George Lopez,” “The Golden Girls,” “Miami Vice,” “The Nanny,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Happily Divorced.” The screen legend more recently starred on the critically acclaimed Netflix sitcom “One Day At A Time” and was the subject of the 2021 documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” Rita, who’s received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award and a Peabody Career Achievement Award, appears in the 2021 Steven Spielberg remake of “West Side Story” (pictured). In 1965, she married cardiologist and internist Leonard Gordon, who became her manager after he retired from medicine, and they remained together until his death in 2010. Rita has one daughter and two grandsons.
Russ Tamblyn plays Riff, the leader of the Jets and Tony’s best friend. Riff is intent on keeping the gang’s rivalry with the Sharks alive and constantly picks fights with them in a bid for power. Even after Tony tries to call a truce between the two factions, Riff takes matters into his own hands and starts a knife fight — one that changes the lives of everyone involved forever.
Former child actor Russ Tamblyn, an Oscar nominee for his performance in “Peyton Place,” rode a wave of success following his performance as Riff in “West Side Story,” starring in a number of features like “How the West Was Won,” “The Haunting,” “The Long Ships,” “Son of a Gunfighter,” “Satan’s Sadists,” “The Last Movie” and “Dracula vs. Frankenstein.” He also branched out into television with parts on “The Greatest Show on Earth,” “Days of Our Lives,” “Gunsmoke,” “Tarzan” and “Cade’s County.” By the late ’70s, Russ also began working in construction and computer software and worked on the screenplay and choreography of Neil Young’s 1982 film “Human Highway” and his “Greendale” concert tour. He continued acting in the ’80s and experienced another major break with the TV hit “Twin Peaks” in the early ’90s. Russ has remained busy in the decades since, appearing in projects such as “Babylon 5,” “Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold,” “Drive,” “Django Unchained,” “Hits” and the 2017 third season of “Twin Peaks.” He was married to Las Vegas showgirl Elizabeth Kempton when he shot “West Side Story,” but the pair divorced in 1979 after welcoming their first child. Russ then wed Bonnie Murray and the pair welcomed a daughter, actress Amber Tamblyn, in 1983. He’s worked with his daughter on hit TV projects “General Hospital” and “Joan of Arcadia.” Russ (seen here in 2018) underwent open heart surgery in 2014 but his health recovered the following year. He was most recently seen on a 2018 episode of the Netflix hit “The Haunting of Hill House.”
George Chakiris portrays the Sharks’ confident leader, Bernardo, who’s also Maria’s protective older brother and Anita’s boyfriend. Bernardo is intent on keeping his sister and Tony apart, as he doesn’t want anything to come between his gang’s rivalry with the Jets, but his overzealous nature leads to a confrontation with Tony, Riff and the Jets that ends with deadly results.
George Chakiris had a starring role in the London production of “West Side Story” in 1958, which led to him scoring his part in the big screen version of the hit musical — a massive break for the Ohio-born actor. His acclaimed performance nabbed him both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor. He next appeared in an array of ’60s films such as “Two and Two Make Six,” “Diamond Head,” “Flight from Ashiya,” “Bebo’s Girl,” “633 Squadron,” “The High Bright Sun,” “Is Paris Burning?” and “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.” He also embarked on a career as a pop singer, resulting in a couple of minor hit songs, and did a nightclub act at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In the ’70s and ’80s, he moved to television, scoring spots on shows like “Medical Center,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Wonder Woman,” “Fantasy Island,” “CHiPs,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Partridge Family,” “Dallas” and “Santa Barbara.” George started off the ’90s with roles in the movie “Pale Blood” and on the TV shows “Human Target” and “The Girls of Lido” but retired by the middle of decade to focus on making sterling silver jewelry. He’s since worked as a jewelry designer for his own brand, George Chakiris Collections. The star (seen here in 2018) made a brief return to acting in 2021 in the film “Not to Forget,” which aimed to raise awareness and funds for the fight against Alzheimer’s.
Simon Oakland stars as one of the film’s few adult characters, Police Lieutenant Schrank. The hard-boiled plainclothes detective spends much of his time trying to break up the frequent brawls between the Jets and the Sharks. He routinely presses the gangs for more information on their rivalry, often to no avail, and finds himself unable to prevent the tragic violence that ensues.
After “West Side Story,” Simon Oakland appeared in features like “The Sand Pebbles” and “Bullitt” before moving into television in the late ’60s and early ’70s with guest spots on shows such as “Perry Mason,” “Decoy” and “Dundee and the Culhane.” In 1976, he scored a lead role on NBC’s military drama “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (pictured) and also popped up on “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” His television career remained steady right up until his death in 1983. Simon passed away from colon cancer a day after his 68th birthday. He was married to Lois Lorraine Porta, who died two decades later. They shared a daughter, Barbara.
Ned Glass stars as Doc, a decent, elderly Jewish drugstore owner on New York City’s Upper West Side who’s Tony’s boss. His shop is one of the few safe spaces where Tony and Maria can meet up without alerting their respective crews. When the Jets infiltrate the place to hold a meeting, he shoos them away after they harass a visiting Anita.
After “West Side Story,” Vaudeville and Broadway actor Ned Glass, a military veteran, returned to TV and appeared on shows like “Glynis,” “The Cara Williams Show,” “The Fugitive,” “The Monkees” and “Get Smart.” His feature credits over the next two decades include the hits “Kid Galahad,” “Blindfold,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “The Love Bug” and “Lady Sings The Blues.” In 1969, he was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for his work on the long-running sitcom “Julia.” Ned (seen here on a 1975 episode of “Barney Miller”) made his final film appearance in the 1981 comedy “Street Music,” while his final TV appearance was as a pickpocket on “Cagney & Lacey” the following year. He died during a 1984 hospital stay in his hometown of Encino, California, after a battle with an unknown illness. He was 78.
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