George Chakiris is an Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning actor whose breakthrough role was that of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, in West Side Story (1961). After his award-winning performance in West Side Story, Mr. Chakiris went on to star in such films as Two and Two Make Six (1962), Kings of the Sun (1963), Diamond Head (1963), and The Big Cube (1969). Mr. Chakiris appeared as one of the three leads in Flight from Ashiya (1964), along with Yul Brynner and Richard Widmark. A Daiei co-production, Flight from Ashiya chronicles a rescue mission undertaken by members of the U.S. Air Force Air Rescue Service stationed in Japan after a ship is wrecked at sea, leaving survivors clinging to life. Mr. Chakiris spoke about the making of Flight from Ashiya in a July 2010 interview with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: How did you get cast in Flight from Ashiya?
George Chakiris: After I finished my work on the film version of West Side Story, I went back to the London stage production to finish my contract playing Riff there. I was with the William Morris Agency at the time, and Ashiya was a project that came up. My agents recommended that I accept the offer. It was my first movie after West Side Story, and I followed the advice of my agents.
BH: Well, one of the things I’ve noticed, from time to time, is when American stars are asked to work in Japan, the draw of having a trip to Japan is one thing that makes them agree to perform in the film. Is that something that worked for you?
GC: No, that had nothing to do with my doing the film. But it was my first time in Japan, and since then I’ve been to Japan quite a few times. I didn’t do the film just to go to Japan, but I have to say I fell in love with Japan.
BH: What do you recall about working with the director, Michael Anderson, who of course had fame from doing Around the World in 80 Days (1956)?
GC: He was a lovely, very nice man to work with. It was my first time being billed above the title with major stars like Yul Brynner and Richard Widmark. In the film, there are three stories: One was Yul’s, one was Richard’s, and the other was mine. Yul went to see the rushes every day. Because there were three different stories, there were days he wouldn’t see himself on the screen. Richard Widmark told me that Yul wanted the producers to go back and rewrite some of the story so that he could be included! Richard Widmark said, “No way.” They could have done it to me. Yul would have gotten away with it because I probably wouldn’t have even known it was happening, but Richard Widmark, being the experienced, wonderful actor that he was, didn’t let that happen, so Yul didn‘t get away with that one! (laughs)
But my point is that a director has to deal with the actors, their personalities. Yul was very famous, as was Richard. Sometimes dealing with personalities can be difficult. I never recall Yul ever being difficult. It all seemed very smooth. There were no problems or friction of any kind. If Richard hadn’t told me that story, I would have never known. The director has to deal with his stars. Yul was not difficult; it’s just that he wanted the movie belong to him. Michael was wonderful at dealing with the actors, making sure everyone was comfortable, and creating a good working atmosphere.
BH: On the subject of Yul Brynner, I spoke to an actor who was actually an extra in that film named Cliff Harrington who shared a scene with Richard Widmark, and Cliff seems to remember that Yul Brynner actually had his car brought over from America to Japan. Is that something you can recall?
GC: I don’t remember the car, but that’s possible. Yul cared about his living style when he was on location. Even though he was married (his wife wasn’t there), he had a very beautiful Japanese mistress, who was very well-liked by everyone. Also, his son Rocky was there, and he had Doris, who was his secretary. Also a lovely man, Walter Lees, who was more than a secretary, and then there was his valet. So Yul had his entourage. I never knew about the car, which seems pretty impractical, but it certainly could be. Yul was the kind of person who could do that.
BH: One other thing that Cliff seemed to remember from the production was that the three leads — yourself, Yul (Brynner), and Richard Widmark — had trailers. Is that something that was the case?
GC: When we were on location, we did have our trailers. That’s a common practice when there is location filming.
BH: Generally speaking, about Yul Brynner and Richard Widmark, what do you remember about working with these two stars in the film? What are some of your memories?
GC: Richard was very serious person, concentrating on his work, and didn’t smile much. I had a girlfriend who came over with me, and her objective, before we were gone, was to make him laugh. And she did! I think Richard liked that.
Richard and I worked side-by-side in a mockup of a helicopter. Inside the helicopter there were all kinds of mechanical instruments to work with, and Richard, being the incredibly experienced actor that he was, went inside the helicopter before filming to have an understanding of how the instruments worked, so that he could use them correctly during the scenes. Even though I knew my lines, I had my script on the floor — not a very professional thing to do, especially with somebody like Richard. They would say “cut” for something, and I would look at my script again. I didn’t do it a lot, but I did it probably just one time too many. Now this was a huge soundstage, basically filmed with mostly a Japanese crew. But Richard Widmark very loudly said, “Why don’t you read the script!” I was so embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to put myself. I couldn’t sit there. It just threw me, but of course he was right. Later, we laughed about it because he said, “I’m so sorry I did that to you.” I said, “No, you’re absolutely right.”
But Richard was there for the work, and he obviously respected people who did the work and knew their lines. That never happened with me again. So he taught me a lesson. That’s not a lesson that I really needed to learn, but it was in the first few days, and I was a little nervous. But that’s one of the things that happened with Richard. The rest of the time with him was great. He didn’t socialize, as I told you, with anybody. His wife came over to stay with him. I don’t know what hotel they stayed in. But he was kind of the opposite to Yul in an interesting kind of way. Richard did not get socially involved with anybody working on the film. Yul didn’t go out of his way to socialize, but he was quite open to it, and very friendly, very nice. Richard wasn’t unfriendly; it’s just that his choice was to just be quiet and, when it was over, say goodnight till the next day.
BH: Well, what about Yul Brynner? Do you have any other particular memories about him that you can share?
GC: I made another movie with him a couple of year later called Kings of the Sun, so I worked with Yul a couple of times. In Flight from Ashiya, I had fewer scenes with Yul. But Yul was an absolute professional, as well. Very experienced man in the theater and on film. I admired both Yul and Richard and their confidence in really knowing what to do, what worked best for them, especially Yul.
BH: I’m not sure exactly how to phrase this question, but you had just come off winning an Oscar for West Side Story, and I‘m fascinated by the fact that you‘re saying that you’re intimidated by Yul Brynner and Richard Widmark, who of course are big stars, but at the same time, you’ve won an Oscar. How did you view your acting ability compared to theirs?
GC: I never stopped to think about my acting abilities. My “technique” was to always work for the truth in a scene. At the time, I was naïve about the business in general. When people win Oscars, things do change. But none of that entered my mind while I was working on the movie. I just didn’t think that way. I was still me, the person that I was and still am. I’ve always been kind of modest this way. So none of that Oscar “business” crossed my mind.
BH: Aside from the two stars that you worked with that we’ve already talked about, there were also a lot of local Western actors who appeared in it, such as William Ross, Andrew Hughes, Robert Dunham, and Cliff Harrington. Do you recall any of these names?
GC: I wasn’t aware that there was any of the Western actors were living in Japan. I suppose the conversations never opened up in that way. The one actor that I do remember — in fact, I can see his face — I think was brought over from the States. Somehow that never was part of the knowledge that was mentioned. So I had no idea.
BH: Just to let you know, these names appear very often in Japanese films throughout the sixties, and at the time they were all living in Japan. Some of them came over for military reasons, and they got into acting that way, but others just found a career. William Ross, for instance, is still living in Japan.
GC: Oh, William Ross! And his wife, Michie. I worked with them later for a TBS production. They were involved with the writing. Bill and Michie Ross. They were absolutely wonderful. I kept in touch with them for quite a few years after that. I have to be sure to send a Christmas card this year. I don’t remember him from Flight from Ashiya, but I do remember him from other Japanese productions.
BH: What do you remember about him, just working with him?
GC: He and his wife were great. They were a team, so I didn’t see them separately; I always saw them together. They were great; he loved Japan. He just loved living there, and I think I can understand why. They did a lot of translating for other things, as well. I like and admire them very much. Very nice people.
BH: What do you recall about working in Daiei Studios where the film was produced?
GC: We had a wonderful Japanese crew. Being on that film set was no different from being on a set somewhere else, except that the language was different. I don’t remember who was the assistant director to Michael Anderson, but somebody obviously had to speak English and Japanese to be able to translate. I don’t know how many of those people on the crew might have spoken English. But it didn’t feel different from any other good studio atmosphere.
BH: Well, that’s definitely high praise for Daiei Studios and their professionalism at the time.
GC: Oh, they were terrific. They were wonderful. The work ethic in Japan is incredible. I remember working later on a wonderful miniseries for NHK about Lafcadio Hearn, who took the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo. One morning I woke up with the flu. I thought, “Should I call in? Should I say I’m not feeling well?” I dithered about that for ten minutes, and finally called in and said, “You know, I’m really not feeling well.” “No, no, you go to work, anyway.” It was a long day, and I did get sick by the evening, but my point is that you work; you go to work. That’s it. I love the Japanese work ethic.
BH: I’ve talked to American actors who’ve worked in Japanese productions. Working 24 hours straight is something that’s happened. Is that something that you found on Flight from Ashiya?
GC: No, not on Flight from Ashiya. I remember working late hours on the television series, but not a 24-hour day. On Flight from Ashiya, we basically started shooting at 9 in the morning, but we would be finished by 6. I don’t think Yul or Richard would have worked an overly long day. It was an American production, really. So I think it had that feel.
BH: Was it a union production or nonunion?
GC: I’m sure it was union. But, again, I don’t think Yul would have done the movie, (expecting) to be there 24 hours a day! Or Richard.
BH: Of course! Another question that you might not know, but I just wanted to ask it to see if you had any possible memories, was the special effects director and the art director was named Eugene Lourie?
GC: No, there was no interaction. It was just the actors and the director, and no interaction with technical people that I recall.
BH: What was a typical day of shooting like on this particular film? What do you remember about the day-to-day activities?
GC: West Side Story was such a monster hit that even though Yul and Richard were huge stars, all the girls really wanted to see me! (laughs)
BH: Were you also mobbed on this film?
GC: No, no, that didn’t happen because they kept everything really controlled. Apart from being mobbed at the airport when I arrived there were no incidents of any kind.
BH: It was very typical of your experience.
GC: Yes, it was. I had other experiences where things happened. But they were usually because of the personalities of the people. That’s what makes the difference; it’s the people, in whatever department they might be in, that make a difference in the experience of whatever you’re working on. So Ashiya was a beautifully organized production.
BH: Another question about life in Japan is, when you weren’t shooting your film, what sort of activities would you do in Japan during downtime?
GC: We had location work in Kyoto, and Walter Lees, the man who worked for Yul Brynner, had a friend who had a beautiful antique shop there. He was not Japanese; he was English. I ended up buying a few things. Robert had a house in a village in the country outside of Kyoto with those beautiful thatched roofs. Robert invited us there one Sunday afternoon, and we drove out on this beautiful, sunny, fabulous day. To be in this Japanese village was kind of amazing. They all knew each other, and they came over to visit and say hello to us, and were so gracious.
Kyoto was different from Tokyo. Tokyo’s this big, incredible city, but being in Kyoto felt a little smaller. You realized you were in Japan more. We walked around the city much more than we did in Tokyo. The thing that I noticed in Japan is how organized the cities are. You don’t see a scrap of paper on the street. It’s immaculate. When people come to a cross stop to cross the street, and it says, “Don’t Walk,” they don’t walk! People pay attention to the signs. The discipline and the respect are one of the first things I noticed and I loved about being in Japan. No matter where you go, it’s always the people. In Japan, I always, always loved the people.
I have friends there now because I’ve been there, as I said, a number of times, and I’ve always loved working with the people. Great sense of humor, beautifully organized, great respect — that’s just a part of the culture. I loved all of that.
The hotel I stayed in when we were in Kyoto offered a Western-style room or a Japanese room. I think the one I stayed in had both, so I could have slept on the floor if I wanted to. So there was more of Japanese culture around you that you could actually see. I remember the beautiful gardens. I think all the hotels, even in Tokyo, have beautiful gardens that people can walk through. But I didn’t notice it until Kyoto, and then being in the country in Kyoto and the Japanese village. I was really in Japan!
BH: You talked about many stories from the set of the film. Is there anything else, any other memories that you can share?
GC: I’m sure there must have been the usual things, but I can’t remember specifics.
I enjoyed it. I have to say that. In a way, it was fun. Richard ended up fun, and of course Yul was fun, too. He was a nice man and generous. The way the Japanese crew work is amazing. Listen, all crews, when you think about it, are the ones who work harder than anybody else.
Nothing about the film that really stands out in any way that‘s exceptional. It was not eventful in that way. It was just, as I say, smooth sailing. The director was a lovely man, very wonderful. I don’t remember anyone ever losing their temper. That never happened. So it was uneventful in that way. But, at the same time, a nice experience because of that.
At that time, Haneda was the international airport. When you arrived, you would exit the plane and take steps from the plane onto the tarmac, and then walk to the terminal building. When we arrived at the airport, the top floor of the terminal building was packed with people. I wondered who they were. It turned out that they all turned up to see me! That, as I said, never happened to me before. As we were going through the building with the security guards, the crowds almost pushed us through a glass window. An incredible and wonderful greeting!
BH: Of course, Russ Tamblyn is very well-known (to monster movie fans) as the star of War of the Gargantuas, but what was it like to work with Russ Tamblyn on the set of West Side Story?
GC: Russ was great to work with. He’d been in movies since he was a kid. Russ and I are very good friends. We became better friends after the movie. Overall, West Side Story was such a great experience for all of us. But working with Russ was great. He had a really good manner. He was a good worker, good sense of humor, and he was really wonderful at what he was doing. I remember he was married to an English girl at the time. Filming was done at what is now called the Lot, the studio on Formosa and Santa Monica. At that time, it was called Goldwyn Studios. But we each had really nice dressing rooms, and one time I remember having a social moment with Russ while we were making the film. His wife had come for one day to watch filming, and Russ invited me up to his dressing room to meet his wife, and we sat around and chatted for a bit. So that was our one social moment during the making of the film. I’ve come to know Russ much more after the film.
Jerome Robbins, who co-directed and choreographed the film, didn’t want the Jets and the Sharks to socialize with each other. So there was this competitive thing. Hey, Russ was a Jet! But that didn’t get in our way. Everybody was really concentrating on the work because Jerry was such a perfectionist, and such an amazing man to work for.
Getting back to Russ, we weren’t very close then, but we are now.
(After I discussed Russ Tamblyn’s role in War of the Gargantuas, Mr. Chakiris offered these thoughts on Toho Studios.)
GC: The thing I went over (to Japan) for at the end of last January into February (2010) was for Toho. They were doing a project called “The 10 a.m. Film Festival.” They had selected 50 films from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and their purpose was that they wanted younger audiences to be able to see these films on a big screen and not on television. So I went over as a sort of ambassador. It was fun. I love to go to Japan. Somebody told me that the festival turned out to be very successful. It worked. So that was nice.
I also went over in 1979. I got an offer to do a Japanese production of the Madame Butterfly story with a very famous Japanese actress (Yoshiko Sakuma) at the Takarazuka Theater. When my agent in New York called me and told me about it, I thought it was funny. I thought, “How am I supposed to know when to talk? How can this work?” Coincidentally, I knew Kazuko Komori who was a very famous movie journalist in Japan. She was a wonderful friend, and she knew everybody in show business, so I thought, “I’m going to call her and ask her.” She found out the names of all the people involved, the director, the actress, and the producers.
After finding out the information she said, “I think you should do it.” I trusted Komori-san completely, so I followed her advice. It was directed by Fukuko Ishii and so well-written that it made total sense for a foreigner to be there. My point is, it worked. The entrance for Sakuma was just fantastic. I worked again with Ishii-san later, and I saw her again when I was there in February. I went to see another play she had done. She’s a wonderful director and person, and it was a great production. She’s quite famous. The thing that really struck me seeing a stage play in another language is that you can recognize a good actor. With Sakuma, I remember thinking “Wow, she’s really wonderful.” You could just tell. You didn’t have to understand the language.
BH: The last question I would ask about Flight from Ashiya is, I take it there was a premiere of the film. If you were there, how did it go? Just in general, what did you think of the film?
GC: I did not go to a premiere of the film, and I’ve never really seen the movie. I’ve seen it in bits.
I remember later I was in London, and as I was walking up the Haymarket toward Piccadilly Circus, there was Flight from Ashiya playing, and I just had to walk the other way! I just couldn’t go near it! I never liked to watch myself on the screen. Now I can watch myself because it’s not like I’m watching me. I remember when we were doing West Side Story, Natalie Wood always went to rushes. So one day I went and watched rushes. After that, I realized it was better for me not to see them because I am very critical of myself. So that’s why I didn’t want to watch the rushes. I thought, “I’m going to be stupidly critical of myself, and it will just get in my way,” so it was better for me not to see them.