West Side Story (1961): An Interview with David Bean ("Tiger" the Jets)

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I was lucky to meet the lovely Mr. David Bean back in October 2022 at the Chiller Theater Expo in New Jersey. I purchased his book at this event and after reading  When You’re A Jet: A Dancer’s Extraordinary, Ordinary Life , I reviewed it on my blog. I was so inspired by his life stories that I decided to try reach out to Mr. Bean in the hopes of conducting an interview. To my surprise I received an email from Mr. Bean himself asking me to give him a call. We started having conversations in December 2023 which then brought me to this magical interview. Mr. Bean was a Jet named "Tiger" from the original West Side Story (1961) cast.  Chatting with Mr. Bean and getting to know his passions for film, dance, family, and life has been a privilege. 


What is one of your fondest memories of working on the film West side story 1961?

The very first day I drove through the gray at Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood was a moment I’ll never forget. As instructed, I arrived with rehearsal clothes and was directed to an old gym on the lot. It was “old home week “as I knew, and had worked with nearly one third of the cast-Tony Mordente (Action), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Eddie Verso (Juan), Bobby Banas (Joyboy). Bobby was an Indian in the 1954 production of Peter Pan on Broadway, my first professional job, at age 14. It was 10 o’clock in the morning, we were all required to take ballet class from Jerome Robbins. A custom we were to repeat every day for duration of filming (Nearly a year). Taking class before each rehearsal was brilliant as it saved getting injured. Being prepared to work “full out “when working for Mr. Robbins was essential.

We started the choreography with the prologue, the very beginning of the film. We were given what seemed 10 different versions of every eight phases of music. It was a challenge for sure. In the final cut of the film, most of the choreography reverted to the original stages version, I am 84 years old now, and I can still re-create every dance step from the film. The prologue and cool are seared in my memory. Of course, I’d have to take class before performing either.
The pranks on the studio lot were great fun and managed to get us, Jets, versus sharks, in a heap of trouble. If a jet, like myself, words to walk alone from one studio to another, getting ambushed and pestered by the Sharks. Jets versus Sharks was the standard rule. Jerome Robbins insisted we keep apart, even off the lot.

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You were a part of an ensemble cast of incredible dancers, singers, and actors. Did you enjoy working with such a large diverse group of people? Who did you get along with the best? Whose skills as a fellow creative were you impressed with the most? 

The talent in our cast was mind blowing. In class every day before rehearsals begin class grew into a challenge. The combinations Jerome Robbins was giving us were nearly impossible. True to form, no one ever gave up. If you weren’t up to it, you could just step aside and watch. Natalie would would start class every day. She was on call, however, she rarely continued after the bar work. Not everyone in the cast was a professional dancer. Class was fun for everyone.

George Chakiris was Bernardo in the movie. In the London stage production, he had the role of riff leader of the Jets! He and I (as Jets) Shared a house in London, and George was like a big brother to me. Still is! Doing the movie I wasn’t allowed to be his little brother.

My family all lived in Los Angeles, and I had an apartment in Hollywood. Our after work social life within the cast was rare. Saturday night we had a poker game (with Jets & Sharks) which went on all night. But that’s about it. Alas Natalie never invited me to dinner with JR ( Robert Wagner), her husband. Of course, she was a shark!

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When you first saw yourself in this film--what did you think of your performance and about the message it was trying to convey?

I was numb the first time I saw the movie. I spent a year touring England before I saw it. Over the years when I watched it I started to pick myself apart. “I could’ve done this. I should’ve done that.” But overall, I thought my character was consistent! To this day, I live by the 180 rule. (it’s in my book, “When You’re a Jet”, chapter 1, page 15).

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The film represents a time in this country and particularly a time in New York when kids would group together because of their specific ethnicities. The sixties were a time of radical change and growth. Do you believe this is the reason why this film continues to move so many people even after so many years?

Romeo and Juliet started it all and the after effect would be somewhat the same, provided the storytelling is (was) as beautifully presented as a 1961 version was. I don’t believe the 2021 version left one with the same general understanding of the problem. Spielberg’s version was dark, and perhaps angry, which made the movie, just that, a movie. The original film was honest, real, and told the same story with hearts on both sides. Viewers reacted to that and will to the end of time.

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The younger generations seem to dismiss classic films and simply labeling them as "old" and "relics"--to them it means it has no value in their society. How would you explain the worth of viewing and enjoying classic films to younger people? How would you encourage them to give these films a try?

You were throwing the ball in the wrong court. The young are, from a very young age, tutored by adults that have responsibility to teach, and then still values. America’s education system, through theater, music, and dance programs teach by example. West Side Story has been used worldwide in the education system and has been, As was Romeo and Juliet to literature. Classic films are the basic learning tool of the young. Who is going to expose them to this tool of the trade? Teachers and more seriously, parents! I dance from the age of six and sang songs of the 20's. It was my parents that lit the flames.

I give lectures to young students of the arts, telling them the importance of discipline. Something the young today are not taught, or encourage to develop the young have to get the classic movie bug from us! Show them the history, learn from the history.

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What films would you recommend to someone just starting out with classic movies? What are some of your favorite classic films?

I gravitate to the classic musical films. Dance has been a major part of my life. Seven brides for seven brothers, carousel, Le girls, sing in the rain, were made with dancers, I knew, and possibly had work with ( most films made in 1950s and 60s). All of the Fred Astaire films are worth seeing over and over just to live in this incredible man’s world be an only an hour at a time. Each young person can find their own passion and films, no matter the age of the film. Think about it – viewing foreign films opens, a new world outside of the box.

Drama is easy to witness firsthand in any Betty Davis, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, or hundreds of performances, available on films.

Parents, teachers, and older folks, like me, must teach and encourage the youth today to find an identify their passion, and dive in. Daffny, You have a fantastic passion for classic and perhaps not so classic vintage movies, did this come to you out of the lust for money? No – absolutely not! But how much more rich your life is because of the vintage nerd. Everyone who is exposed to your passion is the winner. This is how we teach the youth or spark and interest in anyone – young or old!

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If you were buying a car, anything older than 25 it’s considered a classic I believe films are classic because they are good, not because they are old. Alfred Hitchcock first film in 1929 was “blackmail “. It’s a fun murder mystery, but what makes it is Mr. Hitchcock Seen getting on a bus. Something he did in every film he directed. Does that make it a it? I think it does! Viewing old films is fun and educational. As a viewer, one can follow their passion for directing, acting, dance, music, costumes, decor, and set design, writing, sound, editing – anything that you want to, and need to know is right there for the viewing.

Jean and I watched “the seven year “recently with Marilyn Monroe. It was not well done in our opinion, 60 years years ago we both loved seeing it! Seeing it for the second time after five decades have passed, our opinion was astounding. We had a great time, tearing apart the script, direction, editing, and the acting! We couldn’t believe it was a hit so long ago.

This is your blog, and I seem to be rambling on. I have one last word re: the youth of today and Classic Films – Educate-Inspire- –and Honor! As adults the ball is in our court.

Some more of my favorite films (in no particular order): Swing time (1936)
Top Hat (1935), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
The Polar Express (2004), Carousel (1956)
Oklahoma (1955)Singin' in the Rain (1952), and 
Les Girls (1957)

Most every musical film I watch. Hello… I am an old dancer! Musical films, I rarely see more than once, with the exceptions: The Godfather (1972), Titanic (1997), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Carpetbaggers (1964)

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 You have had an incredible career in the arts. You expanded yourself by tyring out different jobs and careers. In your book, When You're a Jet: A Dancer's Extraordinary, Ordinary Life, you share about your "180 percent rule". Could you explain what this is and how anyone can apply it to their own lives?

Nearly all my life my father always encourage us to be the best we could be. “You do not have to be the best in the world! You do have to be the best you can be! “ my life has been full of one challenge after another. Finding the passion and exploring new projects required giving, not 100%, but 180%! Our family motto, “put 180% into that passion, I guarantee success. “ There isn’t anything you can’t do when you have the passion and are willing to give it 180.

The dance continues….  
Sincerely,  David 

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