'West Side Story' Star Tony Mordente Dead at 88

Mordente starred in the original 1957 Broadway production of 'West Side Story' and the 1961 film adaptation.

Tony Mordente, whose talents spanned stage and screen, has passed away at the age of 88. The actor, dancer, and choreographer, best known for his roles in the original Broadway and film versions of West Side Story, died June 9 in Henderson, Nevada, as announced by his family, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Born Anthony Charles Mordente Jr. on December 3, 1935, in Brooklyn, Mordente's journey to stardom began when his mother enrolled him in dance classes at 13 to channel his excess energy. This decision set him on a path that would lead to the High School of Performing Arts and a scholarship to the American Ballet Theater School, where he caught the eye of choreographer Michael Kidd.

Mordente's Broadway debut came in 1956 with Li'l Abner, where he portrayed Lonesome Polecat. However, it was his role as A-Rab in the original 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story that made him famous. He later transitioned to the role of Action in the 1961 film adaptation.

During his time with West Side Story, Mordente's personal life intertwined with his professional one when he married castmate Chita Rivera in December 1957. Their union, described by Mordente as "A Jet marrying a Shark," caused a stir among the cast, temporarily straining his relationship with his fellow Jets.

As a result of his relationship with Rivera, "the Jet boys didn't speak to me for about two weeks of rehearsal, I was completely shut out. I mean, they were really angry," he said in a 2007 PBS interview.

"Eventually, I sat down with them in the dressing room and I just said, 'Hey, look guys, I'm part of the Jets. What l'm doing out there is my personal life. We got to keep our gang together. If I'm separate from you, then we're not a family. So we have got to try to get back together again.' And they sort of bought that. As long as they didn't see me with her, it was OK."

Following his success in West Side Story, Mordente continued to make his mark on Broadway. He worked on productions such as Bye Bye Birdie and Ben Franklin in Paris, taking on roles both on stage and behind the scenes as an assistant choreographer. His collaboration with Michael Kidd extended to other projects, including the ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany's stage adaptation in 1966.

In the 1970s, Mordente pivoted to television directing, embarking on a career that spanned decades. He helmed episodes of numerous popular series, including Rhoda, Walker, Texas Ranger, and 7th Heaven. His directorial credits also encompassed shows like MAS*H, Family Ties, and The A-Team.

Mordente seamlessly blended his dance background with his directing skills over the years. He choreographed for film and television, working on projects such as The Daydreamer and The Ed Sullivan Show.

Mordente's personal life saw changes as well. After divorcing Rivera in 1966, he married Jean Fraser in 1978. He is survived by his daughters, Lisa Mordente, a Tony-nominated actress, and Adriana Mordente.