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‘West Side Story’ Actor Was 88

‘West Side Story’ Actor Was 88

Tony Mordente, the actor, dancer and choreographer who starred in the original Broadway and big-screen versions of West Side Story before carving out a long career as a TV director, has died. He was 88.

Mordente, who lived in Henderson, Nevada, died Tuesday, his family announced.

Mordente also worked on Broadway as an actor, understudy and/or assistant choreographer in Li’l Abner, Bye Bye Birdie and Ben Franklin in Paris.

The Brooklyn native portrayed A-Rab on stage in West Side Story, which premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in September 1957, and played Action, another member of the Jets gang, in the 1961 United Artists adaptation. (David Winters was given the part of A-Rab in the movie.)

He married West Side Story castmate Chita Rivera, who of course played Anita, in December 1957. “A Jet marrying a Shark. It was quite a thing,” he said in a 1963 interview.

Mordente began directing for television in 1974 and worked on dozens of shows, among them Rhoda (42 episodes from 1975-78), Walker, Texas Ranger (36 episodes from 1993-98) and 7th Heaven (22 episodes from 1997-2003).

From left: Russ Tamblyn, Tucker Smith and Tony Mordente in the 1961 film West Side Story.

Courtesy Everett Collection

The son of a beer truck driver, Anthony Charles Mordente Jr. was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 3, 1935. His mother “thought I had a little too much energy when I was 13, and it also was a matter of getting me off the streets, so I went to dance school a couple times a week,” he said.

He got into the High School of Performing Arts and then received a scholarship into the American Ballet Theater School, where he was discovered by Michael Kidd. The famed choreographer then cast him as Lonesome Polecat in Li’l Abner, which opened in 1956 and featured Peter Palmer as the title character.

He left to join West Side Story and was with that production for 14 months. When it moved to London, he took on choreographer duties from Jerome Robbins and later supervised the dancers when the show played around the U.S.

While he was dating 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 an interview for PBS in 2007.

“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 okay.”

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After the West Side Story movie, Mordente played the stage manager in 1960-61’s Bye Bye Birdie, starring Rivera, while also serving as assistant choreographer to Gower Champion. He then was choreographer-director Kidd’s assistant on Ben Franklin in Paris, starring Robert Preston.

He assisted Kidd again on 1966’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which starred Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore but closed during previews, and choreographed 1968’s Here’s Where I Belong, which never made it past opening night.

Mordente was the choreographer on the 1966 film The Daydreamer, worked with dancers on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and Maude and appeared as an actor on TV’s Combat! and The Outer Limits.

He also directed multiple episodes of such series as M*A*S*H, Family Ties, The Tony Randall Show, Angie, Hardcastle and McCormick, Matlock, Hunter, The A-Team, Love, Sidney, Easy Street and Riptide.

After he and Rivera divorced in 1966, he wed Jean Fraser in 1978.

Survivors include his daughters, Lisa Mordente, received a best actress Tony nom in 1982 for the musical Marlowe, and Adriana Mordente.

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