Original West Side Story Cast Member Tony Mordente Dies at 88 | Playbill

Obituaries Original West Side Story Cast Member Tony Mordente Dies at 88

The dancer, choreographer, actor, and director was once married to his West Side Story co-star, Chita Rivera, who passed away earlier this year.

Acclaimed dancer Tony Mordente died June 12 after a brief illness. Mr. Mordente was 88.

Born December 3, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York, Tony Mordente showed a sharp aptitude for dance as an adolescent, and received scholarships to attend the High School of Performing Arts and American Ballet Theater School. Initially devoted to ballet, his attendance, by happenstance, of the Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free would go on to change his life, opening him up to the blossoming athleticism of theatre dance.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything that changed my life and my career as quickly as that did," shared Mr. Mordente with PBS in 2007. "It was the most amazing thing. I had never seen it before in my life, and I just said that's exactly what I want to do." 

In 1956, choreographer Michael Kidd cast Mr. Mordente as Lonesome Polecat in the musical adaptation of the Al Capp comic strip Li'l Abnermarking his Broadway debut. True legacy would reach him the next year, however, when he and Fancy Free's choreographer would artistically unite for the 1957 musical West Side Story.

Originally dancing the role of A-Rab in the Broadway and West End companies of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical, he was shifted to the role of Action for the 1961 film adaptation, for reasons that remained unclear to him until his death. While members of the Jet and Shark companies were instructed to avoid fraternization to increase their onstage animosity, Mr. Mordente and Chita Rivera, who starred as Anita on  Broadway and in the West End, flouted the instruction.

"Dating one of the Shark girls... 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," Mr. Mordente shared with PBS. "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."

The pair married December 1, 1957, with daughter Lisa Mordente following a year later. While the pair divorced in 1966, they remained eternally tied through Lisa, who went on to follow in both of her parents footsteps on and offstage. Ms. Rivera preceded Mr. Mordente in death earlier this year.

Following West Side Story, Mr. Mordente understudied Conrad Birdie and served as assistant to Gower Champion for Bye Bye Birdiebefore returning to Michael Kidd for Ben Franklin in Paris and the ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany's.

In 1968, Mr. Mordente choreographed his sole Broadway solo venture, Here's Where I Belongwhich closed on opening night. Following this disappointment, he shifted his focus to screen work, choreographing for a variety of television shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour

Mr. Mordente eventually shifted from choreography to directing, becoming an in-demand television director. Among his extensive television career, he led 29 episodes of Rhoda, ten episodes of Matlock, 37 episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger, five episodes of The A-Team, four episodes of The Love Boat, and 33 episodes of 7th Heaven, in addition to episodes of The Practice; Busting Loose; Love, Sidney; Family Ties; Day by Day; M*A*S*H; and Burke's Law, among many others.

He is survived by his two daughters, Lisa and Adriana, the Mordente Family in Long Island New York, and his life-long friend Tony Bolletino.

Celebrate 65 Years of West Side Story With a Look Back at the Original Production From Rehearsals to Backstage to Showtime

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