Someone had to ask The Question.
Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer are sitting around a set for the ABC series "Twin Peaks," discussing their current work on the David Lynch/Mark Frost production and looking back at their co-starring roles as Riff and Tony in the 1961 film classic "West Side Story." "So, Russ," says Beymer, deadpan, "what was it like to work with Natalie Wood?"
Tamblyn cracks up at the question they both have been asked countless times, and the two actors are off on a wide-ranging, free-form conversation about past and present life experiences. What emerges as they talk is that even though the pair have seldom worked together, their artistic interests have crossed in several areas since that movie. And, they say ruefully, one of their common bonds is the fact that, after nearly 30 years and myriad projects, each is still identified as "the 'West Side Story' actor."
"No matter what else you do, people always connect you with that movie," Tamblyn says.
Beymer agrees. "Yeah, like no one ever says to me, 'Oh, Richard Beymer, from 'Five Finger Exercise.' "
"It was a highlight in my career, and in interviews it's always one of the main topics, but there's only so much you can say about it," Tamblyn says.
Later, as the talk continues, they do, in fact, compare notes about their "West Side" experience and its aftermath. But their first conversational priority is the new series, which debuts Sunday night.
"I love it," says Beymer, who plays "one of the bad guys" on the show. "When you work with David Lynch, you never know where he's going next and that's exciting. He's like a magician pulling out new tricks."
Tamblyn says, "He isn't the sort of director who thinks about it all night and comes in and says, 'I know exactly what I want to do.' He's open, so it's fresh and alive all the time. The show looks different, too. It's moodier, like real life--there are dark corners."
Tamblyn likes the fact that some two dozen characters appear on the show each week and most actors work in short segments. "I only work a half day a week--just enough time for me to do a scene. That's luxurious for me, really tasty, like a gourmet meal."
According to producer Frost, their work on "West Side Story" had nothing to do with Tamblyn and Beymer being cast for "Twin Peaks." "Without a doubt, they were the best actors who tested for the roles," he says.
In fact, the two shared no common scenes at all in the episodes shot for this season. "I thought for sure we'd work together," Tamblyn says, "but I think they're saving some big punches for next year, if they bring us and the show back."
Although Beymer and Tamblyn did not meet until they made "West Side Story" in 1960, they both began their careers as child actors, often appearing in the early 1950s on local television shows such as "Time for Beanie" and "Fantastic Studios, Ink." Later they worked in such movies as "Diary of Ann Frank" (Beymer), and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (Tamblyn). Tamblyn also won a best supporting actor nomination for "Peyton Place."
They say they had an amiable working relationship on "West Side Story," but the yearlong experience, when both were 22, was not without its trials.
Tamblyn, who danced in only a half dozen of his 70-some movies, and feels he has always been inaccurately identified as a dancer rather than an actor, says, "I had my problems with dancing in that movie--it was very hard work for me. When we did the opening scenes in New York, for example, I'd get shin splints from dancing on cement all day.
"I did a lot of movies that were more fun and I felt more a part of. Jerry (Jerome) Robbins was a tough choreographer to work for. We'd do a number like 'Down the Street' and sometimes he'd want us to do it again on the other foot, reversing the steps. If you didn't do it right, you had to go sit in the corner with your back to everybody. I didn't, but other dancers did and one of them was Eliot Feld (founder of Feld Ballet)."
Tamblyn notes that he originally tested for Beymer's role of Tony, and says, "Actually, I don't think I would have liked to have his part. Tony always has the roughest time in that show, maybe because of the change of pace from loud music and gang dancing to slow love scenes."
"It's a thankless role," Beymer agrees. "It's always played that way and I don't think it has to be. It could have been played more street-wise, with someone other than me, who was born in Iowa and didn't have a clue as to what New York was all about. What would De Niro have done with a part like that?"
After 30 years, Beymer is bemused to learn from Tamblyn that their co-star, the late Natalie Wood, kept a "hit list" posted on her dressing room wall--names of people who displeased her. "I was never on it," says Tamblyn, "but you were."
"Son of a gun!" marvels Beymer. "I've got to remember what I did to get on that list."
"You didn't have to do much, I know that," Tamblyn says. "You could get on that list for not doing something."
Both actors gradually turned away from commercial film making after "West Side Story." They gravitated toward the fine arts, Tamblyn as a mixed media artist and Beymer as a video artist. Tamblyn says, "We didn't drop out, we were just rebellious punks."
"In my mind," says Beymer, whose experimental films have been shown at film festivals and museums, "I never left the movies. I just made other kinds of movies. Hollywood was a thing of the past for me because I'd found something that thrilled me. That was the best fun in the world, doing movies that were spontaneous at every step, as compared with Hollywood movies that are all planned out. To me, those films look too perfect. Real life is funkier."
"I didn't want to come back to Hollywood for a long time," says Tamblyn. "I've done a lot of theater and some television, but my art projects really satisfied my need to be spontaneous and creative in my own style."
Beymer, who has also done episodic television acting, including a stint in "Paper Dolls" in 1984, says, "When I saw Russ' collage work, I realized I was doing much the same with my film work. You juxtapose material, dovetail parts and start seeing something you didn't suspect when you started. It goes on its own, like life. Working that way is a fascinating process."
Beymer is currently involved in two film projects, both of which he will direct. One is an adaptation of a play, "Romance," by Eric Boles, and the other, an adaptation of a book, "The Big Picture," by Michael Wolk, marks his first directorial entry into the area of commercial movie making.
Tamblyn has been doing research and writing a script about the life of child actor Bobby Driscoll.