Long before he found fame as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Robert Redford was turned down for a lead role in West Side Story, the Oscar-winning 1961 musical masterpiece, partly because of his freckles, the director’s notes suggest.
As a young hopeful actor with virtually no screen experience, Redford was interviewed on March 25 1960 for the part of Tony, the character who falls for Maria in the musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, set against the gang wars of the Jets and the Sharks.
However, Redford failed to impress director Robert Wise, who jotted down in his notebook: “5ft11, blue eyes, freckles, lightest hair.”
Richard Barrios has studied Wise’s "startling" notes for a forthcoming book on the making of West Side Story. He told the Sunday Telegraph that, although it was already known that Redford was rejected for the role, he was taken aback to discover that Wise had homed in on freckles, which “seemed to work against” the actor.
He said: “[Wise] didn’t mention anyone else with freckles so obviously… [Redford’s] stuck out. It would not have been [Wise’s] vision of what a New York gang member would have had. We don’t see any freckles at all in the movie.”
Redford, who was recently back in California after doing some theatre work in New York, had just one screen credit to his name, a supporting role in the western series Maverick.
Mr Barrios can imagine him as Tony, as he “certainly would have had the romantic quality", although the part went instead to Richard Beymer, with Natalie Wood as Maria.
Redford himself has spoken of his freckles. In 2013, in an interview with the New York Times, he claimed that he does not think he is good looking and recalled being taunted at school because of his blonde locks and freckles: “I don’t see myself as beautiful. I was a kid who was freckle-faced, and they used to call me ‘hay head’."
Other film-makers clearly saw the attraction of his freckles, along with his matinee-idol looks and acting ability, casting him in classic films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Barefoot in the Park, and The Sting, for which he was Oscar nominated.
Wise was a hard man to impress and Redford was in good company among rejected actors who found recognition elsewhere. Of George Hamilton, Wise wrote: “Too dark for us.” Hamilton, who was later famous for his suntan, went on to be nominated for Golden Globes and Baftas.
Leonard Nimoy, who found fame as Mr Spock, the Vulcan (with a human mother) in Star Trek, was dismissed by Wise as “too old”, and Peter Falk, who was later cast as Lieutenant Columbo, the dishevelled detective, was just a “good, youngish 30 character man”. Wise’s notes do not specify the roles that they were hoping to get.
Mr Barrios will include his research in his book, titled West Side Story: The Jets, The Sharks, and the Making of a Classic. Its publication on July 30 comes as Steven Spielberg is preparing to release his new screen version of the musical.
The book tells the story of a ground-breaking classic, a major hit on Broadway that was immortalised on screen with its unforgettable songs.
It reflects that the movie – incorporating Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics – was unlike anything that had come before, but that its complexities led to tensions between co-directors Wise and Jerome Robbins, who was fired midway through the filming.
The book also reveals that Natalie Wood was devastated at discovering that she would not be allowed to do her own singing, with 'ghost singer' Marni Nixon’s voice replacing hers.
Mr Barrios said that Wise’s notes suggest that “he didn’t know exactly what he wanted but he knew what he did not like”. He clearly had the magic touch, as West Side Story went on to be showered with Oscars, including best picture.