Tony Mordente Dies: ‘7th Heaven’ Director-Producer, Prolific Choreographer And ‘West Side Story’ Actor Was 88

Tony Mordente Dies: ‘7th Heaven’ Director-Producer, Prolific Choreographer And ‘West Side Story’ Actor Was 88

Tony Mordente, who made his mark on Broadway as a dancer and choreographer, played the hot-headed Jet named Action in the 1961 film West Side Story and later segued into a long and busy career as a director of such TV series as Family Ties, Walker Texas Ranger and 7th Heaven, died June 11 in Henderson, Nevada, following a brief illness. He was 88.

His death was announced by his family, including daughter Lisa, whom he shared with his first wife, the late Chita Rivera.

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Born December 3, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York, Mordente began dancing at the age of 13, and trained at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts and American Ballet Theater School, which led to the launch of his Broadway career as Lonesome Polecat in 1956’s Lil’ Abner.

RELATED: Michael Callan Dies: ‘Cat Ballou’ Star, Riff In Original ‘West Side Story’ On Broadway Was 86

Tony Mordente in 2005
Tony Mordente in 2005

His next stage casting would make a major impact on his career and his personal life: Playing (and dancing) the role of A-Rab in the original 1957 Broadway and 1958 West End productions of West Side Story. Mordente subsequently would be cast in the Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise 1961 film version as Action, the most volatile member of the Jets gang. Ready for a rumble, Mordente’s character is cautioned to calm down in the musical number “Cool,” the song that chastises the vengeful Jet with “Boy, boy, crazy boy/Get cool, boy!/Got a rocket, in your pocket/Keep cooly cool, boy.”

The song also includes the line most associated with Mordente’s character: “Easy, Action!” Alice Cooper would take note, titling his band’s second album with the phrase.

During the Broadway production, Mordente caught the attention of someone else: West Side Story‘s original Anita, Chita Rivera. The two began dating, married in 1957 and had daughter Lisa Mordente in 1958. The couple divorced in 1966.

Through the rest of the 1960s, Mordente worked mainly as a Broadway choreographer and assistant choreographer, segueing into TV choreography on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show and the The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.

By the 1970s and 1980s he’d become a prolific TV director as well, with credits including Rhoda, MASH, Benson, Family Ties, The A-Team, The Greatest American Hero, Matlock, and, most extensively, Walker, Texas Ranger and 7th Heaven. He became a producer on the latter series.

In addition to daughter Lisa, Mordente is survived by daughter Adriana from his marriage to former wife Jean G. Fraser, extended family in New York, and lifelong friend Tony Bolletino.


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