I recently spoke over the phone with Hollywood icon David Winters about his new book, Tough Guys Do Dance. The book not only shares many details about his decades in show business, but also his desire to leave behind a legacy for others to follow. For those less familiar with David, or anyone curious about what to expect in this new book, we started by discussing a few key points in his long career.
David started his career at a young age working mostly in television with roughly 150 roles by the age of 17.
Marc Heller: A lot of people know you from West Side Story. You were Baby John in the play, and A-rab in the film. How did this all come about?
David Winters: At the time I was on a Broadway show called Shinbone alley at the Broadway Theatre starring Eartha Kitt and Eddie Bracken. It was based off a book by Mel Brooks. I got a call from Jerry’s (Jerome Robbins) secretary. I thought she was putting me on so I hung up. Fortunately she called again, and said that he was about to do a new play called West Side Story, would you like to audition for it? Who wouldn’t want to audition for Jerome Robbins. So I did the audition, and I thought it was terrible, but Jerome thought it was great. I was the first one signed, but I had overheard that Chita Rivera was hired as well. She was the standby for Eartha Kitt on Shinbone alley, so I couldn’t wait to tell her I was working on West Side Story too.
Marc: How did you go from being in the Broadway play to being in the film?
David: I was in London at the time, doing Oliver. I was the Artful Dodger. And I got an offer to do the West Side Story movie.
Marc: And were you aware of how huge the film was going to be?
David: Yes, because the Broadway show had been so huge. Myself, and everyone in the show were getting such a great reaction
David also noted that at 17, he was the youngest person on set.
Marc: So West Side Story was a huge transition for you, after having done so much television, now you were becoming a theatre and film star. Was that your ultimate goal
David: Broadway and film were the ultimate. In those days if you were an actor, no one wanted to do television. So your goal was to become a film and stage actor.
David went on to mention his friends Sal Mineo, James Darren, and Michael Callen. Specifically that they all went out to Hollywood and became big stars. But that there were also a lot of people who went out to Hollywood, and wound up being waiters and suit salesmen. He had hoped that an attempt to become a contract person for Columbia Studios would prevent that from happening to him, but after working on Last Angry Man, no further contracts were offered. So he opened up a dance studio in Hollywood
Marc: So tell me about the dance school.
David: It was very successful. We had live music in the school. The dancing was my style, it combined jazz with street dancing.
Marc: And how did you come to meet Ann-Margret?
David: Mickey Banks, who was an assistant in West Side Story wanted to bring a young girl over who was in Bye Bye Birdie. He said he wanted me to teach her private lessons. And we just clicked. She looked great doing my steps, she looked different from everyone else.
David explained that she liked him a lot, and recommended him to Elvis, which is how he got the choreographer job for Viva Las Vegas. And after his work on that film, Elvis went on to continue to use him as his choreographer.
David also went on to do 5 movies and a stage show with Ann-Margret. It was a musical sequence that he produced that convinced Mike Nichols to cast her in Carnal Knowledge which earned her a Golden Globe.
David’s first Emmy was for his show with Nancy Sinatra, but since no category existed for dance, they gave him an award for “Outstanding Achievement in Television”. However, the following year, the Emmys would create a new category, “Outstanding Choreography”, which was awarded to him for his work on Ann-Margret’s show. It’s something he’s very proud of as it leaves a lasting legacy, and now people who follow him can be rewarded for their work.
That’s the key to this book, not just to tell fascinating stories, but about David’s desire to leave behind a legacy, to hopefully inspire and encourage others. Before I get into that, however, I have one last, and very funny story to share.
For those not aware, David directed a cult favorite movie from the 80’s called Thrashin’ starring Josh Brolin. It’s a major part of skating culture, and it has a huge following. Especially considering that Josh Brolin is the lead villain in the newly released Infinity War, I had to ask David about it.
Marc: Can you tell me any stories about Thrashin’?
David: That movie, actually, I wanted Johnny Depp for the part. I auditioned 600 kids, and I took Johnny in to producer Chuck Fries, and Chuck didn’t like him. We both had to agree, and Johnny was a nobody at the time, so he said no, you can’t have him. Johnny reminded me of James Dean at the time. So Chuck tells me to go find someone else. I spent 2 months around the country, I call Chuck , tell him I found the guy, and send back Johnny Depp again. Chuck goes crazy, he says you can’t have him, he will never make it, you can’t have him. So I apologize to Johnny Depp and we wind up hiring Josh Brolin for the part.
David mentions that he knew Chuck for some time, and would go on to speak to Chuck afterwards, and occasionally leave him a voicemail saying it was David and Johnny Depp.
There are a lot more fascinating stories to tell. About his relationship with Paul Newman. More stories about Ann-Margret and Elvis. Stories about Barbara Streisand and a Star is Born. Sonny and Cher. His relationship with Linda Lovelace, and a lot more. If you want to read about these stories, make sure to pick up the book.
David’s book is not all about dance and show business. Starting at a year and a half old, he had his first near death experience. It would not be his last, and was even once told by a doctor that he had 25 seconds to live. In the book he candidly discusses his trials and tribulations throughout his life.
It makes David proud when he sees students of his like Walter Painter go on to win 3 Emmys for Choreography. David very specifically said to me that what you leave behind is important. So hopefully people who read this book are inspired by his stories and help to carry on his legacy.
In closing I want to share this one last conversation I had with David, that will better explain the title, and purpose of this book. Following up our conversation on legacy, he shares this story with me.
David: So I’m on a studio lot, and there’s a guy coming down the lot, he’s following me, yelling “stop , stop!” But he’s sounding kinda friendly. He says “David Winters!” Which is kind of strange because he knows my name, and he comes up to me, and it’s Henry Winkler. Do you know who that is?
Marc: Of course, Fonzie.
David: So he comes up to me and says I want to shake your hands. When I was a young boy, I wanted to be an actor, and a singer, and where I lived, they all said to me, that’s for sissies, you don’t do that, it’s not for real men. When I saw you in West Side Story, you inspired me to go into show business. I know you weren’t a sissie.
Marc: So men were actually afraid to do song and dance because other guys thought it made them sissies?
David: Absolutely, and you never know in life what inspires people.
I want to thank David for his time, and please be sure to pick up a copy of Tough Guys Do Dance.