Michael Callan, ‘West Side Story’s’ Original Riff, Dies @ 86

Michael Callan, the original Riff in Broadways West Side Story on Broadway, died October 10 at 86.

Callan (seated) when he was professionally known as Mickey Calin in West Side Story (Image via NYPL)

His death, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, was attributed to pneumonia by his daughter (via THR).

Callan — renamed such by Hollywood — was born Martin Harris Calinieff in Philadelphia on November 22, 1935.

Proficient in ballet and tap from a young age, he also learned acrobatics from the dancers who patronized his dad's diner. He paid them in milkshakes, and the knowledge served him well when he made his way to NYC.

Making his Broadway debut in 1954's The Boy Friend starring Julie Andrews, he tried out for the new musical West Side Story, but was rejected for being too handsome to play gang leader Riff. Later, when the show's director and choreographer Jerome Robbins came back to him for a final audition, it was his ability to perform a backflip on demand that sealed the deal.

The show was a monumental hit, with Callan's stand-out number "Cool" making full use of his physicality.

He took off for Hollywood, where he appeared in such films as They Came to Cordura (1959), The Flying Fontaines (1959), Because They're Young (1960), and Pepe (1960). He lost out to Russ Tamblyn when Riff was cast in the 1961 film version of West Side Story. Instead of appearing in the film classic, he shot films like Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961).

Shore thing (Image via Columbia)

He also appeared in the sexy dramas The Interns (1962) and The New Interns (1964).

Probably his most important film was the 1965 hit Cat Ballou, in which he starred as bandit Clay Boone with Jane Fonda. The film was critically acclaimed, winning Lee Marvin an Oscar.

Next, he landed the lead in the TV series Occasional Wife (1966-1967), about an ad exec who pays a neighbor to pretend to be his wife in order to impress his family-man boss.

The show failed to gel, but he worked extensively on TV, including on such familiar shows as  That Girl (1969), Love, American Style (eight episodes, 1969-1973), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1971), Ironside (1971), McMillan & Wife (1975), Quincy, M.E. (1977), The Bionic Woman (1977), Charlie's Angels (1977 & 1981), The Love Boat (1978), Murder, She Wrote (four episodes, 1987-1994) and six episodes of Superboy (1989-1992).

He retired from TV before the '90s ended, and made a final film, The Still Life, which was released in 2006.

Married and divorced twice, Callan is survived by his two daughters with his first wife, by his two sisters, and by three grandchildren.

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