Mickey Calin, who originated the role of Riff in West Side Story, passed away October 10 from pneumonia. He was 86.
Known at various points as Michael Callan, Mickey Calin, and Martin Calinieff, Mr. Calin was born in Philadelphia November 22, 1935. A lifelong go-getter, he learned to dance from the artists who would pass through his father's luncheonette, trading free milkshakes in exchange for dance steps. He favored ballet and tap, and later acrobatics, as an outlet for the kinetic energy that simmered underneath his skin, waiting to explode at a moments notice.
In 1954, after performing in the local night club and radio circuit, he moved to New York, appearing in 1954's The Boyfriend alongside Julie Andrews and 1955's Catch A Star. His big break came two years later, when he was brought in to audition for Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story.
Mr. Calin was turned away from the initial round of casting; while his dancing earned top marks, he was deemed "too pretty" to be believable as the rough and rowdy leader of a street gang. One year into the casting process, Jerome Robbins phoned Mr. Calin and asked him to re-audition. In 2006, Mr. Calin recounted the events of his second audition.
“About a year went by and I got a call from Jerome Robbins' office saying they wanted to see me. I said, 'You already saw me and said I wasn't right for the part,' but I went to the theatre and did my song and dance, and I heard from the back of the theatre Robbins’ voice saying, ‘Can you do a backflip?’ I just threw a backflip, got lucky, and it worked out OK. I got in my little Thunderbird and drove off to do summer stock, and a couple days later the orchestra leader said to come down to the pit because he had something for me. 'By the way, you got the role in West Side Story,' and he played my song, 'Cool.'"
Mr. Robbins and Mr. Calin worked closely together to establish Riff's bombastic physicality, marrying Mr. Calin's innately explosive energy to Mr. Robbins' precise sense of shape and line. He remained with the production for under a year before talent agent Joyce Selznick swept him away to Hollywood to work as a contractor player for Columbia. He made nearly a dozen films for the studio, including They Came to Corduba, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, and Cat Ballou. When West Side Story was adapted into a film, he was asked to re-audition for the role of Riff, as well as the leading role of Tony, but his restrictive Columbia contract prevented him from appearing in the film.
On television he appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Superboy; Charlie's Angels; Murder, She Wrote; and more. His final film appearance was as a resident in Joel Miller's The Still Life in 2006.
Mr. Calin is survived by his daughters, Rebecca and Dawn, his sisters Sheri and Sandy, his grandchildren Michael, Ella, and Asher and his close companion at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, Susan.