If West Side Story can be equated to a university, then Tony Mordente was one of its honor students and distinguished graduate. As an actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, director and producer, he has graced stage, film and television, all with stunning results.
Anthony Mordente was born in New York City on December 3rd. He was trained at the High School of Performing Arts and made his professional dance debut at the famed Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Shortly afterwards, he made his professional musical theatre debut in Summer Stock, high in the mountains somewhere near Stroudsberg, Penn. Returning home, he joined the Ballet at Radio City Music Hall as a soloist, appearing in three different productions. Around that time, famed choreographer, Michael Kidd, was getting ready to make his directorial debut with a new musical based on the famed Al Capp comic strip, Li’l Abner. Searching for young energetic athletic dancers to create the citizens of Dogpatch, he cast Tony as both a dancer and as Lonesome Polecat, that cave-dwelling guy who concocted the famous Kick A Poo Joy Juice. While a crowd pleaser and critical success, Li’l Abner proved to be a challenging task for the dancers, as they were mostly barefooted and shared the floor with a bevy of barnyard animals.
While Tony continued his run in Li'l Abner, another renowned choreographer turned director, Jerome Robbins, was conducting his own search for young athletic talent to portray New York street gang members in his new musical, a contemporary take on Romeo & Juliet, entitled West Side Story. Tony was cast as A-Rab, the second youngest member of the Jets, who was known for enjoying everything and understanding the seriousness of nothing. With a gift for playing for both comedy and tragedy, Tony became one of Robbins favorite performers, and was selected as one of the handful of originals to cross the Atlantic when West Side Story premiered on the London stage.
Returning to the States, Tony continued his Broadway run as the TV Station Manager and Birdie's understudy in the long-running musical, Bye Bye Birdie, performing the lead role at least twice in Philadelphia. He also served as the assistant to director, Gower Champion.
When the Mirisch brothers secured the movies rights to West Side Story and agreed to bring on Jerome Robbins as co-director, Tony was cast as the volatile, full of fury, Action. The brooding intensity that he brought to the character added greatly to the tension level felt during the war council and his baiting of Loudmouth Crudhead, the bottle throwing upstairs neighbor, provided the perfect preamble to Cool. But, Robbins still managed to take advantage of Tony's comedic skills with his portrayal as the psychiatrist in the Gee Officer Krupke. Tony was also hired as one of the dance assistants, and when Robbins was unceremoniously dismissed from the movie set, it was Tony who worked with the lovely Natalie Wood on her solos. Tony also modified the staging for Russ Tamblyn to accommodate and showcase Russ' amazing acrobatic skills.
After the film was wrapped, his former director, Michael Kidd, recruited Tony as his assistant in his next two Broadway productions: Ben Franklin in Paris and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Simultaneously, during this period, Tony appeared in a few episodic television shows, such as Combat and Outer Limits. As with Action, in West Side Story, Tony brought a sense of humanity to the skittish, harrowing Genero Panetta in The Invisibles (Outer Limits). Even today, many consider his scenes the most chilling moments in the anthology.
On the lighter side, Tony began choreographing for most of the popular variety shows of that era from Ed Sullivan to Sonny and Cher and the innovative weekly comedy-musical series, That's Life, starring fellow Broadway vet, Robert Morse and E.J. Peaker.
Directing was his next step. His early resume entries include many of the top-rated sitcoms, including M*A*S*H and Rhoda. He eventually found himself on the set of The A-Team and went on to become one of producer Stephen J. Cannell's regular directors, directing at least four other of his action-adventure series. Also a favorite of Chuck Norris, Tony directed a record-breaking 37 episodes for Walker, Texas Ranger.
Tony became main director and producer of the award-winning and well-loved show, 7th Heaven, which, like M*A*S*H, explores the complexities of life, using both the humorous and serious routes.
Tony can also be seen sharing his fond memories of making West Side Story, in the newly released Special Limited Edition DVD Collectors Set, West Side Story Memories. He also shared some of his fondest memories of the making of West Side Story for the book, Our Story: Jets & Sharks Then and Now.