▶ Watch Video: Russ Tamblyn doesn’t have to prove how cool he is

1961’s “West Side Story” opens on the character Riff, the leader of the Jets, snapping his fingers, marking time and territory in gangland New York City.

Correspondent Mo Rocca asked Tamblyn, “When you’re walkin’ down the street, are you ever tempted to (snaps fingers)?”

“To snap? Uh, the answer to that is no!” he laughed.

Maybe that’s because the actor who played Riff doesn’t have to prove how cool he is.

In the 1950s, Tamblyn leapt his way to stardom, hitting the heights and earning himself the nickname “Tumblin’ Tamblyn.”

Rocca said, “I’m a sucker for tumbling in a musical number.”

“Well, it was my thing,” said Tamblyn, “and I’ll tell you this: tumbling not only got me through musicals where people thought ‘Oh, what a great dancer!’ I was really not a good dancer. I was just a great acrobat.”

“When did you start doing gymnastics?”

“I was kinda born doin’ gymnastics, I mean!”

Russ Tamblyn (“West Side Story”) with correspondent Mo Rocca. 

CBS News

Raised in Los Angeles by show-biz parents, Tamblyn was about ten years old when the neighborhood kids made him a bet: “I said I could do a handstand anywhere. And they said: ‘Yeah? I bet you can’t go on top of that telephone pole and do a handstand.’ So, I climbed up the telephone pole and did a handstand between the high voltage wires, and I had no fear of it. My mother came outta the house, and she was afraid to say anything, you know, ’cause she didn’t want me to fall or anything. Wasn’t till I got down that she bawled the hell outta me!”

Discovered not long afterward, Tamblyn was 15 when he played Elizabeth Taylor’s younger brother in “Father of the Bride.”

But his breakout role was as the youngest of seven in MGM’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” playing a backwoodsman. His lack of any formal training played to his advantage: “I was the only one out of all of ’em that could look like he was learning how to dance!” he said.

Two years later, Tamblyn traded the axe for a pair of shovels in “The Fastest Gun Alive,” with a dance that not long ago blazed across social media.

No wonder that when Elvis Presley needed help with his moves for the “Jailhouse Rock” number, he asked Tamblyn. “Elvis asked me what I thought. And I said, ‘I can help you with your knees’ … the knee pops, yeah. He was doin’ it, like, a little bit. But I got him to really do it hard.”

But Tamblyn wouldn’t be confined to musicals. His performance in the melodrama “Peyton Place” earned him an Oscar nomination. The following year, he starred in the cult classic “High School Confidential,” playing Tony Baker, an undercover cop investigating a high school drug ring.

Tamblyn: “I’m lookin’ to graze on some grass?”
Female student: “What?”
Tamblyn: “OK, chick, I guess I dialed the wrong number.”

Rocca asked, “And were you dating like crazy when you became famous?”

“Like crazy, yes.”

And size was not a problem, even when Tamblyn played “Tom Thumb.” “They shaved all the hair off my chest, the little bit that was growing. They shaved it all off and shaved my legs, dyed my hair white, practically, you know, blonde. And I thought, ‘Ohmygod, I’m gonna never get another girlfriend again.’

“Girls loved it!” he laughed.

But by the early 1960s Tamblyn began feeling adrift in Hollywood. He turned down the title role in the sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.”

Why? “‘Cause it was the dumbest script I ever read. I mean, if I’d have done it, I probably would’ve ended up being a drug addict, you know, just to get through it.”

Tamblyn was seeking a new direction: “I was living in a big house in Pacific Palisades. And I was very unhappy. And I just couldn’t figure out what it was. I was looking for something much deeper than show business. I felt empty.”

And so, he moved to the bohemian community of California’s Topanga Canyon, making experimental art films and collages.

Artwork by Russ Tamblyn, from left: “Dancer’s Dream,” “Crystal Rose” and “Coltraine.”

Russ Tamblyn

“I had switched my focus and my energy from the performing arts to fine art. And the difference, I always explained, is that in the performing arts you do whatever you can to make the audience’s head spin. In fine art it doesn’t matter. You should do what makes your own head spin.”

That Oscar nomination for “Peyton Place”? He even turned that into art.

Russ Tamblyn

But it didn’t pay the rent. So, he painted houses, waited tables, and took roles in a Japanese monster movie (“The War of the Gargantuas”) and in outlaw biker movies (like “Scream Free!” and “Satan’s Sadists”).

“In ‘Satan’s Sadists’ you played a servant of the Devil, ‘sinning, slugging and drugging their way to Hell,'” said Rocca.

“That was fun!” Tamblyn laughed.

But his fans remained loyal. As his wife Bonnie said, “He was in the first film I ever saw as a little girl. And I was, ‘OK, red-headed boys are the only ones I want.'”

In 1979, Tamblyn met his future wife at a nightclub where she was performing folk music. “After I played my gig, I got off stage, and he came up to me, and his pickup line was, ‘I’d like to teach you how to dance.’ That was going OK.”

“And I did, didn’t I?” said Tamblyn.

“Yeah, we danced together.”

Tamblyn has two daughters: artist China, and actress and writer Amber Tamblyn.

Bonnie said, “She knows what one needs to give up to be a young actor. She relates to the constant having to go out on an audition, for instance, and not get the part.”

Russ Tamblyn made a comeback in the early ’90s, playing an eccentric psychiatrist on TV’s “Twin Peaks,” revived in 2017. 

Russ Tamblyn wearing his “Twin Peaks” glasses. 

CBS News

He had the red-and-blue glasses made.

At 86, Tamblyn isn’t quite as quick-on-his-feet as he used to be. In 2014, he had open heart surgery. 

Bonnie said, “The thing that was scary for us was that the doctor says, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to come back from this.'”

But after eight hours in the OR and a new heart valve, Russ Tamblyn showed he’s still got it.

“He opened his eyes, and he looked at us and he went (snaps) and he snapped his fingers!” Bonnie recalled.

“That’s right!” said Russ.

Russ Tamblyn as Riff in “West Side Story.”

United Artists

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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Emanuele Secci.