NEW YORK — Rita Moreno is scooting from one broadcast studio to another inside Rockefeller Center, spewing sound bites in English and opinions in Spanish and hawking her new CD as if her career depended on it. At 83, no less. An age at which she’s sporting black leather pants and a dark, body-hugging top under a print blouse — an outfit that, as the youngsters like to say, she’s rocking.
“Look at her! She’s so petite!” cries Natalie Morales, moments before Moreno joins her on the sunny “Today” show set with a whole scrum of caffeinated hosts, who crowd around her at a Lucite table for a segment that lasts all of what feels like four seconds. That seems to be the speed of daytime TV chatter these days, and Moreno hardly has time to mention the album before they break for commercial and the mike is off and Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, the hosts of the next hour of “Today,” are engulfing her in an off-camera group hug.
“I don’t want to do that again!” says the actress, possessor of the rare and coveted EGOT. This is the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony collection of awards that interviewers bring up during every one of the sessions Moreno sits for on this September day, to promote both the CD, “Una Vez Más,” and her role on an animated series on the children’s network Sprout. She’s understandably miffed by the wham-bam treatment on “Today,” which she expresses plainly to one of the show’s staffers on her way out. But the interruption of her effervescent flow ends moments later. Because — as she has proved again and again throughout her seven-decade career — Rita Moreno always bounces back.
The woman who secured her place in the firmament 54 years ago by playing the sexy, skirt-twirling girlfriend of a Puerto Rican gang leader in “West Side Story” — and winning an Oscar for it — has not had an effortless ascent to this pinnacle moment, when she is busy as all get-out and adding the Kennedy Center Honors to her remarkable trophy shelf. (Well, actually, Moreno’s awards sat in a cardboard box for years until her late doctor-husband, Lenny Gordon, intervened.) You’d think, given all these accolades, that her path would have been strewn with rose petals. But in the ’50s and ’60s, movie studios saw Moreno as only a Latina and pigeonholed her as an “ethnic,” an oppressive type-casting that she started to resist, and paid for it, as offers dried up. At every stage, she has required fortitude, a fierce desire to create opportunities for herself and a willingness to take on just about anything.
“It’s never, for me, been about the importance of my name as much as about the joy I can derive from doing things that make me happy,” Moreno says over lunch in Manhattan, a few weeks after the “Today” show appearance. “And I see this Honor as the reward, for all of that hard work.”
“For me,” she adds in an exchange some days later, “it’s a recompense for all the hard years in a profession that challenged my sense of dignity and self-worth at every turn. A singular and formidable reminder in this third act of my life, that falling down and getting up is very much a part of the American Dream.”
“La Pionera” — younger Latino actors have called her: “the Pioneer.” The Puerto Rican-born Moreno is recognized everywhere, most often for her role as Anita in “West Side Story.” “Michael Jackson once told me, ‘I know every step of “America,” ’ ” she says of the exuberant rooftop number in “West Side Story,” choreographed by Jerome Robbins. There is a Moreno memory for every generation, it seems, whether as a result of her portrayal of the Burmese slave girl Tuptim in the 1956 film version of “The King and I,” or as an original cast member (along with Morgan Freeman) in the 1970s on the PBS Kids’ show “The Electric Company,” or her six seasons playing Sister Pete on the HBO prison series “Oz,” from 1997 to 2003.
The Oscar came first, then the Grammy, in 1972, for “The Electric Company Album.” Three years later, Moreno won a Tony, for her featured performance on Broadway in the ribald Terrence McNally farce “The Ritz.” She completed the EGOT cycle in 1977, with an Emmy for her appearance on “The Muppet Show.” For good measure, another Emmy was bestowed on her the next year for a guest spot on “The Rockford Files.”
A Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award also count among the bric-a-brac in Moreno’s hillside home in Berkeley, Calif., to which she moved years ago to be closer to her only child, Fernanda, a jewelry designer, and her two grandsons. Still, Moreno doesn’t view her body of work as being up there with the greats. “I’m very in touch with myself. I know exactly who I am,” she says. “And I’ve had a mid-level career.”
Spend any time at all with Moreno (it’s pronounced Mo-REH-no, by the way, not Mo-RAY-no) and you won’t be surprised by such a disarming self-analysis. She’ll also confide that Marlon Brando, with whom she was involved for several years, was “the lust of my life” and that although filming “West Side Story” was mostly joyful, the scene in which the Jets pin Anita to the floor in Doc’s candy store, taunting her with racial epithets and threatening to rape her, left her an inconsolable, blubbering wreck.
“I put my head down on the counter and I could not stop sobbing,” Moreno says, recalling how the actors playing the Jets gang, who had to call her the sorts of horrible things she hadn’t heard since her Bronx childhood, tried to comfort her. “It was coming from my entrails,” she says of her reaction. “Sometimes, old wounds don’t heal.”
Born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Moreno moved with her divorced mother, also named Rosa, to the Bronx when she was 5, and she began taking dance lessons. (Movie star Rita Hayworth, who was from Brooklyn and had some family from Spain, was an inspiration for Moreno from a tender age.) Before she was 10, Moreno was performing what she calls a “Carmen Miranda act” at bar mitzvahs and weddings, and, as a child actor, got work in movies, dubbing Spanish voices. At 13, she won a part on Broadway, along with Eli Wallach, in a short-lived play called “Skydrift.” Just a few years later, when she was 19 and living with her mother and her mother’s new husband, Edward Moreno, on Long Island, she made her cinematic debut as a juvenile delinquent opposite Anne Francis and Anne Jackson in a B-movie, “So Young, So Bad.”
“Later in my life, the movie may have sounded laughable, but to the teenage me, Rosita Alverio Moreno . . . ‘So Young, So Bad’ was a big break,” Moreno writes in her 2013 autobiography, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir.”
The book is filled, characteristically, with funny and salty anecdotes about her life in Hollywood. Moreno’s admirers in and out of the business say that an indefatigable, earthy candor is one of her trademarks.
“Man, let me tell you, she’ll go toe-to-toe with you, match you step-for-step,” declares Christopher Meloni, who played a maniacal killer opposite Moreno on “Oz.” “When I met her, my first thought was this: ‘Iconic.’ My second was, ‘What a lady.’ And then, to be introduced to this bawdy broad, this pure Puerto Rican street actor!”
“Rita is the real thing,” adds Emilio Estefan, the musician and record producer and husband of Gloria Estefan, who urged Moreno to record “Una Vez Más” (“One More Time”), which she did, in his Miami compound. On the other hand, you’re hard-pressed to find support for Moreno’s modest characterizations of the impact of her career. The counterarguments, in fact, reverberate from lofty places.
“When I was younger, I idolized Rita Moreno. I still do,” says Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It was Moreno who did the audio recording of Sotomayor’s 2013 memoir, “My Beloved World.”
“She took the words on the page and made them sing and dance with such emotion that I felt like my abuelita herself was speaking to me as a child,” Sotomayor adds, invoking the memory of her own grandmother. “From her life on the stage to her presence on the microphone, Rita’s extraordinary talent has attracted well-deserved praise. Like so many who know her, I am honored to call her my friend.”
Moreno says she has never quite known how to handle such approbation. Years ago, she was at Chasen’s, the fabled Hollywood haunt, when she spotted her “West Side Story” co-star Natalie Wood, who was dining with none other than Fred Astaire. Courtesy of Wood, a waiter arrived with a bottle of champagne — and an invitation.
“ ‘Mr. Astaire would like to meet you,’ the waiter said. I said:‘Really? Wow. Okay.’ So I sat down next to him, and he said, ‘I just love your work.’ I was like, ‘You do?’ And then I said, ‘In what way do you like my work?’ ” Moreno chuckles at the memory of her own audacity. “I wouldn’t let it go!” she adds, laughing.
Hollywood wasn’t always quite so accommodating. Her early years there, when she was in her 20s and under contract to MGM and rechristened as Rita Moreno, were defined by demeaning native girl roles that she obediently undertook but came to dread: Polynesians and Cajuns and Indians in films with titles such as “Pagan Love Song.” (Although there are fonder memories of the ingenue Zelda Zanders, whom she portrayed in “Singin’ in the Rain.”)
“I play cute ‘ethnics’ and employ my newly invented ‘universal ethnic accent, which is a coy pidgin English of no discernible authentic origin,’ ” Moreno noted wryly in her memoir.
She can still good-naturedly mimic herself all these years later, doing those silly parts: “If she was Tahitian, ‘She talk like dees.’ If she was an Arabian princess, ‘She talk like dees.’ And no one ever mentioned they all sounded the same!”
“West Side Story,” in 1961, for which Moreno’s creamy complexion was darkened, was supposed to accelerate her career. But Hollywood’s inability to consider her for anything but ethnic parts stymied her advancement in movies. Among the few films she did in this early period was the 1968 “The Night of the Following Day,” a long-forgotten thriller that she made with Brando. With their romance long ended, they were still supposed to kiss on camera, which proved a challenge. “Every time Marlon and I had to kiss, we’d break out in laughter,” she says.
She continued to work — Moreno has always worked — but chiefly in theater and in guest roles on television.
At the September launch party for “Una Vez Más,” at New York’s St. Regis hotel, thrown by philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, actor Brian Stokes Mitchell’s introductory remarks recalled those times. “We actually met on an episode of ‘Trapper John, M.D.’ ” he said, addressing Moreno. “Do you remember that?”
“I would rather not,” the actress called out, drolly.
Her agents urged her not to accept the job on “The Electric Company,” which ran from 1971 to 1977 and would set a gold standard for children’s television. “I was told, ‘You’ll never play an adult again for as long as you live.’ It was called the ‘Pinky Lee Syndrome,’ ” named for a comic who had a kids’ show in the ’50s. Moreno took it anyway. She had a young daughter who loved “Sesame Street” but who “just didn’t want to read.” And aside from the fact that it was steady, stable work, she thought being on a show conveying a love of reading would help Fernanda. (And so it did, Moreno says.)
That Moreno also had the chops for serious drama would be manifested time and again onstage. Among the more recent indications was as Amanda Wingfield in a 2006 production of “The Glass Menagerie” at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre. On TV, it was “Oz” that allowed her to flex that muscle most enjoyably. And as has happened on so many occasions, it was direct action that led to the job.
Tom Fontana, the creator of “Oz,” recalls that he was sitting with a friend in Elaine’s, the longtime New York writers’ hangout. “I see Rita, who I’ve been a fan of, and I say to her, ‘I just think you’re absolutely tremendous.’ And she says, ‘If I’m so tremendous, how come you haven’t written a part for me?’ ”
So he did. Over a subsequent dinner with her and her husband, Lenny, (who died in 2010), Fontana explained the premise of “Oz,” set in a men’s prison where all sorts of depraved things occur. “There’s going to be violence and sex, but it’s really about redemption and social issues,” he says he told Moreno. “And she’s listening and listening and we were about to have dessert, and she says, ‘This all sounds tremendous — what would I play?’ ‘Oh, you’d play the nun.’ She dropped her fork and looked stunned, and she said, ‘I’ve played hookers and princesses. No one ever asked me to play a nun!’ ”
No one, either, is more game than Moreno for whatever comes along. Fontana says that as “Oz” went on, he discovered the actress could handle any curveball he threw her way. He made it a habit of asking cast members how they might want to stretch, he says, and at one point, Moreno told him, “I think it would be interesting if I was attracted to one of the characters.” Fontana decided to make that Meloni’s decades-younger character, who happened to be the most psychotic, sexually dangerous inmate in the prison.
“I meant that Sister Pete falls in love with a man her age!” an alarmed Moreno told Fontana after she read the script. Nevertheless, he says, she pulled it off with aplomb. “She can go to the depths,” Fontana adds.
It’s a few weeks after the “Today” show appearance now, and Moreno is serving as interviewer-host for an hour-long conversation onstage at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y community center. The subjects are her friends Emilio and Gloria Estefan, talking about their new Broadway musical, “On Your Feet!” Among the questions Moreno poses is one submitted by an audience member: What is the one thing you’re sure of? Emilio says it’s the joy he takes in everything. Gloria says it’s her love of Emilio.
Over lunch a couple of days later, I ask Moreno the same question. She doesn’t have to pause to think. “I would have answered exactly like Emilio,” she says. “I love life.”