When I met Rita Moreno in her suite at the Waldorf Towers in New York, I immediately noticed three things: She looks at least 20 years younger than her age. She moves with a lithe grace that bears witness to decades of dancing. And she was wearing pajamas: cherry-red with a floral, Japanese-inspired print.
It was fashion as metaphor: At age 80, Moreno has let go of the need to make a certain impression.
"I was always the darling, please-like-me kid," Moreno said. "It's the immigrant syndrome; it comes from being Puerto Rican, being on the outside. 'Don't make waves, don't make noise' -- my mother was very conscious of that. I was brought up trying to please the world. The greatest lesson I ever learned is that you don't die from not being liked. I wanted to world to like me."
That's a goal Moreno has accomplished in spades. Perhaps best known for her role as Anita in "West Side Story," she is one of just 11 performers to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and on March 5, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Jackie Robinson Foundation.
"When you get something like that it has to do with hanging in there, staying active and persevering, which I think is part and parcel of the character of a performer, particularly a minority performer," she said. "You have to be able to get up and dust yourself off and always be going forward. I think it's in my DNA -- I'm a very positive person, I'm jolly by nature."
And Moreno is having a jolly time playing the Jewish mother of Fran Drescher on the show "Happily Divorced," which has its season premier on TV Land on March 7. "Fran is the best -- she's funny, kind, she loves her cast and the feeling is mutual," said Moreno, adding that she has plenty of energy for the long shooting day. "What's challenging is memorizing the last minute re-writes. That's the baggage that comes with sitcoms -- you rewrite and rewrite and it often happens on the day you're shooting with an audience."
Moreno just finished a run at the Berkeley Rep Theater in California in "Life Without Makeup," a one-woman show, in which she dances, sings and tells the story of her life. "It's about a person who comes from another country and finds out it's not a good thing to be what they are, and tries to change that," she said. "I spent too many years trying to be anything but what I was, and it's really about that journey and how I came to accept myself. It sounds like pure drama but it also had hilarious Hollywood stories in it, from a Hollywood that no longer exists. There are very few of us left around to relate those events."
Rose Dolores Alverio was born on Dec. 11, 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico. She came to the U.S. as young girl and lived with her mother in a New York tenement. Her mother worked in a sweatshop and paid for Moreno's dance lessons with odd jobs; Moreno recalls helping make crepe-paper roses to sell to Woolworth's for extra money.
Moreno made her debut at age 6 in a Spanish nightclub in Greenwich Village, dancing with her instructor, Paco Cansino, who was actress Rita Hayworth's uncle. Moreno landed her first role on Broadway at age 13 and her first film role at age 19 as a reform school girl in "So Young, So Bad." She signed as a contract player with MGM and appeared in more than a dozen B films in as many years, landing mostly ethnic roles, including the Burmese slave girl Tuptim in "The King and I" in 1956.
As Moreno noted in her speech at the Robinson Foundation awards: "In those early days in Hollywood ... I played every nationality that had dark skin. I played a Siamese girl, an Arabian girl, an American Indian, a Polynesian. And finally developed what I got to call the universal ethnic accent. Because I didn't know how to speak them, so I just invented my own."
Over time, Moreno felt increasingly marginalized and frustrated with her stereotypical roles, as did her fans. According to a biography of Moreno, a New York Post reporter complained: "Will the powers in (Hollywood) wait patiently until Miss Moreno loses half of her youth, vitality and beauty before they get around to giving her a romantic break?"
During this dark period, Moreno had an on-again, off-again relationship with Marlon Brando. "He really shaped my life and made a huge difference in so many respects, some good and some terrible," said Moreno, who in 1960 attempted suicide with sleeping pills at Brando's home. She conquered her demons through six years in therapy, returning to New York and the stage.
In 1961, Jerome Robbins came calling with the part in "West Side Story." "The story was so very different from what I had done, the only musical to take on such a serious socio-political theme -- and 50 years ago," Moreno marveled. "Jerome was creative beyond belief." Moreno became the first Latina to win an Oscar for best supporting actress and achieved worldwide celebrity.
In 1965, Moreno married cardiologist Leonard Gordon and they had a daughter, Fernanda, an actress who has appeared in television, film and several plays with her mother. Moreno's marriage endured 45 years until Gordon's death in 2010. The stability of the union is amazing not only because Moreno worked in Hollywood, but because she had no role models; her mother married five times.
"We were very different -- he was a nice Jewish doctor who wasn't thrilled when we attended showbiz events, and that was my entire life," she laughed. "But we really complemented each other and understood there was no one else that would suit the other as well. He was the most devoted husband and father, and then grandfather, and the children miss him terribly." Moreno has two grandsons, 13 and 11.
In the 1970s Moreno moved into children's television, performing on "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" on PBS. Moreno loved both the gig and the studio location -- across the street from her apartment on the Upper West Side, giving her more time with her young daughter. She embraced breast-feeding when it wasn't the norm, and tells a hilarious story about forgetting to change her nursing pads before appearing in a two-person play with Alan Alda. Moreno pranced around the stage trying to disguise a milk stain that extended from her breast to the hem of her aquamarine, wool sleeveless dress. "Alan was trying to follow me around on stage and after the show he said, 'What the f**ck were you doing?'" she recalled merrily. "Changing the blocking mid-play was no easy job."
In the subsequent decades, Moreno appeared in dozens of films, stage productions and television shows, garnering new fans in a long-running role as a nun/psychologist in the HBO series "Oz." Moreno obviously has much to celebrate, and I asked her what she considers to be her greatest accomplishment. I expected her to focus on her triumph over racism in Hollywood, or the multiple awards; the long and successful marriage or her adored daughter and grandchildren.
Instead, she names the value that made everything else possible: "Just sticking it out. Just persevering, persevering, persevering. That's not easy and I'm very proud of that."