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Performer Rita Moreno's Famed Career Was 'Meant To Be'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing the conversation about race and color in show business, as we hear from a Hollywood pioneer - the legendary Rita Moreno. When she started her career in the 1940s, it seemed as though her Puerto Rican heritage would limit her career options. Nevertheless, she went on to become the only Hispanic and one of only a handful of people who've won all four of the entertainment industry's most prestigious awards - the Tony, the Oscar, the Grammy, and the Emmy. When we first went on the air in 2007, she was one of the first entertainment luminaries I interviewed for our Wisdom Watch segment - that's where we talk to people who've made an impact through their lives and work as she certainly has. We talked about those early days as a young Latina in Hollywood and her Oscar-winning role as Anita in the iconic 1961 film "West Side Story." But we started by talking about her experience coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico with her mother as a young girl.


RITA MORENO: My first American experience was in the harbor of New York City when I saw that amazing big, tall lady. I remember thinking oh my goodness, a lady runs this country.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Really? Oh, that's great.


MORENO: A little prescient, but I think it's about to happen.

MARTIN: It could be. When did the performing bug bite you?

MORENO: Oh, when I was in Puerto Rico. But when I was a tiny little girl - literally three and four - I was dancing for grandpa. They would put on these wonderful rumba records, salsa records and I would shake my booty all over the living room. Boy you talk about meant to be, oh my goodness, I have never done anything else in my life except be a performer.

MARTIN: As I remember, you made your Broadway debut at 13?

MORENO: I made my debut as 13, passing for 11 and looking nine.

MARTIN: But, you know, that sounds so magical and wonderful, but that's a tough schedule for a 13-year-old.

MORENO: Well, it sounds magical and sometimes it felt magical. But the truth is that I had a very difficult time as a Puerto Rican in New York. I - my experience was really no different from any other immigrant that came to this country. It was rough. The kids were not nice to me in school. It was not a friendly place for Puerto Ricans.

MARTIN: What do you mean? How so?

MORENO: Well, there was a lot of racial prejudice that was very, you know, out in the open. And it followed me for many, many years in movies - producers looking right through me, never saying hello when I was doing a part in some film. And, you know, there's a way of being racially insulting to someone without ever using the bad words. You get bypassed. It is assumed that you can only speak with an accent. In those days particularly, if you had a Hispanic name - and I started off as Rosita Moreno - you never were offered parts other than a little Spanish spitfire or, you know, that kind of thing. So…

MARTIN: You've said, you know, you changed your name from Rosita to Rita. Did the studios ask you to do that?

MORENO: Oh yeah, actually. Actually, my true name is Rosa Dolores Alverio. And then I became Rosita Moreno when a stepfather stepped in. And when I got to MGM studios, which was my first film contract, they just thought that Rosita wasn't a good name and they changed it to Rita. And yes, it was their idea.

MARTIN: And tell me about those early days as a contract player. I know that you got the Latin spitfire roles and - did you chase, even then? I mean, it's so hard for actors to get work, period. I just wonder, were you so busy working that you just kind of put your head down and got through it, or was it even then you were thinking, give me a break?

MORENO: I aspired to so much more than that. And it was really a rather heartbreaking time for me because when I was out of work I was miserable and when I got work, I was relieved temporarily and then I would be doing the same kind of roles where I had to talk like this - you know - you don't like Lolita? Well, I'm going to show you. And then I will get depressed all over again because it's not what I wanted to do. It was not the happiest young girl who had - I really wasn't. I was…

MARTIN: Was there anyone you could talk to about all of this? Was there any confidant that you had who understood what it was like to be, you know, a Latina…


MARTIN: …performer out there?

MORENO: No because there weren't any other people like me. I was really it. If I was doing a movie that had - supposed to have Hispanic people in it, they were maybe extras. But I also played a lot of Indian maidens, American-Indians, you know, it was just ridiculous when you think about it. But there I was in buckskins in these B-Westerns with feathers sticking out of my head. It made me into a very neurotic little Puerto Rican girl, I'll tell you that.

MARTIN: And when you say neurotic - is it a feeling of just not fitting in anywhere?

MORENO: Not fitting in anywhere and feeling very inferior. And I grew up feeling that way. My mom, unfortunately, wasn't a big help in that particular sense because she felt the same way about herself.

MARTIN: How did she feel about your work?

MORENO: She was terribly proud of me. And one of the greatest moments of my life is the night that I won the Oscar for "West Side Story" and she was sitting right in back of me in the theater. It was a very emotional evening.

MARTIN: What was that like for you to hear your name called? I mean, I just - I can only imagine sitting there…

MORENO: I was so nervous. I was so nervous. But I remember thinking as my name was called and my mom hugged me and I remember thinking, don't you dare run to the stage. You go up there with dignity because I remember in the past having seen actresses practically tripping over themselves to get up to the stage to grab that, you know, golden man. And I said, don't you dare. And I didn't.

MARTIN: The film was released in 1961. But how can we forget this?


MORENO: (As Anita) (Singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion. Let it sink back in the ocean. Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing and the money owing and the sunlight streaming and the native steaming. I like the island Manhattan.


MORENO: (Singing) Smoke on your pipe and put that in there…

MARTIN: OK, that's enough of that.

MORENO: Oh, you know, I love hearing that.

MARTIN: Do you? I was going to ask if you ever get sick of it.

MORENO: Oh, no, my goodness. It's just such a fabulous number, don't you think?

MARTIN: Of course I do. And that's why I wanted to ask you, is this complicated for you? Because, on the hand, a huge break for you, a huge, huge visibility and a tremendous award. This is a film that still gives people so much pleasure. And yet - and yet you're still with the accent, you're still with the brown makeup. I don't know.

MORENO: Boy, boy oh boy and did we hate that because we kept trying to let them know that Puerto Ricans were all colors, from pitch black to beige (laughing). But I heard somewhere that it was Jerome Robbins who kept saying I want more contrast. I want more contrast. And there was one makeup shade for all of us who were playing the sharks, which just - I hated that. I was so offended by that. I was very torn. It was a wonderful role. It was a great opportunity to work with a genius, Jerome Robbins, to sing and dance to this astonishing music. But, yeah, there was always that niggling, terrible feeling that you weren't really representing your people.

MARTIN: Anyone ever said that to you? You know, sometimes the next generation isn't as tolerant of the choices that their forebears had to make. And I just wonder if any of the later generations of actresses said, you know, why didn't you give that, you know, why?

MORENO: No, not at all because I think if you come from where I come from, that's immediately understood. You know, I've had the occasional complaint, but the then mayor of Puerto Rico, Felisa Rincon, was very unhappy about the way that Puerto Ricans were represented in the movie. She was not a happy camper. And it - that's a kind of tough thing. Also, the lyrics to "America" were changed. Particularly, the verse was really nasty about Puerto Rico in the Broadway production. If you listen to the Broadway version of the verse where she says - (singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion, let us sink back in the ocean. In the original (singing) Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases. When I got the role, I was so worried and frightened that I would somehow be forced to say those words. And I remember talking to Robert Wise about it and he said, oh, don't worry. We're not going to have those lyrics. But it was very scary for a long time while I was still in rehearsals, what we were going to do about those words.

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of your recent television work. It includes this very intense work on the HBO prison series "Oz," where you play Sister Peter Marie…

MORENO: Oh, I loved every moment of it. I felt so privileged to be working with these astonishing actors. And I think that the scandal of that series is that no one was ever even nominated for an Emmy and I know why. I mean, I'm guessing…


MORENO: …that I know why.

MARTIN: Why do you think?

MORENO: Well, it's because a lot of homosexuality and, you know, mostly that, I think, and it was an extremely violent show. This was, by the way, before, I guess we kind of opened the door for "The Sopranos."

I began to get marvelous ideas for my character, so I would submit them to Tom Fontana, who wrote it and produced it. I said to him one day, you know, I've always wondered what the sensual life of a religious person is like, and - you know - what are the yearnings? And his eyebrow shot up to his hairline, he said, what a great idea. Oh, I said to him, it would be wonderful if I could get a crush on one of my patients. You know, so I was thinking someone my age who had just began to engage me in conversation and just reeled me in and he just loved that. This is why I'm an actress and he's a writer because he put me with the sexual predator of the whole prison - Chris Meloni.

MARTIN: We have a clip of the two of you together. Let's play that.


MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Hello, Chris.

CHRIS MELONI: (Actor): (As Chris Keller) Hi you, sister.

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Can I talk to you?

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Sure. Let's go in here. What do you want?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) You missed our last two sessions. Why?

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Ever since our last time together when you got me to open up, I've been afraid to come back, afraid to expose anymore of myself to you. I mean, you know, the reality is, sister, I hate myself.

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) All the more reason why you should have come to me.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) You're probably right. You know what it's like to want somebody, to long for them? And I'm not talking about sex, just to touch them.

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Yeah.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Of course you do. I mean, you're a psychologist, you're a nun. But you're a woman first, you know about desire.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everything all right in there, sister?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) I'm fine.

MARTIN: Spicy, my goodness.


MORENO: We had such a great chemistry, Chris and I. It was really, really marvelous. Oh god, we had such fun. He's a very sexy fellow.



MORENO: And I was the envy of every woman and gay man in America.


MORENO: It always pleases me is that he was so delighted that we had such a great chemistry together. I mean, it's just so, so deeply unlikely that Christopher Meloni and I (laughing) would ever get it on.

MARTIN: I don't know about that.

MORENO: I don't think so, Michel.

MARTIN: That was legendary performer Rita Moreno, speaking with me back in 2007. She's now 82-years-old, she's still working after nearly seven decades in show business. And we want to leave you with just a little more of Rita Moreno's wisdom. Here she is earlier this year accepting a Lifetime Achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild.


MORENO: Hopefully, it's early in the third act of my life. So let me say this - (singing) as I approach the prime of my life, I find I have the time of my life. Learning to enjoy at my leisure all the simple pleasures. And so I happily concede this is all I ask. This is all I need.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.