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ProQuest Information and Learning
Hispanic Publishing Corporation
By Valerie Menard
December 1, 2001
Sexy at 70, the Latina grande dame of stage and screen welcomes a personal milestone
How do you talk to a living legend? Con mucho respeto. Among Latinos, actress Rita Moreno has achieved this status through a lifetime of work as an actress and entertainer. On Dec. 11, Moreno celebrates another milestone, her 70th birthday, and in January, she'll reprise the role of Sister Peter Marie on the HBO series Oz.
"I can't explain it," says the age-defying Moreno. "I'm just like the Energizer Bunny. I keep going and going and going."
In its fifth season, the controversial HBO series also keeps going. Oz depicts the daily struggles of inmates and caretakers at a high-security prison for violent offenders. Sister Peter Marie is one of a team of psychologists treating patients. Moreno's character found her calling late in life after her husband passed away, says the actress.
"She's a very religious person, very pious, simple but complex, tough and very compassionate. She's just a whole bunch of contradictions in some ways," explains Moreno. "There's a lot of respect for her amongst the inmate population. Nobody messes with Sister Pete. I love her. I think she's an amazing character."
Moreno claims she was surprised to be offered the part of a non-traditional character. But creator and executive producer Tom Fontana evidently had Moreno in mind. "When he asked me if I wanted to play a nun, I was so astonished," relates Moreno. "I was really extremely flattered. There was no script. I just took his word for it and, by God, we're entering our sixth season and it's an astonishing show and I'm very proud to be a part of it, to be on it, and to work with such amazing actors."
Astonishing is the operative word for describing a show such as Oz, which doesn't shy from realistic scenes of prison life that include rape, murder, overt racism and gang warfare. Getting past the violence, the show's ensemble of provocative characters is captivating. "The fans are maniacal about the show," asserts Moreno. "When I run into them, they use words like intense, scary, and graphic, but they don't say that puts them off."
Actress Lauren Velez, who plays Dr. Gloria Nathan, also is part of the diverse cast. In spite of herself, Velez's character is involved in a sexually charged, but not consummated relationship with a violent inmate, Ryan O'Reily (Dean Winters). Nathan tries to resist her feelings, but loses the battle in the end. "I think it's interesting that the only person at Oz that my character has confided in about her feelings is Sister Pete," says Velez.
For her part, Sister Pete has had to deal with her own feelings regarding another inmate, Chris Keller (Chris Meloni), a sex offender. "That was actually my idea," says Moreno. "I suggested to Tom [Fontana] that it would be interesting to explore the sensual life or needs of religious people. His eyebrows immediately shot up to his hairline and he was intrigued. Leave it to Tom to put me with a sexual predator. It's marvelous. Chris Meloni is just brilliant." Maloni left the show last season but Moreno confirms he will return for a few episodes.
The grande dame on the set, Moreno admits she has been approached for guidance. "I'm a very maternal person. I've taken a bunch of them under my wing," she says.
At 30, Moreno, a native of Humacao, Puerto Rico, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, a Puerto Rican immigrant, in West Side Story. Interestingly, Moreno herself was an immigrant at age 5 when her mother and she moved to New York. By 6, she was taking dancing lessons and at 13 was performing in a Broadway show.
Over the years, Moreno has co-starred with a plethora of top actors including Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.
Making her legendary is the fact that she is the only woman to have won all four of the top show-business awards. Besides the 1962 Oscar, she won a Tony (The Ritz, 1975), two Emmys (The Rockford Files, 1978; The Muppets, 1977) and a 1972 Grammy for her performance in The Electric Company album.
"Rita never gives unsolicited advice," Velez says.
"But when I have asked her, she's very willing and generous. I still follow her advice about Hollywood. She told me, `Always follow your gut instinct, even if everyone tells you you're wrong because in the end, you're the one who has to live with it.' "
Velez and Moreno share a special bond. The two first met when they co-starred in the 1994 independent film I Like it Like That. Moreno was impressed with Velez at the time and they remain friends today. "She's like my second daughter," Moreno says of Velez. "I adore her. She's a wonderful, wonderful girl and a marvelous actor. What a face. Those eyes, aren't those amazing eyes?" Velez, of course, returns the compliments. "I was very star struck when I first saw her going through the lines of her first scenes in I Like It Like That and then later in the make-up trailer I couldn't stop staring at her," she recalls.
Last year, Moreno's husband, Dr. Leonard Gordon, invited Velez to join the couple at a 40th anniversary screening of West Side Story. The couple has an adult daughter, Fernanda Luisa, who wants to become an actress.
"I remember feeling so proud to be there, and then when the curtain went up and the overture began, I got very emotional," Velez shares. "I never thought, as a little girl watching that movie, that I would eventually be sitting next to my idol and watching it with her. It was overwhelming. It's one of the sweetest moments in my career."
Moreno stays busy. In addition to other jobs, she also guest stars on the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd.
After the advent of more Hispanic roles in entertainment, Moreno says she is concerned that younger Latinos will get the wrong impression about the business and advises them to focus on education first. "People get so fooled by watching people like Jennifer Lopez and Andy Garcia," Moreno says. "It isn't always the way it looks. I think you absolutely must get an education because there is absolutely no guarantee that you're going to make a living as an actor."
She says the business still must come a long way to correctly portray the popularity of Hispanics. "The door for Latinos has opened just a crack, [but] you have still have to push," she says. Even with her experience, she still has trouble finding suitable projects. She co-stars with Benjamin Bratt in the upcoming film Pinero but Moreno says film work for her is rare. "I hadn't made a movie in four years. I'm still fighting the battle. Being a woman, and being a Latino, and then, horror of horrors, a mature Latino woman, is very difficult."
Fontana is hosting a party in New York for Moreno's 70th birthday. She also plans to celebrate in southern California, where she lives.
"We're going to have a Latino combo at his house and Latino food. You're only 70 once so I want to celebrate it everywhere." Feliz cumpleanos y muchisimos mas.