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The Hartford Courant

Moreno's Career Is Multifaceted

By Jeff Rivers

14 November 2003
Copyright ©2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Every once in a while, Rita Moreno goes into her den in her California home and looks at her many awards, which include an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and a Golden Globe.

She thinks, "Wow, that's mine, all those things."

Currently, the 71-year-old grandmother is drawing from the many aspects of her entertainment life. She's performing pops concerts with symphony orchestras across the country.

Moreno says she intends to perform standards, show tunes and even a rap song she's written.

But she won't do America, her signature song from her Academy Award-winning role as Anita in West Side Story.

"That was so long ago," Moreno says.

Besides, Moreno says, the tune is a "call and response song" that is not well suited to a solo performance.

Moreno felt the call to perform as a little girl, born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico.

"It seemed like the most natural thing in the world," Moreno says.

She moved to New York with her mother, Rosa Maria, and soon began taking dancing lessons. In 1945, she made her Broadway debut in Skydrift. By the early 1950s, she'd been discovered by a talent scout and had begun playing small roles in such MGM classics as Singin' in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly, who taught her how to do the tango.

She was Tuptim to Yul Brynner's King Mongkut in The King and I. Brynner befriended Moreno and paid for her acting lessons.

Still, Hollywood didn't really know what to do with the sultry actress, as she was cast in a series of "exotic" roles in various B pictures.

"It was very difficult. It was very sad. It was very frustrating," Moreno says, especially because she thinks there were "Anglo-Saxon" actresses with much less talent who were getting ahead.

During much of this period of career disappointments, she was Marlon Brando's girlfriend.

"I don't talk about that much," Moreno says. "He was interesting. He was fascinating.

He was trouble."

Her career in apparent quicksand, her relationship with Brando at an end, Moreno attempted suicide in the spring of 1961.

But months later, she won the best supporting actress Oscar for West Side Story.

Her mother was present when Moreno won.

"It doesn't get any better than that," says Moreno, who says she fears future biographers or actresses will frame her life by its struggles rather than its triumphs.

Despite her suicide attempt, Moreno says, "I'm just a person who didn't give up. You just persevere."

A singer, dancer and actress, Moreno resolved to bang on another door any time one appeared closed to her.

Moreno won a Tony, for her performance in The Ritz, and three Emmys, the last for her role in The Rockford Files.

She's appeared on stage in The Vagina Monologues. She was a regular on The Electric Company on PBS, and won a Grammy for her contribution to a soundtrack for the children's show. She also won an Emmy for an appearance on The Muppet Show.

Moreno has narrated a book on tape. She's taken her live act around the country. She's even appeared in an exercise video.

Versatility, she says, "keeps you working for the rest of your life."

Still, she's had to battle the prejudice against aging actresses.

"When's the last time you saw Shirley MacLaine in a movie, [or] Anne Bancroft?"

And often she's been a trailblazer, going places where Hispanic actors haven't been.

"They call me la pionera [the pioneer]," Moreno says proudly of the moniker younger Hispanic performers have given her.

She's a longtime champion of the arts and children, especially those of color. During the Clinton administration, she served on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

In 1990, she won a Hispanic Heritage Award.

Yet younger Hispanic performers don't ask her advice. Perhaps "they are shy," Moreno says.

Besides, "What would I tell J.Lo [who has said Moreno inspired her]? She's already done a good job of marketing herself."

Moreno says her varied roles led the creators of HBO's prison drama Oz to cast her in her ACE award-winning role as Sister Peter Marie Reimondo, which she laughingly calls perverse casting.

Indeed, it was long Moreno's habit of presenting herself as sexy and sensual on stage and screen.

"I don't think you can learn that," Moreno says. "You can't pretend to be sexual if you are not a sexual person."

She says that a lot of today's female performers are not naturally sensual or sexual. "It's all external, the way you'd put on a jacket or a coat, but it's not sexy."

She's preparing to play Maria Callas next year in Master Class. "I'm drawn to the volatility. She's big. Her troubles are big," Moreno says.

Yet despite her attraction to high drama, Moreno enjoys quiet times with Leonard Gordon, a retired physician and her husband of 38 years. "It [the marriage] is the best thing to happen to me and him."

Moreno says she loves to cook and play host to sleepovers in her Berkeley, Calif., home for her two grandsons, the children of her daughter Fernada.

And she says she has miles to go before she sleeps as a performer.

"I don't dance anymore, but I can still move."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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