Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno

Corey Nickols
Rita Moreno in The Electric Company

Rita Moreno in The Electric Company

Rita Moreno with (clockwise) Marcel Ruiz, Justina Machado and Isabella Gomez

Rita Moreno with (clockwise) Marcel Ruiz, Justina Machado and Isabella Gomez

Adam Rose/Netflix
Rita Moreno and B.D. Wong in Oz

Rita Moreno and B.D. Wong in Oz

Fill 1
Fill 1
October 26, 2022
The Interviews Archive

The Interviews: Rita Moreno

The actress and recent Hall of Fame inductee discusses her upbringing and the variety of roles that led to her EGOT status. 

Marla Miller

In 1961's West Side Story, Rita Moreno sang "America" in her role as Anita, a Puerto Rican immigrant adjusting to life in New York City — and won an Oscar. But while that character's frustrations were played mostly for laughs, Moreno faced a real-life ethnic barrier that was anything but comic. Pigeonholed as a generic "Latin" sexpot, Moreno fought long and hard for roles that would showcase her versatility as an actress, singer and dancer. Her tenacity was such that Moreno would eventually triumph on Broadway, film and television, and become the first person in history to win a Tony, Grammy, Oscar and Emmy in competition.

From her early appearances on The Jack Benny Show and The Electric Company to later roles on Oz and the rebooted One Day at a Time, television has provided Moreno with some of the most rewarding — and frustrating — experiences of her career. Here she discusses her struggles as an Hispanic entertainer determined to change America's tune.

Moreno, who was recently inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, was interviewed in June 2000 by Marla Miller for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of Moreno's conversation with Miller. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.

Q: How did you come to New York from Puerto Rico in 1936?
A: My mother obtained a divorce from my father. I think she was about eighteen, nineteen. She took a ship to New York City and stayed with an aunt in the Hispanic ghetto and got a job as a seamstress in a sweatshop. After about four to five months, when she'd earned enough money and learned some English, she went back to Puerto Rico to get me. My first American experience was the big lady in the New York harbor.

Q: You went to Broadway at a young age...
A: I did my very first Broadway show when I was thirteen passing for eleven, looking nine... It was a Broadway drama called Sky Drift based very loosely on Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. I get credit for doing an awful lot of plays that I haven't done. I think it's because Chita Rivera and I played the same role in West Side Story, Anita. She did the play. I played that role in the film. So a lot of people keep saying, "Oh, you were wonderful in Spider Woman," and I say, "Thank you."

Q: How did you break into live television for the Dumont Network?
A: I did some singing and dancing. In those days, they had one camera and they didn't have the zoom lens. So if you were going to dance, you had to dance in a space of about four feet by four feet. That was it. The makeup was extraordinary... The lights had to be extremely bright. By the time you were through doing a half hour, your eyes were bright red and running because the lights were so very strong.

Q: What kinds of roles were you doing for MGM?
A: I did a film with Lana Turner and Ricardo Montalban called Latin Mothers. I played featured roles. And then I did Singin' in the Rain, and after that I was dropped from that contract. They didn't know what to do with me because of the Hispanic name. Interestingly enough, it was Gene Kelly who put me in the role of Zelda Zanders [in Singin' in the Rain], which had nothing to do with being Hispanic. If he'd been around more and had more roles for young people, I might have still been at MGM. But the powers that be just said, "We don't know what to do with her." So they dropped me. I wept a lot. It convinced me once and for all that my being Hispanic was my undoing, which a number of years later sent me into psychotherapy.

Q: Why did you tend not to get ethnic roles in live TV?
A: I've never been able to figure that one out. It's interesting because, when I think of it, in filmed television it was always the señorita — I mean, all the titles: The Marriage of Lit-Lit, which was for Fireside Theatre. I was an Indian maiden. The Saint and the Señorita, which was my first filmed television show. It was always that way in filmed television. The few live things I did were not Hispanic.

Q: Any memories of Fireside Theatre's The Saint and Señorita?
I played a fiery Mexican girl who wore Spanish combs and mantillas. They really didn't know the difference, and I felt I was in no position to say, "Wait a minute! If she's wearing these big Spanish combs and the lace shawls over that, that's Spain — that ain't Mexico." And we always had the same accent. I longed to speak English as I speak it now, and it was really depressing for me. Every damn thing that was offered to me was always these girls — "Why you no love Lola no more?" Which is funny now but, oh, man. I had deathless lines. "Do you think you can fool Conchita?" Hands on hips, nostrils flaring. I used to swear that there was a Rita Moreno makeup kit that consisted of a shoe box with pancake number sixty-eight, which was usually dark and brown, two hoop earrings and a wig. That was the Rita Moreno makeup kit for almost everything I did in filmed television.

Q: One of the many TV appearances you made was with Jack Benny.
A: I did work with Jack Benny right after West Side Story. There I was with the master. The thing about him, as with all people like him — like George Burns and people like that — it was just there. It's not something they had to work at. Like Sid Caesar. Sid is my hero. He's many actors. I think he's a genius.

Q: Was it the birth of your daughter that made you want to work in children's television in 1971?
A: Absolutely. I began to watch Sesame Street and was entranced and engaged. And when I was asked to become a permanent member of the cast of The Electric Company, I didn't hesitate. I remember my agent saying at that time, "Don't do it! They'll all think you're out of work!" And I said, "I have to do it. It's wonderful. It's doing everything that's great and noble and fine." And I stayed with the show for five years.

Q: What made Electric Company a standout?
A: There was nothing ever like it on television. And to this day there really isn't. It had an extraordinary cast of Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, myself. Skip Hinnant was wonderful. Judy Graubart, who was fabulous, came from Second City. It was like no other show. It had wit. Until that time, children's shows did not have wit. I so admired [show creator] Joan Ganz Cooney for saying, "Yes, we want to teach the lesson, but we have to engage their attention first." What is also fascinating is that we had an enormous adult audience. And the most sophisticated people. The man who was running ABC at the time, Fred Silverman, was a big watcher.

Q: You worked on Miami Vice?
That was one of those crazy experiences... I understood where Don Johnson got his reputation. He just wouldn't be there for rehearsals and then when we were ready to shoot, he'd come on the set and restage the whole thing and make everybody crazy. And actually his restaging was better than the director's of that particular episode.

Q: Isn't it unusual for someone in television to have that kind of control?
A: That's not unusual at all. In fact, that's too often the problem. These people become enormous stars and think that they know how to run a show. Penny Marshall turned into something amazing from her show, but she's the rarity. A lot of these people are not equipped to do that. They make a lot of money and money talks. So you become victimized by these people. The guest actors become victimized, the writers become victimized.

But there's something about a television series that's really hard. I did Nine to Five based on the film, and I played the Lily Tomlin role. I'd never been so unhappy in all my life. Jane Fonda was producing this with Bruce Gilbert, who did On Golden Pond. But TV is a whole other animal, and they were really babes in the woods. A new producer came in and wanted what amounts to a boob show, and that was certainly not what Jane and Bruce had in mind. They wanted to talk about the working woman and tell these wonderful, funny stories about crazy bosses and how women somehow manage despite all of these difficult conditions. And there's something so degrading and so humiliating about some suit coming to your show and telling you what's funny and what's not funny and what's good and what's not good.

Q: When you guest star in series TV, do you find that the tone of the set is taken from the lead actor?
A: Absolutely. I'm very aware of that when I do Oz and whenever I've done other shows. The guest stars are always such strangers. Too often the guest stars are ignored, which is terrible. It's like suddenly joining somebody else's family — you don't know their jokes, you don't know what's meaningful to them. As a result, I've always made it a point to introduce myself immediately and try to have lunch with that person on that first day. And I will sometimes invite some of the other actors or actresses to join us so that this actor or actress won't feel so estranged.

Q: Could you imagine seeing Oz on television in the 1950s?
A: I can't imagine seeing it in the fifties and I can't imagine it being on commercial television now! It's graphically violent. It's graphically sexual. The language is foul. It's all of the big, big no-nos.

Q: How is working on a cable show different from working for a broadcast network show?
A: In so many ways. First of all, there are no commercials, so the suits can't come down and tell you how to do your show. HBO took a huge chance on Oz. It's a very bold show. And HBO had the guts to say, "Do it your way, we will not interfere. And we may be wrong and we may be sorry, but do it your way, Tom Fontana." And that's the way it is with a lot of the cable shows... As a result, you're going to get some very creative people involved, between the writers, producers, great directors and superb actors. I work with the most amazing people. It is a joy to be there every day.

Q: Because of your winning an Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy, you're a question in many trivia games.
A: Yeah, I am. I'm the only woman who, in competition with my peers — it's important to state that — has won all of them. Because there are a couple of ladies who've won all of them, but one of the awards is honorary.

Q: It is now fashionable to be Latina in Hollywood. Does that feel good?
A: Yes, but I've been around the block a few times. I think fad, trend and fashionable — those words have a very short shelf life, so we'll see... I would just like to see films that are mixed, where you don't have to do a Latino-based film because it's the only way you're going to get to work. That's ghettoizing ourselves out of necessity. And that's a shame, because we don't live in the ghettoized world, necessarily. We live in a homogenous world.

Q: You used a word with me off-camera, pionera.
A: Pionera. Pioneer in Spanish. The Latino community calls me la pionera because I was there first. It's not even necessarily that I did so many great films, because I've done a lot very poor films in my life and a lot of poor television things. But I was there first. I'm the one who suffered the slings and the arrows. It's gotten a whole lot better.

Q: Do you hear from the Latino community today?
A: You know, it's interesting about the Latino community. I didn't know this for a long time, but I'm greatly admired by my own people. And I didn't know this because we don't have a tradition of writing fan letters. And so I never knew. When I found out, just a few years ago, that Spanish Harlem practically went on fire when I got my Oscar, that windows were opening, almost like in West Side Story, I got goosebumps. And people yelling, "She got it! She did it! She did it!" Makes me want to cry.

To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2000.

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