Rita Moreno is one of those rare performers who can do it all. The Puerto-Rican actress can sing, dance, and act. She’s starred in famous movie musicals such as West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain, and most recently on television in the remake of the sitcom One Day at a Time. At age 88 she shows no sign of slowing down, and her talent and influence serve as role models for not only Latinas but for women everywhere. Below are 50 fiery facts about the multi-talented actress.
Rita Moreno was born in Puerto Rico. She was only five years old when her parents divorced, and her mother moved with her to New York City, leaving her baby brother behind. They had little money and her mother couldn’t afford to take care of two children. Sadly, he stayed in Puerto Rico with Moreno’s grandparents.
One of Moreno’s most vivid memories about her arrival in New York Harbor was seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Seeing a statue of a lady was a complete contrast to anything she’d ever seen in Puerto Rico, where all the statues were male. When she saw the statue, her first thought was “my goodness, a lady runs this country,” and it made her feel “so wonderful.” Of course, Puerto Rico still holds a special place in her heart.
While Moreno’s character in West Side Story wishes for Puerto Rico to “sink back in the ocean,” Moreno doesn’t share that sentiment. She remembers her birthplace as “the most sensual place in the world” and describes her move to New York as “the Wizard of Oz in reverse,” changing from beautiful color to stark black-and-white. Not that she doesn’t love America.
For most of Moreno’s childhood, her Mom worked hard to support them. She worked as a seamstress, did piecework for a lingerie factory, and made paper roses for Woolworth department store to give her daughter a better life. In Moreno’s eyes, her story is the epitome of the American dream. A far cry from the little girl who couldn’t speak English, she’s grateful and proud of the opportunities she’s had since she came to America.
Moreno started taking dancing lessons at age six from Rita Hayworth’s famous uncle Paco Cansino. The lessons paid off, and she made her stage debut with Cansino at a New York club a few years later. The thrill of being on stage was all she needed to realize that this was what she was meant to do, and she made her Broadway debut at age 13. By the time she was 16, it was off to Hollywood, and that’s when her movie career began.
Moreno was sweet 16 when a scout for MGM studios spotted at her dance school recital. He spoke with her mother backstage, and about eight months later, he arranged a meeting for her with studio head Louis B. Mayer. Wanting to impress him, she did herself up like Elizabeth Taylor. Mayer noticed the resemblance and immediately signed her to a seven-year contract. But the road to stardom wasn’t quite that simple.
Before entering showbiz, Moreno’s name was Rosa Dolores Alverio, and she went by the nickname Rosita. For some reason, an exec at MGM studios thought that it sounded too Italian and asked that she change it. She was christened Rita in honor of Rita Hayworth, and Moreno was her stepfather’s last name. Little did she know how many other changes Hollywood would try to make to her identity.
When Moreno was just starting out in Hollywood, she made the cover of the March 1954 edition of Life Magazine with the caption “Rita Moreno: An Actresses' Catalog of Sex and Innocence". Shaking that characterization proved difficult, and much to her dismay, the studios frequently cast her in “exotics” parts. The roles she got in The King and I and Singin’ in the Rain were slightly better, but still not what she was looking for.
Moreno’s big opportunity finally came with the 1961 film West Side Story. Fear kept her from auditioning for Maria in the Broadway production, and as soon as she saw Chita Rivera perform Anita on stage, she realized that she’d made a huge mistake. When the opportunity to play that iconic role in the film came along, this time she didn’t hesitate to audition.
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Obviously, Moreno nailed it and got the part of Anita, but it wasn’t a guarantee. Moreno had been dancing since she was a child, but her specialty was Spanish dance and not the jazz that the part required. Prior to her audition she ran out to a dance school and took some lessons, but she still didn’t feel ready.
Luckily, a friend of hers had played the role in a touring production and helped her bone up on some of the steps.
Playing Anita brought up a lot of contradictory feelings for Moreno. On the one hand, she loved the part because Anita was a real woman who stood up for herself and expressed genuine emotions, but at the same time, she was utterly frustrated on by other incidents on set.
One of Moreno’s biggest beefs with West Side Story was that she and all of the actors playing Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang members) had to wear dark-colored makeup to make them all the same shade. She felt that they should have just kept their natural skin tones and that the implication that all Puerto Ricans are the same color is inaccurate. But that wasn’t even the worst offense.
Seeing Natalie Wood play Maria in West Side Story was a sore spot for Moreno and the Hispanic cast members, mostly because Wood wasn’t Hispanic, and it was widely known that she hadn’t even wanted to do the film. She described Wood as being “uncomfortable” around the Hispanic dancers, and that she didn’t make any effort to make friends with the cast.
As if dealing with an aloof co-star wasn’t difficult enough, Moreno also faced a traumatizing personal moment on the set.
A month after the premiere of West Side Story, Hollywood Magazine labeled Moreno “Hollywood’s most outspoken actress.” The magazine reported that the studio execs saw her as “stubborn, uncooperative, and opinionated,” but Moreno didn’t let it discourage her. In fact, she took them as a point of pride and has never hesitated to speak her mind at any age. You go girl!
More than eight decades after she first arrived in the US, Moreno has never forgotten the culture shock. Everything was new and strange, and for the first time in her life, she felt the same. What got her through these early challenges? Moreno credits her mother who taught her “Never give in, never quit, keep on moving.”
Despite being nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in West Side Story, Moreno never believed she was going to win. She fully expected that Judy Garland would take home the trophy, and as a result, did not have a speech ready. When she accepted the award, she said “I can't believe it! Good Lord! I leave you with that.”
Moreno wasn’t the only one who was excited.
The night she won her Oscar was special not only for Moreno, but for the people who lived in el barrio, a Hispanic ghetto. As comedian Liz Torres told Moreno, the night of the ceremony was hot enough that most of the people had opened their windows. The open windows also meant that they could hear each other’s televisions, and what were they watching? The Oscars of course!
As soon as Moreno’s category came up, Torres remembered a silence falling over the neighborhood as they waited for the winner to be announced. When she won, the entire neighborhood erupted in cheers. When she heard that, Moreno said that she believed that her win was as important to them as it was to her. Unfortunately, this didn’t exactly change a lot for Moreno.
You’d think that winning an Oscar would give Moreno her choice roles, but that wasn’t the case. Studios only wanted to cast her in what she called “dusky maiden roles” and she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t do those roles anymore. This strategy backfired badly, and she wasn’t able to do another film for seven years. The setback was heartbreaking—but her story didn’t end there.
Let’s face it. It’s a well-known fact that JFK had what you might call a roving eye, but it was a pretty brazen move for the then-senator to turn his attentions to Rita Moreno while in the company of his wife. According to Moreno, his look was like “when a predatory animal spots his prey,” or “lust at first sight.”
She didn’t know who he was at the time, but later saw his and Jackie’s picture in Life Magazine and identified her admirer. But that was nothing compared to who she met next.
After her Kennedy experience, Moreno met Marlon Brando at age 22 in 1954 on the set of his film Desiree, and let’s just say the sparks flew instantly. Moreno describes her first reaction as feeling as hot as if she’d been “dropped into a very hot bath,” and she blushed from head to toe. How could she resist a man like that?
Obviously, Moreno couldn’t, and their relationship lasted nearly 10 years. In her memoir, she described every part of being with him as “thrilling.” She said she loved his energy and his “engagement with the world.” She even revealed that he was also sensual and generous in bed. Sounds perfect so far, doesn’t he? Well, not quite.
When asked about her secret for still looking so amazing at her age, Moreno explained “The one thing I know about getting older is that you don’t want to be an old lady who’s trying too hard to look young.” She also jokingly credited her Puerto Rican genes for keeping her looking so young.
There was just something about Brando that Moreno couldn’t resist. According to Moreno, she became addicted to what she called the “challenge” of continuously winning him back, and the best way to do that was to make him jealous by cheating on him with other men including Dennis Hopper, Anthony Quinn, and British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan—who had some pretty freaky tastes.
As Moreno discovered, Tynan was the picture of creep. He would make her sit on his lap to look at his photo albums of men spanking women. His disturbing tendencies understandably scared her off, but he couldn’t let go and ended up stalking her. But her next relationship was the most shocking of all. Moreno went on to date none other than Elvis Presley—but more on that later.
56 years after her Oscar win, Moreno blew everybody away by wearing the same dress again to the 2018 Oscars. Moreno altered the bodice and removed the neckline, choosing to go strapless. The look didn’t go unadmired, with Cosmopolitan calling her an “inspiration,” and The New York Times remarking that “Recycling has never been more elegant.” And neither has she!
One of the breaking points in Moreno’s affair with Brando was when he pressured her into having a back-alley abortion and didn’t even pick her up himself. Upon her return home, she started bleeding from the botched procedure and had to have emergency surgery to correct it. A situation like that calls for caring and compassion, but instead, Brando complained about “being taken,” and wanted his money back. That’s when everything came to a disturbing head.
Brando left to make Mutiny on the Bounty and further crushed Moreno’s heart by falling in love with and eventually marrying his co-star. Moreno couldn’t take anymore, and as soon as she was alone, she went through his medicine cabinet and attempted to overdose on sleeping pills. Brando’s assistant found Moreno and took her to the hospital which saved her life, but that also spelled the end of their romantic relationship.
After that incident, her therapist told Moreno and Brando that they needed to stay away from each other for their own health, and they both reluctantly agreed. She said it ultimately came down to a choice between life and Brando, and obviously she chose to live. While happily ever after wasn’t in the cards for Moreno and Brando, they did maintain a friendly relationship until his death.
A mutual friend arranged for a blind date between Moreno and her future husband Dr. Leonard Gordon, but he obviously didn’t have a clue who she was at the time. Gordon was understandably perplexed when she asked him to meet her after a Broadway show. wondering what that was all about. It wasn’t until he saw her marquee in the lobby that he realized that she was in the show, and when he met her backstage, he exclaimed “Wait! You’re the Rita Moreno?”
Marlon Brando was a big part of Moreno’s life for many years, but when she thinks of him now, she calls him the “lust of her life.” Her husband Leonard Gordon was the real “love of her life,” and he left his practice in Manhattan to become her manager. The couple had one daughter and remained married for 45 years until his passing—but it wasn’t always easy or happy.
When they first married, they naturally settled into what she described as daddy and little girl roles, but when she started to outgrow that role and wanted more independence, she became unhappy in her marriage. She explained that she didn’t feel free in their marriage and considered leaving him but decided to stay for the sake of their daughter.
In 1968 Moreno reached out to Brando looking for work, and he cast her in his film The Night of the Following Day as his lover. They hadn’t seen each other in six years, and after a reunion dinner with a bit too much wine, Moreno fell asleep. She woke up to find Brando lying close beside her with “his breath on her neck.”
Brando was hoping for a different kind of reunion and begged her to sleep with him one more time. Moreno nearly gave into temptation, but a scene that required her to slap him brought her back to reality. Brando wanted her to slap him hard, which she did, but it triggered a violent response in Brando, and he “slammed her with the full force of his powerful arm and open hand.”
That was enough to remind Moreno of all the reasons she’d left him in the first place, and she went nuts. But still, her nightmare wasn’t over yet.
In 2005 after Brando passed on, his estate went to auction. He obviously wasn’t sentimental about his films, because there was only one souvenir from his movies among his belongings—and it was utterly heartbreaking. The one thing he kept was a picture of him and Moreno joined in a steamy kiss from their last movie. It was hung on the wall of his study.
By 1971, Hollywood still wasn’t offering Moreno many decent roles, so she switched gears and joined the cast of the Electric Company, a children’s television show dedicated to getting kids interested in reading. One of the sketches involved Moreno shouting the phrase “Hey You Guys,” and the producers liked it so much, they decided to use it for the show’s opening in the second season.
The Muppet Show was one of the most innovative and hilarious shows of its time, and one of the most memorable episodes was the one in which Moreno guest-starred. In the final sketch of the episode, Moreno is desperately trying to sing a sultry number while Animal is acting crazy behind her. The skit ends with Moreno smashing symbols over his head, to which Animal replies: Ooooooh! That’s my kind of woman!”
Moreno won an Emmy Award for her guest turn and says she “can’t stop laughing” when she sees it.
Achieving the kind of success that Moreno has enjoyed doesn’t come easy or overnight, but according to an interview with CNN, that’s exactly what her fans think. According to Moreno, both Hispanics and English-speaking people are shocked to learn that she struggled, but Moreno happily tells them: “It took me 81 years to reach this Rita Moreno!” Her success has also given her the ability to refuse roles she doesn’t like.
When Rita Moreno promised herself that she wouldn’t take stereotypical roles anymore she meant it, and that’s why she refused to play George Lopez’s mother in his self-titled sitcom. All the wine and gifts in the world couldn’t convince her to take on what she felt was “the most disrespectful Hispanic woman” she’d ever seen, and she just couldn’t bring herself to do it again. Besides, it’s not like she needed the work.
Achieving an EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award) is almost as elusive as finding Bigfoot, and Moreno is one of only 15 actors/actresses to boast this accomplishment. She’s also one of only 23 artists to win what’s referred to as the Triple Crown of acting, having received an individual Oscar, Emmy, and Tony for her work.
Any artist would be beyond thrilled to receive all those accolades—but there was one more wish that was yet to come true.
From the time she was six, Moreno dreamt of having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Moreno’s dream finally came true in 1995, and it meant so much to her that she collapsed on top of the star crying tears of joy. With all the struggles she’d gone through to get there, it’s a totally understandable reaction.
With a career that spans over 70 years, it’s no wonder that the accolades just keep piling up for Moreno. Among the honors are the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and a Kennedy Center Honor. Believe it or not, there was still an even more impressive achievement to come.
In 2018, Moreno added a P to her EGOT status, joining Barbara Streisand and director Mike Nichols as the third person to win a Peabody award and become a PEGOT winner. She was also the first Latinx person to receive a Peabody award for lifetime achievement, which was a huge step forward for the Latinx community. She must have one crowded mantlepiece!
Playing grandmother Lydia on One Day at a Time is a dream role for Moreno, and she loves every aspect of the character. She loves being funny and has taken great pains to inject old fashioned slapstick humor into the character. She also realizes that it’s a fine line between being funny and being too obvious. Moreno has to work hard at not playing her too over the top.
Moreno’s husband passed away in 2010, but don’t expect her to get married again. In 2019 Oprah Magazine asked the actress about what dating looks like at age 87, her answer was truly unforgettable. According to Moreno, she’d “rather eat glass” than marry again. She does acknowledge that having a guy to go to the theater with would be lovely. Not that she needs one.
87 is nothing more than a number to Moreno, and she has no problem calling herself an old lady. As far as she’s concerned, there’s “no such thing as too old for anything.” She doesn’t let it limit her. Her advice is to live life and do what you want no matter your age. Judging by the fact that she’s as busy as ever, she’s clearly taking it.
Playing Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story was the role that made Moreno a star. Now, over 50 years later, she’s returning to the streets of New York. The producers created a special role just for her. Moreno will also serve as executive producer in the forthcoming reimagined and expanded version. According to Moreno, having the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg and award-winning playwright Tony Kushner has her “tingling.”
There's a pivotal scene in West Side Story where rival Jets assault Moreno’s character near the end of the movie, and it dredged up painful memories. An agent had assaulted Moreno when she was a teen, so when it came time to film the scene, she broke down and wept for nearly an hour. Her co-stars immediately stopped filming and helped her. Maybe that’s where she found the strength to speak her mind—a strategy that didn’t always help her.
While they had chemistry for days, the union between Moreno and Brando wasn’t entirely perfection. According to Moreno, he broke her heart and nearly “crushed her spirit.” His appetite in the bedroom was so great that he sought out numerous other women, marrying twice and fathering children while he was still involved with her. This ought to have been enough to make her show him the door, but she just couldn’t stay away from him.
Moreno briefly dated Elvis Presley, but the only reason that they even got together was so that Moreno could make Brando crazy. As it turned out, Presley wasn’t great in bed. Moreno called his lovemaking skills “unsophisticated” at best, with most of their dates ending with “a tender tussle” on her living room floor. She did say that he was sweet, shy, and handsome, but that compared to Brando, he was just “amateur night.”
No wonder she kept choosing Brando—until it nearly cost Moreno her life.
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