Actress Rita Moreno, Part 2

We continue our fascinating conversation with the award-winning actress about her candid autobiography.

With some seven decades in show business, Rita Moreno still reigns as a major talent. The Puerto Rican-born legend began her career in NYC as a teen and defied ethnic typecasting to become one of the few artists to win entertainment's "grand slam:" an Emmy (she has two), a Grammy, an Oscar (the first Latina actress to win one) and a Tony. She's also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Moreno continues to work steadily on the silver and small screens and on stage, including performances as a guest artist with symphony orchestras and a regular on TV Land's Happily Divorced. She shares her remarkable journey in her new self-titled autobiography.


Tavis: The new book from Rita Moreno is called “Rita Moreno: A Memoir.” We started this conversation last night, and as has happened just a few times over the course of 10 years and almost 2,000 shows – we will air our 2,000th broadcast on May the 24th; 10 years, 2,000 shows on PBS.

Rita Moreno: Wow.

Tavis: And only a handful of times over that period have I been in a conversation that was so rich that I couldn’t stop, I had to go another night. So thank you for sticking around.

Moreno: You just love that dish, you dirty person.

Tavis: No, no, no, no. But – (laughter) but there’s a whole lot more to get to, though.

Moreno: Dirty, dirty boy. (Laughter)

Tavis: There’s a whole lot more to get to. When we left this conversation last night, we were talking about your relationship with Marlon Brando, and we kind of went through that. But we had mentioned James Forman, who was, for those of us who know the civil rights era, was very involved in SNCC.

I only raise this because I’ve been told by so many of my friends who were in Dr. King’s inner circle, who obviously I have been blessed to know over the course of these years, that everybody was jealous of Forman that he was dating you.

Moreno: No.

Tavis: Yes.

Moreno: Get out.

Tavis: Yes. He had –

Moreno: Well, like who was jealous? I need to know.

Tavis: Oh, no, no. (Laughter) I’m not dishing.

Moreno: Like who?

Tavis: This is your interview. (Laughter) Maybe Dr. King himself, for all we know. It’s like “James Forman is messing with who? Rita Moreno? Forman?” (Laughter) So anyway, how did that happen with you and James Forman?

Moreno: What happened was that after the amazing event in D.C., we all of course stay there. We were certainly going to stay there overnight.

Tavis: Right.

Moreno: I don’t remember where it was, but we were in a little group of people, talking, and we were so hyped. We were so wired by this incredible day.

Tavis: After “I Have a Dream,” you had to be, yeah.

Moreno: Oh, that just – but really not just that.

Tavis: The whole day, though, yeah, the day, yeah.

Moreno: That encompassed all of this amazing thing.

Tavis: Right.

Moreno: People walking, for Pete’s sake, taking buses, it was just thrilling. You know what was wonderful about it? You really believed in the human race, do you know what I’m saying?

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: All cynicism just went out the window, and that was so great. It was such a healthy thing for everybody involved in that, even those who weren’t there but read about it and were just as thrilled and happy about this happening.

But Jimmy and I and a few other people, I don’t even remember who they might have been, sat and talked. We had some drinks and stuff, and I was just – I found him very good-looking.

He had those what I call mahogany eyes. They weren’t so much – they were sort of like hazel eyes, gorgeous, and I loved his manner. He seemed very gentle and rather tender, and sweet and funny. That was that.

Then I was at another demonstration, I don’t know, a week later, and there he was again, or he might say there she was again. This time we stayed longer and we went and had a hamburger or something, and we began to become interested in each other.

I remember one part that is in the book but I would love to repeat it because it meant so much to me at the time and still does. One time he was going to drop me off in his car. This is before any romance took place. I said to him in the car, “You know, I’m just so hungry. Can you stop somewhere and let me get a burger to go?

He said, “Well, why don’t we all go to my people,” he said. “My people.” He said, “There’s always something to eat with my people.” That almost brought me to tears, because I thought how wonderful to know that you have people at your back to look after you.

I’ve always said “my people,” because that’s how he said it, and it meant so much to me that I was with this person who had people who would look after him. If they had one drumstick left, they were going to share. That’s the feeling I got, and that really endeared him to me, and I just fell hook, line, and sinker.

Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of my people, tell me about your people and how you got to the Bronx, and your mama.

Moreno: My trip from Puerto Rico, my mother did something extremely courageous for someone at that time in Puerto Rico, a little Catholic island. She divorced my father when she was I guess just about 20, which was unheard of, and she did something truly remarkable.

She left me with my father and my little brother, Francisco, who’s my baby brother, and took a ship to New York City, the United States of America, to see if she could find some kind of other life.

He was a philanderer; not surprising, a Latino man in those days particularly. She got a job in a sweatshop in New York City and stayed with an aunt in an apartment in the Bronx, and when she had made enough money and had learned just about enough English, she took that ship back to Puerto Rico, and I remember it was Christmastime, because she had to go back for Christmas.

Her idea was to bring me back to the United States for that better life that she was after. So after I was there, after she was with us for about a month or so she said, “We’re going to another place that’s going to be so much fun and so exciting, so great,” on and on.

I went on the boat with her, happy, knowing that my little brother Francisco would eventually come also. It’s just that one of us had to go first. It couldn’t be both of us. We took this nightmarish trip on the ship, which ran into a huge storm, and we got ourselves into New York City.

I remember passing the Statue of Liberty, where I saw that lady and I thought she was holding a giant ice cream cone.

And my mama said, “No, that lady is saying ‘Welcome.’ This is the lady who’s going to help us have a better life. Meantime, I’m freezing my ass off. It is so cold. I had never seen a tree without leaves on it. Now that doesn’t seem like a big thing, does it?

Think of having lived in this paradise of green and pink and red and green, and then seeing a tree looking like it’s dead, for all intents and purposes. I said to my mama, “What happened to these trees? They’re all – what happened?” She says, “Well, this is just this thing called winter.” (Laughter)

She says, “Soon, in a little while,” she said, “It’ll be warm again and you’ll see some leaves.” It was not a happy thing for me. I didn’t think – it’s like, as I said in the book, from paradise to something entirely – to this gray, concrete place where nobody liked you.

My mother was astonishing. She somehow managed. The woman always had three jobs. She had every kind of job. She could sew beautifully, she sewed beautifully. She made all of my dresses. She sewed.

She and I made paper flowers for Woolworth’s, and I learned how to make them because she was getting paid by the piece. It’s called piecework.

That’s how she made some money. She got jobs in restaurants washing dishes, or when they saw that she could cook, she would be a help to the chef. She did everything. Really, that’s a book in itself, I think, this remarkable young woman.

Tavis: She –

Moreno: But she wanted a better life, and it took me a long while to understand that better didn’t mean this minute.

Tavis: Right.

Moreno: That you had to work for that.

Tavis: Well, it may have taken you a while to figure that out. It didn’t take you long to get on Broadway.

Moreno: Well, I was 13 years old.

Tavis: Precisely. (Laughter)

Moreno: Yeah. But by that time I was already a Spanish dancer, castanets and flamenco and all that wonderful, glamorous-looking stuff, and I didn’t get to do, I didn’t go into Broadway – I was dancing when I was six.

Tavis: Right.

Moreno: I did a lot of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. Why the Jews, I don’t know. (Laughter) But they were hiring little kids. It was cheaper, maybe. Let’s see, this kid, we have to pay her 10 bucks. (Laughter) Hire her.

I did a lot of that. I did radio. I did a lot of radio at the time, and I remember one of them, which was hilarious to me now when I think about it, was called the “Ave Maria Hour.”

It was a religious program, half-hour. I played Bernadette, the girl who saw the figures, the figure of Mary, I think it was, in the grotto, and it was one of those things where I had to speak with an accent.

I said, “But I tell you I say this lady with a blue veil.” “Get that child out of here. She’s mad, mad as a hatter.” “But I saw this lady in the grotto.” “Get her out of here.” (Laughter)

Tavis: How did you know, where did – you were so young when all this happened for you. Where did this gift come from? Who nurtured the gift, who acknowledge the gift? How did you know that this was your calling?

Moreno: I just knew. I didn’t know it was a calling. I just knew that I loved to dance, and I used to dance for grandpa, and that he’d put on a salsa record and I’d jump all over the living room, shaking my little booty, and he just thought that was great, and he applauded and said, “Isn’t she wonderful?”

Everybody in my family, “Isn’t she adorable? Come on, dance some more.” Rosita. I liked that. I liked the attention that accompanied something that I loved to do anyway.

So sometimes it’s in the DNA, I swear it.

Tavis: Speaking of your family and your people, what is your given name, and when do we get to –

Moreno: Rita Moreno?

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: My given name is Rosa Dolores Alverio.

Tavis: I love it. (Laughter)

Moreno: Look at the smile on your face.

Tavis: Say that again, say that again.

Moreno: Rosa Dolores Alverio.

Tavis: Oh, I love it. I love it. (Laughter) And how did we get to –

Moreno: Rita Moreno.

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: Well, I was doing my first film, and nobody, because nobody could ever pronounce Alverio. Alvarao, Alvareo, no one pronounced it right. I had a stepfather named Edward Moreno, so I just simply, when I did my first film, the credit still says Rosita Moreno.

Rosa is rose, Rosita is the diminutive, “little rose.” It’s like Yiddish would be Rosala.

That Moreno came – wait a minute, oh, wait a minute, let me get my time straight. Moreno. Oh, it was Rosita Moreno, right. So when I went to (laughs) management under contract, the casting director called me in and I thought oh, I’m done, they’re going to fire me.

He said, “No, no, listen.” He said, “Listen, Reeter (ph).” (Laughter)

Tavis: “Reeter.” (Laughter)

Moreno: He said, “Listen, Roseeter (ph),” is what he said to me. “Listen, Roseeter,” (laughter) he said, “We gotta change your name.” He says, “It’s too Italian.”

Tavis: Yeah, too Italian. (Laughter)

Moreno: He came up with some doozies, like I don’t know, Daisy Dowel and one that I always remember was Orchid Montenegro. At that I thought oh my –

Tavis: That is horrible.

Moreno: Orchid Montenegro. Black forest is – monte, forest; negro, black.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Moreno: I kept saying no, and I thought he’s not going to let me say no forever, so I’d better settle for something, and he finally said, “Well, wait a minute, think Rita Hayworth. What about Rita Moreno?” I said yes immediately, because I thought, okay. (Laughter) I may end up with Orchid or Daisy or God only knows. So that’s how I got Rita Moreno.

Tavis: That’s how it worked, yeah. Hey, Jonathan, put this picture back up on the cover of the book. This is a gorgeous photo, and it’s a gorgeous cover, but it kind of reminds me –

Moreno: Oh, oh, come on.

Tavis: – it kind of reminds me –

Moreno: You’re putting me on. Does this make you think of Elizabeth Taylor a little bit?

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Moreno: Oh, stop. (Laughter) The publishers (unintelligible) they just wanted to find a – because she was – I had no role models. There was no one around.

Tavis: You were it.

Moreno: I was the role model for myself.

Tavis: You were the role model, yeah, for yourself, yeah.

Moreno: Lupe Velez was way before me, Dolores Del Rio was way before me, so I had no one. So the only one I could think of that I identified with was this gorgeous creature named Elizabeth Taylor, so she became my role model.

I got the waist cincher. When I went to meet Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, I had the eyebrows –

Tavis: Look at that photo.

Moreno: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s hot.

Moreno: Oh, that’s really – do you think so?

Tavis: That’s hot, come on. Are you serious?

Moreno: No, no, I am serious.

Tavis: No, I’m serious too. It’s hot. (Laughter) Look at that waist, look at that waist.

Moreno: Oh, yeah. I had a bitty, bitty waist. But no doubt I was pulled in, I’ll tell you that. I don’t want to disappoint you. You know what, I won’t disappoint you. That was my waist. (Laughter) The hell with it.

Tavis: Works for me.

Moreno: That was my waist.

Tavis: It works for me.

Moreno: But they also used to pad you like crazy. I remember once I was doing a film with Lana Turner, who was the love goddess of life.

Tavis: One of my favorite movies.

Moreno: Which one?

Tavis: “Imitation of Life.”

Moreno: Oh, yes. Where she plays –

Tavis: Oh, God.

Moreno: – the woman who has Black blood and denies it completely?

Tavis: Mahalia Jackson sings at the end. Who sang at the March on Washington? Mahalia Jackson.

Moreno: She sang at the end of the movie?

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: Stop.

Tavis: That’s Mahalia Jackson singing, when the mother dies?

Moreno: Yeah.

Tavis: And the girl comes running back after she’s acted a fool all this time? That’s Mahalia Jackson singing.

Moreno: Oh my God.

Tavis: That’s Mahalia Jackson.

Moreno: Anyway, I was doing a film with Lana Turner and Ricardo Montalban. It was to be his first film in America. He was “it” at the time as a Latin lover. It was Latin lover, Latin lover.

I visited the set all the time, because I visited the sets all the time, even when I wasn’t working. But I had a small role in that, and the director, the assistant director, said to me, “Rosita,” I think my name was still Rosita, “Would you do a favorite for Ms. Turner,” and I said, “Oh, yeah, okay.”

He said, “Go to the wardrobe department and get something that they have waiting for you to take to Ms. Turner’s dressing room. So I went, and the lady, the wardrobe mistress, gives me a little silk pouch with a drawstring on it, and she said in a very stern way, “Take this to Ms. Turner’s room, and don’t look inside.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Do not look inside. Uh-huh.

Moreno: I was thrilled, because then it wasn’t just me. It was falsies. I was so thrilled. (Laughter) You know what? Lana Turner didn’t need any help.

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: That’s what they did in those days. Those funnels you saw on my chest in that picture, it was probably built into that dress. Who was shaped like that anyway? They’re like funnels, right? Or a dunce cap, cut way down. (Laughter)

Tavis: How did you survive -?

Moreno: Honey, I wore so much rubber when I was at MGM, I bumped into the wall once and I ricocheted. (Laughter)

Tavis: How did you survive, because there’s some harrowing stories in this book?

Moreno: Oh, there are.

Tavis: On this program a couple weeks ago, a wonderful actress, Thandie Newton, was here.

Moreno: Oh, yes.

Tavis: Gorgeous.

Moreno: Beautiful.

Tavis: Beautiful. She and I got into a conversation about her earliest days in the business and trying to navigate the agents and the casting directors – you know where I’m going with this.

Moreno: Yes.

Tavis: Some of the stories you tell of back in the day, as a young ingénue, how did you navigate that, how’d you get through all of that?

Moreno: Oh, well, with enormous difficulty, and with not a whole lot of grace, either. I was also a surprisingly innocent person for my age. Whatever age I was, 18, 17, 19, I was very young for my age anyway. When I heard somebody using four-letter words, I was truly, truly shocked, that kind of thing.

Then, as I mention in this book, about that hideous nightmare of a cocktail party that I was taken to – this sounds like a teaser and I don’t mean it to be, but it’s too long a story to tell right now – you just go home and want to die. You’re treated so badly, so poorly, that – and you have to go home and regroup.

One of two things can happen when you have to do this all the time, constantly picking yourself up and doing that, is that you will either learn resilience or you will develop a tough skin, a hide, and I really didn’t want to do that.

So it was one of these, it was a very conscious decision that I had to make that I wasn’t going to allow myself to get hard and cynical, because I’ve been a real – Marlon said something so wonderful about me once. It was rather touching and –

Tavis: Marlon Brando.

Moreno: Sorry, Marlon Brando.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Moreno: It was rather touching and amusing. He said, “You know, you’re one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever met.” He said, “You make me think of the park attendant who has a big, long stick with a nail at the end of it, only instead of picking trash,” he said, “You go around picking up hope and putting it into your little brown paper bag.”

But that’s me even now. I’m one of the most joyous people I’ve ever met, truly. Perhaps it comes out of having been through so much bad stuff, but I know a lot of people who’ve been through bad stuff who aren’t as joyous as I am. I wake up humming, honey. I’m 81 and I’m in the prime of my life.

Tavis: You survived all of that, and went on to get married and stayed married for 40 –

Moreno: Forty-six years.

Tavis: Forty-six years, until he passed away.

Moreno: Yeah, until he passed away.

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: That was not the happiest of marriages for me.

The first 10 years were good, and then they just – he was a very controlling man. Very loving, devoted, none of those things were bad about him. He was really a fine man. But he was a very controlling man, and that’s one of those unwritten contracts that he and I really signed together without ever talking about it.

You be my good daddy, and I’ll be your little girl. But your little girl eventually wanted to grow up, and that’s when our marriage got into trouble.

Tavis: How concerned were you about what your little girl was going to –

Moreno: Pick up from this?

Tavis: – pick up when she read this book?

Moreno: Oh, that was – I kept warning her and warning her. I said, “I’m going to tell the truth.” Her name is Fernanda, to whom the book is dedicated.

I said, “I’m going to tell the truth about my marriage to Daddy,” and I said, “I’m going to be as fair as I can possibly be, but I have to talk about both sides. I can’t just talk about his being not good for me without saying that also I wasn’t good for him in my way.

I think in some ways he married the wrong woman. He wanted to change me. One of the most shocking things he said to me very early in our marriage, like in the seventh year – no, it was more like in the second or third year.

He said, “This is wonderful, we have the baby and all that, this is a wonderful life. We’re going to travel a lot. You’ll quit show business and then we’ll go here, we’ll go there.” It was said just that casually.

I heard all kinds of alarms ringing. I said, “Did I hear right? Did he say ‘And you’re going to quit show business?'” I remember saying to him something like, “What did you say?” He said, “Well, yeah, we’ll talk about that another time.”

But that’s what happened, and it wasn’t – it just wasn’t the show biz part of my life that he really didn’t care for, it was that, it was my raucous nature, part of it.

Tavis: That’s why I was laughing. I’m glad you said “raucous,” because I was thinking who could have possibly known you – I don’t even know you that well, we’ve only hung out a few times over the years. Who could have possibly thought they were going to change you?

Moreno: Well, yeah, I guess he did. But that’s what controlling people are like.

Tavis: He didn’t know you, though.

Moreno: No. (Laughter) No, and the problem, it caused a hell of a lot of trouble. There came a point where I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I thought of moving out, but I can’t do that. My mother left five people.

Tavis: Yeah, to do that.

Moreno: I’m not a leaver.

Tavis: I’ve got two minutes to go and I’ve already – this is night two and I can’t stretch this for a third night.

Moreno: Hey, how about doing a whole week? (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, well, I do have three more nights of this “Latino Nation” coming up.

Moreno: Oh yeah, that’s right.

Tavis: So Wednesday, Thursday, Friday night –

Moreno: Oh, shucks.

Tavis: – “Latino Nation” for three straight nights, talking with these –

Moreno: I can’t wait to see that.

Tavis: – brilliant thought leaders in the Hispanic community. But before my time runs out, I started this program last night – and by the way, this is night two, so if you missed last night’s conversation with Rita Moreno, you have to go and see last night’s conversation.

But I started this program last night by listing all, at least the ones I can mention, all the accolades that you’ve received – the Oscar and the Tony and the Emmys and the National Medal of Honor –

Moreno: Grammy.

Tavis: – the Grammy and all of that. What, at 81, which I still don’t believe, but what does all of that mean to you?

Moreno: In one way, absolutely nothing.

In another way, it’s very, very important, because I am a Latina, and I earned those awards. I didn’t buy them. I didn’t buy a lot of ads and stuff. I just got them, and one of the ones that is just so meaningful to me is because of who gave it to me, and that’s Obama.

Oh my God, I grabbed him. I was so undignified.

Tavis: I’m sure he didn’t mind that. (Laughter)

Moreno: Well, I have the most delicious pictures of it, because all morning I rehearsed shake the hand, be dignified, bend your head so he can put the medal over you and all that, and I’m about the fifth one he calls up to the little podium, and he goes – I just get there and I go “Oh,” and I – (makes hugging motion). (Laughter) I’m surprised I didn’t put my leg around him.

Tavis: Yeah, well, he wouldn’t have minded, I’m sure.

Moreno: But Michelle was out there, and I just went, “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.” (Laughter)

Tavis: When you’re Rita Moreno, you can get away with that. She has earned the right to hug and kiss and squeeze the president if she chooses to. It is a life well lived that is still being well lived. At 81 she ain’t slowing down, and again, I don’t believe she’s 81, but that’s what her driver’s license says.

Her book is “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” and even with two nights I have not done justice to what you will read inside this book. It is inspiring, it is empowering, it is entertaining and then some. Thank you for coming on.

Moreno: You made it such a joy. Can I hug you?

Tavis: Oh, please. Okay.  Come here. Come here, you big drink of water. (Rita and Tavis hug.)

Tavis: Give me some of that.

Moreno: You’re like a big old drink of water.

Tavis: That’s our show.

Moreno: Bye.

Tavis: Keep the faith. (Laughter)

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 8, 2014 at 5:23 pm