Actress Rita Moreno, Part 1

Originally aired on April 8, 2013

One of only eight living entertainers to achieve the honor of the industry’s “grand slam,” Moreno shares stories from her one-of-a-kind career.

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.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with legendary actress Rita Moreno. She’s written about her remarkable life in a new memoir. Born in Puerto Rico, she made her way to Broadway at the tender age of 13.

She then went on to Hollywood stardom and more, earning an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony, and two Emmys along the way. She’s the first and so far the only Latina to pull off that remarkable accomplishment.

Before we get to that conversation, though, as this is our tenth anniversary and we’re approaching our 2,000th episode, we continue introducing you to some of the folk who make this program possible.

And so joining me now is Sheila Evers, who does makeup for me and many of the guests you see on this program. I’ve known Sheila now for what, more than 20 years, and I am honored to have you on this program.

Sheila Evers: Well, it’s an honor, a blessing, and a pleasure to be here with you every week with the diversity of guests that we have. The conversations that you have a truly amazing. It’s such a blessing that all of us can share in this.

Tavis: Well, you have them warmed up in the makeup chair for me, so I appreciate that. So why don’t you introduce Ms. Moreno?

Evers: We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Rita Moreno coming up right now.

Tavis: Rita Moreno was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the boogie-down Bronx and made her Broadway debut at the ripe old age of 13. She quickly went on to Hollywood, excelling in such movies as “The King and I,” “West Side Story,” “Carnal Knowledge,” and, of course, “The Four Seasons.”

Along the way she has picked up an Oscar, a Tony, two Emmys, a Grammy, and was awarded a National Medal of Honor. She’s one of the few artists to pull off that array of awards, and of course the first and only Latina to do all that.

She’s now written a very frank and fascinating memoir about her remarkable life. It’s titled, appropriately enough, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir.”

I cannot resist, so please forgive me – I can’t resist opening this conversation without showing a clip of you in “West Side Story.”

Rita Moreno: Ah, okay.

[Begin film clip.]

“Anita:” (Singing) Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion. Let it sink back in the ocean. (Laughter) Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing. And the money owing, and the sunlight streaming, and the natives steaming. I like the island Manhattan.

“Female One:” I know you do.

“Anita:” Smoke on your pipe and (unintelligible).

[End film clip.]

Tavis: So when you’ve seen these clips all these years later, you think what?

Moreno: Oh, I loved it.

Tavis: Yeah?

Moreno: It just takes me back to a time when I finally got a chance to do what I was able to do for years before that, and where I got to play a real Hispanic person, not those Conchita-Lolita things that I did forever. (Laughter) Oh, it’s true, because Lolita, where I was saying things like “Why you no love me no more?”

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: Or “Junkie pig, you think you can fool Lolita? Ha ha ha ha ha!” (Laughter) Which is funny now, but those were – I got to do nothing but that. Then along came, finally, along came this wonderful role of an Hispanic woman with I want to say balls, but I’ll say ovaries. (Laughter)

Someone with character and strength, and it was nothing but joy. I loved doing it. I was so proud of being in that – it’s a great film.

Tavis: It’s a great film.

Moreno: Obviously the dialogue is very dated and all that kind of stuff, but it’s still a treasure.

Tavis: You wanted this for all the reasons you’ve just articulated. Now you wanted it and you got it, and obviously, it paid off. What did you have to go through to get that part then?

Moreno: Then? Well, I had to audition. Is that what you meant?

Tavis: Yeah -

Moreno: Oh, yeah, I had to -

Tavis: How difficult or easy was it to actually land the part?

Moreno: It was not easy -

Tavis: Okay.

Moreno: – because for one thing, I had to audition for all the parts that were required of me – singing, I did a singing audition, I did an acting audition, and the thing that scared me the most was dancing, because I hadn’t danced at that time for at least 10 years. That’s like asking somebody to suddenly play five sets of tennis a day.

You can’t do it. I don’t care much you’re willing and the body is willing and the mind, but you can’t do it. I ran when I found out that they loved me for the part, but the one remaining audition was can she pull off this kind of dancing.

I was a Spanish dancer. I don’t mean to put that down, because that was great too, but nothing like the kind of dancing you had to do in “West Side Story,” which was called jazz.

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: So I killed myself, I worked so hard at the dance studio, because I just registered for every class there was. I worked from 9:00 in the morning till 9:00 or 10:00 at night just dancing, trying to get my groove back, as it were.

It was very frightening, because I thought if I lose this, knowing that they want me really badly, but I lose it because I don’t get the dancing, I’m going to just want to die.

I did the audition with my heart in my throat. A friend of mine had taught me some steps in advance in case those were the steps to “America” that were going to be taught me in an audition. Most people don’t know that dancing auditions, you learn the steps right now.

Then you try to do it slowly, a little faster, a little faster, and then finally they say, “Okay, now do it up to speed.” (Vocalizes song, clapping) I got through it, and I had to do the steps that my friend had taught me, and Jerome Robbins apparently was very anxious about – he was the choreographer, co-director of “West Side Story” – was dying to know how I did.

His assistant said, “Well, she needs some work. I’m feeling she’s not danced in quite a while, but she has style and she’s vivacious and she’s funny.” She said, “But you know what’s really impressive?” She said, “She learns so fast.” But I knew those steps.

Tavis: You knew them already, yeah.

Moreno: (Laughs) I knew those steps, so.

Tavis: So you get this part, it obviously all works out. You go on to win an Academy Award.

Moreno: An Academy Award and a Golden Globe.

Tavis: And a Golden Globe.

Moreno: Yeah.

Tavis: Give me just two seconds to set this up, because I know you already as -

Moreno: I know the story, right.

Tavis: You know the story, as prescient as you are I know you know where I want to go with this. But I have had countless conversations in my career on TV and radio in my shows about what an Academy Award is worth for a person of color. If you and I were, if we had hours to talk, I would give you my list -

Moreno: Oh, I love where you’re going. Nobody’s ever brought this up.

Tavis: If we had two or three hours to talk, I would give you my list, which is a very short list, because – pardon my English – there ain’t but three names on the list of persons of color who I believe have won Academy Awards and continued to elevate their game after they’ve won.

That is to say that Hollywood gave them better and additional opportunities to continue perfecting their craft, as opposed to winning an Academy Award and we don’t see you for years, or you start doing a bunch of crap after you won the Academy Award.

Moreno: Right.

Tavis: So that’s a long way of asking after you won your Academy Award, how long before you did your next film?

Moreno: You ready?

Tavis: I’m ready.

Moreno: Well, you read the book.

Tavis: I know the answer.

Moreno: Seven years.

Tavis: One, two, three, four, five, six -

Moreno: Five, six -

Tavis: – seven years.

Moreno: Years.

Tavis: Not seven months. Seven years.

Moreno: I didn’t do a film for seven years. Once I had that little gold man in my grasp, I thought okay, that’s it – no more of those stereotypical Conchita-Lolitas or whatever. I’m not going to do any movies like that, and boy, I showed them. (Laughter) I showed ‘em. Cut off my nose to spite my face. You ever heard that expression?

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: But I wasn’t spiting my face. I was determined. I got the highest accolade in my profession, and I’m not going to denigrate it -

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: – or devalue it by going back to those horrible gang movies and all that kind of stuff. That’s all I was offered. So I was offered some things – not much, by the way.

Tavis: Sure, sure, yeah.

Moreno: But I didn’t do a film for seven whole years.

Tavis: Talk to me, then, about how you emotionally navigated that period, and how you professionally, with your gold man statue, how you professionally navigated that drought, that dearth and paucity of opportunity?

Moreno: Well, emotionally it was very hard for me. I just couldn’t believe that I wasn’t getting any offers. Normally you’re supposed to have just reams of offers from all kinds of places, and obviously, a lot of people felt I was very talented, because they voted for me. Including the people who were in a position to employ me, but didn’t.

Tavis: That’s right.

Moreno: It’s because for whatever reasons, I played the Hispanic character, and they couldn’t think anywhere beyond that box. Professionally, I navigated it a whole lot better, because there I just said, “Okay, I’ll do theater. I’ll do TV, I’ll do summer stock. I’ll do whatever I can to embrace what I love best and to earn some points in terms of enriching my talent.”

I had a long way to go. I thought I was good in “West Side Story,” but needless to say when I look at it now I say, “Oh, I could have done this, I could have done that.” I didn’t get the second chance to do this or do that.

Tavis: What did you think then that you had to work on in terms – you were young, but what did you see immediately that you had to work on to continue to perfect your gift?

Moreno: I felt that I had to work on my speaking voice, which was never really a very exciting speaking voice.

Tavis: It always works for me.

Moreno: (Laughs) Well.

Tavis: It works for me.

Moreno: Didn’t for me. Anyway, I just felt I needed more experience, and unfortunately, the only experience I could get was for what I wanted for my goals, was more movies.

But I wasn’t getting more movies, so I did the next best thing, which really was a very good thing, which is to go to theater. Because in theater, theater is the one place where people of color or of different nationalities had a better break.

Doesn’t mean they had a great break, but they had a better chance of doing roles on stage than you would in films or television. Even now, Tavis, the door is ajar. It isn’t wide open, and if you try to push on it, you’ve got to push pretty hard still. We’re not talking about someone like Jennifer Lopez. She’s some kind of phenom that just defies belief, really, and understanding, but it’s still very difficult.

I still get offered parts of now grandmothers who speak with an accent and all that, which is fine. It’s just that they’re written so badly, and I’m 81 now, I’m an old – I’m a fartette.

Tavis: Nobody would believe it.

Moreno: Well, believe it.

Tavis: Put that camera back on Ms. Moreno. (Laughter) There you go. Eighty-one, I’m not buying it.

Moreno: Yeah, 81.

Tavis: I’m not buying it.

Moreno: But I deliberately state my age because it keeps me honest. I think lying is a bad idea. Sooner or later, someone’s going to catch you.

Tavis: One of the things I loved about this book was the honesty, the authenticity, the transparency, which so often people don’t want to put. I’ve never understood people in this won or elsewhere who’ll write a book called a memoir and don’t want to tell the truth.

Moreno: And don’t want to tell -

Tavis: I don’t quite get that. (Laughter)

Moreno: I had to talk to myself about that. I thought okay, if you’re really going to do this -

Tavis: Right.

Moreno: – because the publishers were very interested, and it’s about your life and you have to write about your life.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me -

Moreno: I had to do that, and it was even, on a few occasions I put myself on the carpet about certain things. But that’s part of living.

Tavis: I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times, but not by me, so I want to hear your response. Just a quick thought on the progress that has or has not been made with specific regard to Latinas.

You were one of the first ones through the door. Rita Hayworth, Rita Moreno, you guys were there first.

Moreno: But Rita Hayworth wasn’t even considered Hispanic.

Tavis: Yeah, she wasn’t even considered – absolutely. That is true, I was about to say that.

Moreno: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Tavis: But what’s your sense of what the progress has or has not been in these now 81 years of your life?

Moreno: It’s better.

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: I really can’t jump up and down with joy. I get asked very, very often by my people and for that matter, because I have a big Black audience, I’m happy to say.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Moreno: I’m proud to say. I get asked, “Well, how come you’re the only one so far that ever got an Oscar? How come more Latinos?” The answer’s really not that difficult. You can’t, or you shouldn’t, be nominated for an Oscar unless you’ve turned in a performance that’s special.

You’re not going to turn in a performance, especially if you don’t get a special kind of role. Anita came along at this, Anita in “West Side Story” came along at a time when this very unusual movie was being made which, by the way, I thought wasn’t going to make a cent. It turns out what are we now, 50 years later and it’s still playing everywhere somewhere.

Tavis: Everywhere, yeah.

Moreno: I think we’ve got to stop – it’s just got to stop at some point, writing “Latino” roles or “Black” roles. While those have a place, there’s only one place. We need to start – we ghettoize ourselves in some ways as well, as well as we victimize ourselves.

I’ve talked to a lot of young people who the first words out of their mouths is “Well, if they didn’t blah-blah,” or “It’s not my fault because they don’t like Black people, they don’t like Puerto Rican,” and my answer to that, I’m very much like Bill in that sense, Cosby.

I just say, “Yeah, well, that’s true, they do. So what? What are you going to do about it? Are you going to sit here and whine? Because you’ll end up washing dishes.” If you want to be a star, what is a star? Fancy cars, great sneakers and stuff like that?

I tell you, my middle name really is perseverance. I’ve always believed that I had talent, even when I felt like a very inferior sort of person, which I spent a lot of time living my life feeling that I wasn’t worthy.

But even then I knew that I had something special, and maybe that’s what it takes. Maybe people need to have that kind of particular core driving them. But I felt I had talent.

Tavis: I should mention right quick for a quick programming note, and I’ll come back to this conversation. Since we’re talking about this, because I want to segue to – anyway, you’ll follow me in a second.

Moreno: Yeah.

Tavis: This week on this program, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night on this program, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday night, for three consecutive nights we’re going to broadcast highlights of a brilliant and wonderful conversation that I convened and moderated at Chicago State in Chicago just last week called “Latino Nation, Beyond the Numbers.”

“Latino Nation, Beyond the Numbers,” a stage full of the best and brightest thought leaders, opinion makers, influencers, in the Latino community, all gathered on stage, 16 of them, two all-day panels of these thinkers to talk about the hopes and fears and dreams and aspirations in the future of this Latino community.

It was a conversation you’ll be happy to know that wasn’t just about immigration. We talked about all the things that matter to this growing, this powerful community. So that will broadcast for three nights on this program, starting Wednesday night of this week, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – “Latino Nation, Beyond the Numbers” on this program.

Moreno: I’m going to – that sounds fabulous.

Tavis: I think you’ll be empowered by it.

Moreno: Ah.

Tavis: But I raise that because – and again, there’s so much in this book, I’m just going to bounce around – I raise that because you were very, were and are very active, very politically and socially and culturally engaged. You were at the March on Washington -

Moreno: I was there.

Tavis: – which this year we will commemorate, celebrate the 50th anniversary of that come August of this year.

Moreno: I always get goosebumps when I talked about it.

Tavis: Fifty years come August.

Moreno: We were -

Tavis: How did you get so active?

Moreno: Tavis, how?

Tavis: Yeah, what led you into this?

Moreno: Well, I had a roommate, I had a wonderful roommate, was very political. I met her in group therapy. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yay for group therapy.

Moreno: Yay for neurosis.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Moreno: She was very political, and I was a girl who always was attracted to people who knew more than I did. That’s a lot of people, because I never finished school, either. So academically, I’m not very educated.

But she got me very involved, and I began to understand that being in service, this is what it’s really all about. That being in service and being involved in something that is greater than you is what makes a person complete and whole. The very first thing I ever did in terms of activism was for an anti-atom bomb rally.

Tavis: That’s right.

Moreno: A hundred years ago. I felt wonderful after it, and I helped to raise funds, and I was told that the people taking movies of me and taking pictures of me were not fans. It was the FBI. (Laughter) It was the FBI.

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: I got scared, and I got scared, but I thought, well, I’m not going to let that stop me. Then after that, it’s natural that it escalated into something more sophisticated and more political. Then – first of all, let me state about the Martin Luther King talk.

Tavis: The “I Have a Dream” speech, yeah, yeah.

Moreno: We were 10 feet away from h I’m. We were sitting at the monument.

Tavis: You, all these stars – Belafonte, you, Diahann Carroll, that’s right.

Moreno: Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., directors -

Tavis: Brando.

Moreno: Marlon, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, we’ll talk about that.

Moreno: We weren’t talking to each other then.

Tavis: But yes, there we were in the sweltering heat, I have never felt such heat. I felt like my – I think my scalp burned, because it was just so hot there. I saw every drop of perspiration on that man’s face, and I was just mesmerized.

I keep hoping I see my little head somewhere every time they show the film, but never, it never showed us.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Moreno: It never showed us. Then when he went off book, as it were, when he decided to -

Tavis: Off the script.

Moreno: – off the script.

Tavis: To the dream.

Moreno: To I had a dream -

Tavis: Yeah.

Moreno: – I thought I would have a heart attack, honestly. Every once in a while, when a picture would go up, I’d look around me to the back, because we were facing with Dr. King. The people, that sea of wanting, yearning, needing, oh, faces below, many of them wearing the uniform of that particular time, which was the coveralls in denim – what an experience.

That’s where I met James Forman of SNCC and we became involved. What a lovely man he was.

Tavis: Since we’re here, let me just – I’ll take them one at a time. (Laughter) So you met James Forman, who was the head of SNCC, involved in SNCC, and you became romantically involved with him.

Moreno: Right.

Tavis: Prior to that you had already been romantically involved with this guy named Marlon Brando -

Moreno: Yes.

Tavis: – who at moment, the time of the march, as you said earlier, you were not speaking to.

Moreno: Not anymore.

Tavis: Why were you and Mr. Brando not speaking at that point?

Moreno: Well, because we had a very long, tempestuous, tumultuous, you name it kind of relationship for almost eight years, and he was a big-time philanderer, which it takes two to tango.

As I say in my book, I always feel that people collude, not always, but very often collude. You be my good daddy and I’ll be your little girl, that kind of thing.

I became very subservient to Marlon because that’s the kind of man I always chose, a man who I felt was stronger than I, more powerful, and indeed, his celebrity was thrilling. Here I am, I can at least by association be powerful too, for the time I’m with him at dinner or the time I’m with him at a theater or whatever.

That ended in a very serious attempt at suicide on my part. I couldn’t bear the humiliations I kept putting myself through. You really have to understand that, because some people said to me, “Now that I read the story, I want to kill him.”

I have to correct them and say, “It couldn’t have happened without me.” Yeah, I feel sorry for myself. I was a rather helpless creature then. But it couldn’t have happened without me, that kind of tempestuous relationship.

It was exciting, it was – but the thing that I loved the most is that one time when I got really angry at him for finding some lady’s clothing in his house, I got even in the most wonderful way. You know what’s coming. (Laughter) Should I go on?

Tavis: Please do. (Laughter) Please do.

Moreno: Into a little dish here.

Tavis: Yes, go ahead.

Moreno: Well, what happened was that I read in a very famous columnist’s, gossip columnist’s column that Elvis Presley had spotted me at the 20th Century Fox commissary and wanted very much to meet me.

So right after I read that, (laughter) when he knew it came out, Colonel Parker calls me. “Ms. Moreno, this is Colonel Parker.” I’m saying, “No kidding.” He said, “My client, Elvis Presley, would like very much to meet you. Would you like to meet him?” I thought what the heck. I said, “Yes, I would.” (Laughter)

So I met Elvis and we started a kind of relationship. He wasn’t my kind of guy. You have Marlon Brando on this side and Elvis Presley, but people say, “Well, how can you talk that way about him?”

Well, he was beautiful, he was handsome, he was kind of beautiful. Beautiful face, perfect teeth, gorgeous hair, all of that. But he was a country boy.

Tavis: I never met him.

Moreno: He didn’t have a whole lot to say.

Tavis: I never met him, but I can’t imagine they come any more charismatic than Brando.

Moreno: Oh, no. Well, precisely.

Tavis: He was very bright, obviously.

Moreno: Well, see, I don’t think that Elvis was charismatic.

Tavis: No, I think you’re -

Moreno: That word doesn’t apply to him. There were many other wonderful words that applied, but not charisma. Marlon would fill a room the moment he entered it. It’s like the walls started to sweat.

Tavis: Hold that thought. You and I were supposed to do this for one night, and I have barely scratched the surface of what I want to talk about. So if you will stay right there, I’d like to do this again tomorrow night.

Moreno: I’d love to, but I’m going to be in New York. I mean Miami.

Tavis: No you’re not. Not for the next 30 minutes, you won’t.

Moreno: Oh I won’t – okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: So that means tomorrow night we’re going to continue this. (Laughter)

Moreno: Oh, we’re doing a two-parter, huh?

Tavis: With Ms. Moreno. We’re going to do a two – you caught up with me. There you go.

Moreno: (Laughter) Okay.

Tavis: Tomorrow night, part two. The new book is called “Rita Moreno: A Memoir.” I got a whole lot more questions and I know she’s got a whole lot more answers, so we’ll see you tomorrow night. Until then, thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith

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

“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.

  • Celeste

    Thank you! You’ve given me impetus…is that really you saying you didn’t finish school?…You are more a teacher than you think. I hope you are writing more because in just one interview you show a lot more teaching that Puerto Ricans, like me, need to follow. I am in awe! The mom, I never had, and I will continue to search for you…

  • Suri Friedman

    More than 40 years ago I heard Rita Moreno tell the story of her suicide attempt and how grateful she was to have the life that followed it. I became a rabbi, and have retold that story countless times, both in sermons and in quiet conversation. How sweet it was to watch her tonight and have that memory affirmed. Thank you.

  • Elizabeth Freeman

    Love ” Travis Smiley”..love Rita Moreno……SHE looks MAHVERLOUS!!!

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