GWEN IFILL: Now we return to Brief But Spectacular, our occasional series where we ask interesting people to discuss their passions.

Among this year’s Kennedy Center Honors awardees is an actress and singer who made her debut on Broadway at age 13, and is perhaps best known for playing Anita in the film adaptation of “West Side Story.”

Rita Moreno originally struggled with being typecast, but fought industry pressure, and went on to become the first Latino to win an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy.

This fall, she released her first all Spanish album titled “Una Vez Mas.”

RITA MORENO, Actress: Being the house ethnic was destroying my life and my sense of myself, because I had been consigned to play every dusky maiden you have ever seen in your life in movies.

So, if I was playing Hawaiian girl, I talked like this. If I was playing an Arabian, I still talked like this. I didn’t know. But I was trying. I was really trying to improve things.

Nobody gave a damn. Moving to Los Angeles, I was then about, yes, 16, because I remember that I went there under contract to MGM studios, the studio of my dreams, because that’s where all the great musicals were made.

“LIFE” magazine decided to do a story about a young actress in Hollywood in 1954. And I made the cover. And I remember that the fellow who was doing the story on me said, “Listen, kid, I just want you to know, if Eisenhower gets a cold, you’re off the cover.”

I auditioned for “West Side Story” just like everybody else, and I nearly had a heart attack, because I hadn’t danced in about — oh, I don’t know, about 15 years.

I got a friend of mine who had played Anita on the road in “West Side Story” to teach me some steps. But she warned me that they don’t always teach you the same steps. And to my astonishment, the first part of the audition, the dance director said, OK, let me teach you these steps from “America.” And I said, OK. And it was the steps that this girl taught me.

When I was nominated for the Oscar, I was absolutely positive that Judy Garland would win for “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and then they call my name, and I was absolutely paralyzed. And I remember walking down to the stage and saying to myself, don’t run, it’s not dignified.

I got up there and I said the following. Unbelievable.


RITA MORENO: I can’t believe it.


RITA MORENO: Good lord. I’ll leave you with that.


RITA MORENO: Oh, my God, the things I could have said. It just kills me.

There is something about sex that always brings out the funny in me. I think it’s because we make such fools of ourselves over it. You know, get laid, oh, my God, people will do just about anything.

I think people get won over, too, by a woman’s kind of sexuality. And that’s what I was trying to achieve when I sang “Fever” with Animal, the drummer from the Muppets. Well, I think it’s one of the funniest things I have ever done. I really had a hard time not laughing.

I have always wanted to sing and dance all my life, but there is one song that absolutely captures the essence of who I am.

(singing): As I approach the prime of my life, I find I have the time of my life, learning to explore at my leisure every single pleasure. And so I happily concede this is all I ask. This is all I need.

I’m Rita Moreno. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on me.

GWEN IFILL: I have always wanted to be her when I grow up.


JUDY WOODRUFF: She’s the whole package.

GWEN IFILL: And she has a birthday, which makes her…


GWEN IFILL: Coming up — which makes her 83 years old.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Happy birthday, Rita.