Multi-award-winning actress, singer and dancer, Rita Moreno, blazed an iconic trail as the first mainstream Hispanic actress to grace Hollywood when she exploded onto the big screen as Anita in 1961’s classic film, West Side Story.
The role earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, crowning her the first Hispanic performer to ever win an Academy Award. But even after taking home Hollywood’s top prize, Moreno’s career started and stalled repeatedly throughout the 1960s as she fought to be cast in roles that didn’t box her in to antiquated stereotypes.
Though film roles for a leading lady of color were far and few between at the time, Rita Moreno turned her attention to television and music, taking home a Grammy Award in 1973 for Best Children’s Album during her stint on the popular children’s television program and, The Electric Company.
Then came a Tony Award in 1975 for her work in the Broadway production of, The Ritz. Soon, two primetime Emmys followed in 1977 and 1978. Moreno was hard at work establishing herself as a bonified triple threat. She cemented an indelible legacy as one of the world’s most versatile and talented performers.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Moreno continued to take on roles on her own terms, proving her staying power for six decades. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she played Sister Peter Marie Reimondo in HBO’s first original and groundbreaking dramatic series, OZ.
Moreno currently stars as Abuelita Lydia Riera, the hilarious and spicy grandmother on the new incarnation of Norman Lear’s television creation, One Day at a Time, now streaming its third season on Netflix. The show’s official premise is, “Two Cultures, One Familia.” It’s an updated twist on the 1975 hit series starring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington, but with a twist. The reboot centers around a Hispanic American family, no doubt Lear’s way of thumbing his nose at some of the more racist rhetoric flung through 2016’s presidential campaign.
In 2014, Actor Morgan Freeman presented Moreno with the Screen Actor’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, calling her “a world class actress, singer and dancer,” and just as significantly, “a fighter, who battled to break free of racial and sexual barriers that plagued Hollywood’s golden age.” Before there was Rosie Perez, Salma Hyek or Jennifer Lopez, there was the inimitable Rita Moreno.
Recently, Moreno got the call from Steven Spielberg, for a forthcoming remake of the film that made her an icon, West Side Story. Moreno will play a role in the film as well as Executive Produce. I recently sat down with Rita Moreno to discuss her one-of-a-kind career and journey.
Allison Kugel: When you won your Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1962 for the film, West Side Story, you thought you would then transcend racial stereotypes with the parts you would be offered.
Rita Moreno: And I was very disappointed (laughs). Not only disappointed, but it really, really broke my heart.
Allison Kugel: I feel you. I’ve experienced it as a journalist, not in terms of ethnic discrimination, but the bewilderment of hitting a peak and then stalling. Your famous quote about this phase of your career was, “I showed them. I didn’t work for seven years.”
Rita Moreno: When I say, “I showed them,” of course, I’m being facetious.
Allison Kugel: Of course. And in this business, it’s very hard to turn down work. Writers write, Actors act, etc. It’s what you do, and you crave it.
Rita Moreno: Not only crave it. It pays the rent.
Allison Kugel: Yeah, and then there’s that! (Laughs) Any regrets about taking that stance?
Rita Moreno: I think it was a very good decision on my part, because the only thing that was being offered, really, were gang movies, and they certainly weren’t as interesting as West Side Story. I think it would have depressed the heck out of me to go back to that stuff. It paid off in the sense that I had peace of mind and I didn’t feel like I was being insulted.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about the amazing Norman Lear and the One Day at a Time reboot on Netflix you’re starring in.
Rita Moreno: Isn’t he something?!
Allison Kugel: I think he is a genius!
Rita Moreno: He is a genius, you’re right. He’s still going strong. He’s going to be 96, and he can speak and he can walk (laughs). He’s a remarkable man, and a lovely, lovely person.
Allison Kugel: All in the Family is my favorite sitcom of all time.
Rita Moreno: Oh, it’s one of my favorite shows too!
Allison Kugel: The way he has tackled race, gender, religion, sexuality… on and on, has helped to re-shape our society. The original One Day at a Time with Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli and Pat Harrington that premiered in 1975 was very progressive in that single motherhood was much more taboo at that time. With this updated version, there’s an extra layer to the story in that the family are Hispanic Americans. After all you went through in terms of fighting for roles that accurately represent Hispanic people, do you feel a sense of vindication at portraying a positive representation of a Hispanic family on television?
Rita Moreno: Vindication implies that I’m still angry. No, I don’t feel any sense of vindication. I’m just so happy and so proud that Hispanics have more representation. I think we’re still not there. I think we are underrepresented. But feeling vindictive is a waste of time, don’t you think?
Allison Kugel: Wrong choice of words. Perhaps a better way to put it would be, “a sense of wholeness.” I was watching an episode earlier, and there’s a scene where your character, Lydia, is talking about the racial slurs she had to endure in her generation. When her daughter and granddaughter ask her for specifics, Lydia summons up the courage to say the word “spic” out loud. The context of the scene is that she is disempowering that word that was so painful for her. To be able to stand there and say it, and disempower the word…
Rita Moreno: What was so remarkable about that scene is that kids don’t even [fully] understand that word. It’s bizarre. Lydia is carrying on and on about the word “spic,” and everybody in the room is like, “Yeah, so?” It was a terrible word in my time. I love that!
Allison Kugel: I have to give so much credit to the show’s creator, Norman Lear. The courage to look something in the eye and stare it down, man, and incorporate comedy into it is amazing.
Rita Moreno: That’s a wonderful way to put it, yes. You’re right.
Allison Kugel: What do you hope viewers of the updated ODAAT will learn about Hispanic American families?
Rita Moreno: It’s what I think they are learning, because we have now gained an American audience as well. We always, of course, had the Hispanic community watching the show. People who are not Hispanic are learning that family is family, is family. It’s universal. That’s what Norman was hoping for. You want the universality of the situation to work on people, and that’s what has happened. The moment of, “Oh My God. We’re like that too!” Just add in some spice and some deliciousness, which is the Hispanic nature of the show.
Allison Kugel: If you live in a smaller town in the United States, where you are only surrounded by people who are just like you, it’s so easy to dismiss other types of people, because you don’t have to get to know them. Once you get to know people who are different from you and you see their humanity, it becomes much harder to be dismissive.
Rita Moreno: Yeah. And I find that a lot of people who watch our show just love Lydia. She’s so outrageous and so big. Children love Lydia. Go figure!
Allison Kugel: Because your character is that bridge between what was and what is. You’re teetering on the edge between the old school stuff that you came of age with, while trying to embrace the world we’re living in now.