BERKELEY (CBS SUNDAY MORNING) – Rita Moreno sizzled in the 1961 classic “West Side Story” — and, some 50 years later, she sizzles still. Mo Rocca now with a Sunday Profile:
She heated up the screen in as Anita in “West Side Story,” and half a century later, Rita Moreno can still bust a move.
She can look back on a life that’s worthy of a Hollywood movie, from “Singin’ in the Rain,” to singing with the Muppets.
“I’m trying to remember now, you must’ve been discovered on stage?” asked Rocca.
“You’re trying to remember? I’m trying to remember! I’m 81 now. It’s a good thing I wrote it down!” she said.
Rita Moreno came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico with her mother when she was five years old. As she wrote in her memoir, “Mami and I trudged into America, hanging on to our knotted scarves, single suitcases, and shopping bags.”
They joined relatives in an overcrowded Bronx, N.Y., apartment. Rosita Dolores Alverio was soon taking dance lessons and performing in clubs.
Then, an agent told her she needed to change her name, and made a few suggestions, like, “Orchid Montenegro.”
“Oh, but jeez, that’s a great name, I gotta say,” Rocca remarked.
“It is, actually,” said Moreno. “I’m sorry I don’t have that now. Orchid Montenegro!”
They settled on Rita Moreno — Rita, as in one of her idols, Rita Hayworth. But Rita modeled herself on another star: Elizabeth Taylor.
“I did my eyebrows like her, I did my hair like her,” she said. “I wore a waist cincher because she has this wasp waist. I did everything I could. And when I did meet Mr. Louis B. Mayer the first thing he said was, ‘Look at that: She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.’ Signed me on the spot.”
“That must have been thrilling, to hear that from Louis B. Mayer,” said Rocca.
“Oh, I damn near wet my knickers,” Moreno said.
Watch Rita Moreno demonstrate some dance moves:
Rita Moreno was off to Hollywood. But she found she was consistently cast as a certain kind of character, with a certain kind of accent — what she called the “universal ethnic accent.”
“Is that the accent you’re using as Tuptim in ‘King and I’?” Rocca asked.
“That’s also the same accent. I should be embarrassed,” Moreno said. “But it’s just, you know, I’m 81. I don’t have to be embarrassed anymore.”
She was hungry for film roles, but had to fight against characters that often reduced her to racial stereotypes — the “Mexican spitfire.” “It’s funny now,” she said. “It was horrible then.”
In 1954, an editor at Life magazine spotted her and put her on the cover, where she was in turn spotted by Marlon Brando. They began a tumultuous eight-year affair.
Moreno writes: “To say that he was a great lover, sensual, generous, delightfully inventive, would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body but for my soul.”
“I have to ask ….” started Rocca.
“Well, now, I can’t imagine what you’re going to ask with respect to that quote,” Moreno said.
“I mean, was it that good?”
“Well, what do you think? What did I say? Yeah.”
But the obsessive relationship with Brando was volatile — constant fights and infidelity.
And then one day the King — Elvis Presley — came calling, enlisting his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, as a matchmaker.
“So that was a time when I was having another hard time with Marlon and he’d been out, you know, doing some other lady,” Moreno said. “And when Parker called me he said, ‘Elvis would like very much to meet you. Are you interested?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’ And then Marlon found out and he went ballistic. I loved it. I loved every bloody moment.”
She went back to Brando, but his inveterate womanizing got to be too much. One morning, alone in Brando’s house, she tried to kill herself.
“When you ended up taking those pills did you definitely want to die?” Rocca asked.
“Oh, I did, I did. I couldn’t stand my going back to him every single time after all those humiliations,” she said. “And I was obsessed. I just wanted to get rid of that self-hatred. I detested myself. I looked at myself in the mirror when I had the pills in my hand and it was hard to look at myself, I hated looking at my face. And that’s when I put them all in my hand — not one at a time ’cause then I might change my mind. I put them all in my hand and I swallowed them and I remember saying, ‘See, that wasn’t so hard.’ And I went to bed to die.”
Brando’s assistant found her and got her to the hospital. The affair with Brando was over.
But the acclaim was just beginning: just months later, she won an Oscar for “West Side Story,” the first of many awards. Moreno is one of fewer than a dozen people who have won what’s now called an EGOT (Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony).
“I think they should call it a ‘Full Moreno,’ if you get all four,” Rocca said.
“A Full Moreno? I like that.”
In 1965 she married Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist. He died two years ago.
Together Rita and Lenny built the house she showed off to us, in the Berkeley Hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Moreno insisted on making lunch, a little something from the Caribbean.
“I made this dish for Julia Child on TV once,” Moreno said. “She goes, ‘What’s that? Oh, I see, cumin. Oh, I would never have thought of that.’ She was adorable. She goes, ‘Do you mind if I put my finger in there?’ I said, ‘Well, did you wash your hands?’”
We were joined by a special guest: Moreno’s daughter, Fernanda Luisa Fisher, “the love of my life.”
When asked which of her mother’s credits was her favorite, Fisher replied, “Well, you know, it’s a generational thing. When I was growing up in New York City we lived about four blocks away from Metromedia Studios, which is where they shot ‘Electric Company,’ and I was about six years old.”
“The Electric Company,” the 1970s kids show on PBS, starred Moreno alongside Morgan Freeman, singing and dancing and hamming it up for a whole new generation of fans.
So it should come as no surprise that this grandmother of two is still performing. She currently plays Fran Drescher’s mother in the cable TV series “Happily Divorced.”
And she’s still on stage. In 2011, at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, she brought back the memories in “Life Without Makeup.”
“It’s always to me still new,” she said. “It’s still, how did this happen? And the funny thing is that with respect to the awards, obviously I don’t look at those things all the time, so once in a while when I’m with someone like you, I look at them and I think, ‘My goodness. That’s pretty good. That’s pretty good.’”
(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)