Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Rita Moreno was barely into her teens when she began her acting career, and while her start may have been on the stage, it wasn’t long before Hollywood realized that the camera loved her, and so in turn did moviegoers. Moreno’s filmography kicked off in 1950, and even though turned 86 this past December—and, no, we’re not being indiscreet, she mentions it herself during the course of the conversation—she continues to be a force of nature in front of the camera. Moreno might be an EGOT winner, but you won’t catch her coasting on her credits. She can currently be found stealing scenes from her co-stars in Netflix’s One Day At A Time, the second season of which is available now.
The A.V. Club: How did you first get involved with One Day At A Time?
Rita Moreno: It was so simple. I was at a political fundraising dinner, and so was Norman [Lear]. Of course. That’s where he lives half the time! [Laughs.] But we sat at the same table, along with Dolores Huerta, and he said, “I’m going to do a new series, and I would love to have you be part of it.” And without even thinking, because I so admire him, said, “Okay!” And then it was, like, 10 minutes later when I said, “Wait a minute, what is it?” And when he told me, I said, “Yeah, I’m in. Oh, yeah. Okay, okay!”
Later when I was on a conference call with him and the head writers, I said, “I do have one request, and that’s important, so if you say ‘no,’ well, I’m out.” So of course they got a little nervous and said, “Well, what is it?” And I said, “Well, I know she’s supposed to be 77…” Which, of course, I’m not. I’m 86! I’m just Puerto Rican and I look good for my age! [Laughs.] Anyway, I said, “I want Lydia to be a sexual being.” And the writers whooped. They were thrilled about it. And, boy, have they taken advantage of that!
It’s wonderful. As you know, she’s shameless. She’ll flirt with anyone and anything, and that includes a fence post. [Laughs.] And I love it! Everything I love about playing her is a negative. She’s vain, she tends to be loud sometimes, she’s opinionated, she’s rude to her young granddaughter. Everything about her that I adore playing is not nice, but I just love playing her.
Here’s what I love about her: She never goes into caricature. She may get a little bit close sometimes, but she never does. We’re so careful about that. We really are. And I particularly, as a Hispanic, am very mindful of that. I also love the fact that she’s a little bit racist. [Laughs.] That kills me. When she says, “We’re really Spanish,” her daughter says, “Mom, Cubans are all colors,” and she said, “Yeah, but we’re mostly Spanish,” by which she means white. I just love that! Who wants to be perfect? And she’s anything but that, anyway!
AVC: I have to admit, in the season two finale, I got a little emotional at the end of the episode’s big scene, because I realized that I had absolutely no clue which way it was going to go.
RM: I know! And that just thrills me, of course, because it means that you care about these characters and you’re really involved. And I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but in that scene, when the actor walked into the room—and I won’t even mention his name—the audience gasped. And they didn’t just gasp, they were saying things out loud. “Oh, no! What do you think is going to happen?!” There were people actually talking to each other. Talk about caring about the characters! In fact, for the second take, the director said, “Please be quiet when he walks in!” [Laughs.] And, of course, she let them applaud when they wanted to later on in the scene, and they did, but they did it spontaneously, too. It was wild. It made us feel so good.
So Young, So Bad (1950)—“Dolores Guererro”
Where’s Raymond? a.k.a. The Ray Bolger Show (1954)—actress
AVC: For this feature, we try to ask actors about their first on-camera appearance, and it looks like yours was in So Young, So Bad.
RM: Yeah! It was in So Young, So Bad, a title that my agent at the time could never get straight. He’d say, “You know, you saw her So Good, So Young… So Terrible, So Bad…” [Laughs.] He couldn’t get it right.
AVC: Before that, you got your start in theater.
RM: I did. I didn’t do a lot of it, though, because I’d gotten the movie. But, yeah, I did! Let’s see, I think I did about three plays—one at 13, one when I was around 16, and the other around 17, or something like that—and all of them terrible flops. Not the best experience in the world.
AVC: Did you always have an eye toward stepping in front of the camera?
RM: Oh, of course. Of course! I mean, at that time, that kind of objective or goal—it seemed so unrealistic. But I wanted to be in the movies. I wanted to be a movie star! And if you know the time, it was unrealistic. “You want to do what? Good luck, little girl!” People don’t even know that about me, about that time.
AVC: It’s remarkable to look back and realize that, within half a decade in the movies, you were on the cover of Life Magazine.
RM: How about that? In 1954. Not too shabby. [Laughs.] But things like that would happen to me. With all the thievery and heartbreak, something like that would happen to me, like where I suddenly got a contract from Fox because they saw me on the cover of Life Magazine. And I got on the cover because at the time Life was doing a piece on Desilu Studios’ TV series, and I was a guest—not a guest star, because I wasn’t that big yet—on The Ray Bolger Show. I did a dance with him, and Life was there to cover the whole episode for the magazine, so some editor said, “Who’s that girl?” The photographer said, “I dunno.” “Well, find out. She’s cute. We want to do a piece on a young starlet.” And that was the beginning of that. [Laughs.] That’s how I got the Life Magazine cover, and that’s why Fox signed me to a contract. It’s been crazy!
AVC: Not only did you dance with Ray Bolger, but a few years later you got to dance with Jack Benny, too.
RM: [Excitedly.] Did you see that? Wasn’t that fun?
AVC: It’s fantastic, because it also involves the famous recurring Mel Blanc bit.
RM: Oh, I just saw it recently. They played it at my 86th birthday party. With that patent-leather wig that he wore, he is so funny. Isn’t that delicious? And Mel Blanc, too? It was fabulous. I just love seeing those things now. My manager found it the other day on YouTube, I think, and when he played it for me, I said, “Oh, let’s play that at my party! It’ll be so much fun!” And it was.
AVC: The role of Anita was played by Chita Rivera in the stage version of West Side Story. How did you end up playing the role?
RM: Don’t ask me why, but they wanted to cast someone else in the film, and that includes Jerome Robbins, who did the play. Now, I had already met Jerry when I was doing The King And I, so he came into Fox Studios to stage all of the musical numbers. He wasn’t directing the film, but he was staging all of the moves and that sort of thing. So we had a great deal to do with each other. We worked a lot—for months—on “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas” and those kinds of numbers.
So when West Side Story came along, apparently to him I seemed the most natural choice for Anita. Not Maria, because I just didn’t look like a Maria. He just thought I would be good for Anita. So he mentioned me to Robert Wise, the co-director, and he said, “We have to see her, because I think she’d be really good for this part.” So I auditioned like everyone else—like hundreds of brown-eyed, dark-eyed girls—and I read for the part, and they were very, very happy with that, and I sang for the part, and they were thrilled with that.
And then Jerry dropped the bomb: he said, “You’re going to have to audition for the dancing part.” And I swallowed really hard, because I had not danced in at least—oh, like 15 years. And I wasn’t even that kind of dancer that they did in the play. I was a Spanish dancer, which is a whole other thing. It was like saying, “Well, since you can do tap-dancing, can you do acrobatic somersaults?” So I swallowed hard and asked him how long I had before they would have to audition me. And he said, “We’ve got so many people to see, probably you have about a month. Three weeks, maybe four weeks.”
When the third week came, I had been killing myself in the local dance school, working from 9 in the morning to 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening. Killing myself! You have no idea how hard I worked. I mean, there’s some muscle memory, but not much, because I’d never done that kind of dancing. I even got kicked out of one of my dance classes because the woman said, “You worked so hard, you turned a very odd shade of purple.” [Laughs.] She said, “Something’s going to happen to you, and I don’t want it to happen in my class.” And I was heartbroken, because it was a modern-jazz kind of class. But I ran to the bathroom of the dance studio, and—sure enough—I’d really gone beyond red and had worked so hard that I was almost the shade of an eggplant! I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t paying attention to it, but my body temperature would get so hot that I would run a fever, I’d have goosebumps... I can only attribute my survival to the most incredible stamina. I’m very strong.
When the time came for the audition, I knew I wasn’t ready enough. I was in a real bind. I was just so anxious, because I desperately wanted the part of Anita. So I called a friend who had done Anita on the road in a bus-and-truck West Side, and I asked her if she would teach me some of the steps that I might have to learn in the audition, because in a dance audition, you don’t know the steps. When you sing for an audition, you know the song you come in with. When you do a scene, you’ve had that scene for days, and you can even work on it with a coach. So she taught me a little bit of “America” and a little bit of the dance at the gym, the mambo, but she said, “I warn you: We don’t have time, so I can’t teach you the whole thing, and these might not be the steps they teach you.”
So I went in with my heart in my throat, and the assistant dance director, Howard [Jeffrey], who was Jerry’s assistant, took me by the hand and said, “Okay, let me teach you the first steps of ‘America’ that I want you to learn.” And to my absolute relief, it was the steps that Deborah had taught me. And then the same thing happened with the mambo at the gym. So I went away, and apparently Jerry was very anxious to know, because he really wanted me, so he called Howard and said, “Please tell me that she’s going to be good for this.” And Howard said the truth: “Look, I don’t think she’s danced in a while, but I think we can get it out of her! More than that, she’s very vivacious, she has a wonderful sense of style, she has a great sense of humor. I think she’s charming. We’re really going to have to work really hard with her, but… Do you know what’s really amazing about her?” Jerry says, “What?” And Howard says, “She learns so fast!” That’s because I was doing the steps I’d already learned! [Laughs.]
AVC: Fast-forward to a few months later, and you’re taking home an Oscar for your work in West Side Story. Had there been buzz about you being nominated before it actually happened?
RM: Oh, absolutely. I didn’t know it, though, because I was in Manila doing a crappy World War II film. [Laughs.] It was unbelievable. A thing called Cry Of Battle. Even the title tells you it’s a really crappy movie. James MacArthur was in the lead, and I was once again playing the native girl. I was playing the Filipino jungle girl, in the jungles of the Philippines. So when I got the telegram—yes, they used to send telegrams then!—that I had been nominated, I was practically dancing in the street. I couldn’t believe it. More than anything, it was disbelief. I remember calling my agent and saying, “Are you absolutely sure this wasn’t a mistake? This wasn’t set to someone else by mistake?” He said, “No, no, no! You have been nominated! For Best Supporting Actress!”
So I had a beautiful gown made, and I came to the United States literally for three days: one day flying, one day—with this huge time change—doing the awards, and then leaving the next day and flying back, which broke my heart. I missed all the fun of winning an Oscar. The telegrams, bouquets of flowers, and phone calls… I missed out on all of that wonderful stuff. But when they gave me my Oscar, I wouldn’t let them take it back to put my name on it. I took it with me! [Laughs.] And I traveled all over with that Oscar under my arm, because right after that movie, I had gotten a booking for a special in Japan which was starring myself. A two-hour special! And I had a first-class ticket, so I went everywhere. I went to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, a number of places. My Oscar didn’t have a name on it for months!
But I’m so proud of that. I’m so proud of it because I didn’t know anybody, so it had nothing to do with people saying, “Well, she’s a nice person, so let’s give it to her.” Not that they tend to vote that way, anyway. They don’t vote for you just because you’re nice. If it’s a lousy performance, they don’t vote for you. So to get that from my peers was extraordinary. And then I also won the Golden Globe, and, again, I was away, and I never got my Golden Globe. Somehow it got lost. So many years later, I called them and said [Whining.] “I want to get my Golden Globe!” So when they were giving them away for other things that year, at long last, they gave me mine.
RM: I love [Sister Peter Marie Reimondo]. Isn’t she great?
AVC: She is. And that series was a decidedly darker turn for you in terms of material.
RM: Well, what was wonderful about it, what was really important about Oz for me, was that I had to make a big, important career decision: Was I ready to give up my glamorous makeup and not look terrific? [Laughs.] Because this was prison. I mean, I knew they weren’t going to have filters on those cameras. On the contrary! So that’s what I had to ask myself, and I decided, “Yes, I am.” And it was a good decision. I’m glad I did it. Among other things, I got new respect from the professional community. I also lost some jobs because I looked so awful in it.
RM: Oh, yeah. Absolutely! The lighting was brutal. And with practically no makeup, it’s just murder. But I don’t know if you remember: in the first season, maybe even in the second, we had a woman named Edie playing one of the guards, this tiny little woman. But she was marvelous.
AVC: It’s clearly time for me to revisit Oz, because I actually just had to rack my brain for a second. “Wait, a woman named Edie…”
RM: And I remember her saying, “I got a series! It’s a real part, and it’s for HBO!” I said, “Oh, wow, how exciting! What is it?” She said, “It’s called The Sopranos.” And I said, “Oh, a comedy?” [Laughs.] Because doesn’t it sound like one? Unless you know the show. But she said, “Uh, no. No, it’s not. It’s about some gangsters, and blah blah blah.” You know, we opened the door for that show. We really opened the door for that show.
But it was a great experience. I’ve never worked with so many fabulous actors. And the scandal of that show was that it never got to win an Emmy. But you know the reason. Because there were some acting stints in that which were just staggeringly wonderful, but it had a lot of gay and sexual love in it and all that kind of stuff, and I guess the Emmys just couldn’t see themselves even putting it down for a nomination. I think it’s scandalous. I think it should have, and I think we probably would’ve won a number of them over the years.
[While Oz never won an Emmy, it did receive two nominations—Charles S. Dutton for Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series and Alexa L. Fogel for Outstanding Casting For A Series—in 1999.—Ed.]
Piñero (2001)—“Miguel’s Mother”
RM: I loved that. You know what the director said, which I just adored? I had that scene on the roof, dancing with a young Miguel, and Leon [Ichaso, the director] said, “Well, I’m the only person who’s gotten you to dance on a roof again!” [Laughs.] Isn’t that lovely? And I loved working for him. There’s a wonderful instance of someone who should’ve been nominated. It was a small movie, and I guess we didn’t have the money to really exploit Ben Bratt’s wonderful acting in that movie. Oh, Ben was just—it’s another Ben. You wouldn’t recognize him. With an afro!
But forgetting that part of it, he was just splendid. That’s one of those terrible disgraces that happens with the Oscars, that there wasn’t even a mention of it, but when you don’t have the funds to take out ads to remind people, and I don’t think at the time they were sending screeners… If you didn’t see it at home, you weren’t going to see it at all. It didn’t play for that long in theaters. But it’s a rough business. It’s brutal! You have to be very strong. And I guess it’s why some of us become impossible to bear. [Laughs.] You know, if we have fragile egos, we probably become impossible egos. Because there are plenty of us that are impossible in this business, and some of them are not so talented, but they’re very big stars, so what can you do?
RM: Googie Gomez was an invention of mine. Did you know that?
AVC: I did not know that.
RM: Okay, lots of people don’t know that. I burped one day on a 10-minute break, and out she came. [Laughs.] When dancers get 10 minutes off, they do two things, always. They did it then, and they’re still doing it: they light up a cigarette—which is crazy, but I think [Mikhail] Baryshnikov is still smoking—and they crack each other up by doing and saying silly things. And out she came one day. We were all sitting on the floor, just talking and smoking, and I said, “Okay, here’s this Puerto Rican girl who’s auditioning for the bus-and-truck company of Gypsy, and she has absolutely no talent.” And I started with, “I had a dream / A dream about jew, baby…” And everybody was laughing, including me. I mean, she still makes me laugh. I’ll sometimes do something as her, like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I entertain myself. She’s a funny character. She’s got such hubris!
So that’s how she came about, but then one time when I was doing a play with James Coco on Broadway called Last Of The Red Hot Lovers. He was a dear friend. I loved him dearly. And he invited me to a party which was attended by—among other people—Terrence McNally, who was a friend of his, and they did a lot of off-Broadway shows together that Terry had written. And Jimmy said, “Rita, do that crazy Puerto Rican character!” So I sang “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and then I did the Player King speech like her. [With a ridiculously thick Puerto Rican accent.] “Speak the speech, I pray jew, as I pronounced it to jew, trippingly on the tonggggggg…” And with such attitude! It’s all attitude. And of course the accent. But it’s really the attitude, I think. And then I started doing [The Song Of] Hiawatha… [Intoning.] “From the shores of Gitche Gumme…” And Terrence was on the floor. And before he left the party that night, he shook my hand, he said, “It’s nice to meet you,” and he said, “I’m going to write a part for that character.” And I thought, “Yeah, I don’t have that kind of luck.” But he did!
The play was called The Tubs initially, because that’s what they used to call the gay baths: The Tubs. And then he changed the name, but he named the character Rita “Googie” Gomez. I didn’t get to do the premiere, which was at—Harvard? No, it was at Yale. But that was his trial by fire, kind of. And then he wrote a new draft of the play and sent it to me, and I was on the floor laughing. It’s such a funny play. Unhappily, it’s dated, but it’s really funny with some great characters—Terrence is great with characters—and I got a Tony for it. And I became the doll of the gay community. [Laughs.] To say the least! I still am. Now and then when I do an AIDS fundraiser, I will do the number again. I’ll get a couple of guys who can’t move worth a shit… I mean, that’s the fun of it, right? They have to be horrible dancers in the number. But you actually have to get very good dancers to do that. And when I do it, the place still goes up in smoke. They love it!
But she’s funny because of her hubris. That’s what so funny. Everything goes wrong. I’ve found lots more tics to go wrong for her onstage. Like, now I wear long opera gloves, and I take one off near the end… [Sings.] “Everything’s coming up roses and daffodils!” And when I try to take off the other glove, there’s a huge ring on the glove, a big blingy ring, and the glove’s not coming off. So for the rest of the number, this long opera glove is just hanging from my wrist every time I gesture. And it ends up on the guy’s face, because at the very end of the number they lift me up and put me on their shoulders, and I go like this… [Flicks her wrist.] And the glove’s right in front of the boy’s face. It’s so much fun to do. And it also calls for very exact timing. You really have to know how to dance and to do everything just right for everything at the exact right moment to go completely wrong. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were talking about the play, but it was subsequently adapted into a film version.
RM: Yeah! It was with F. Murray Abraham, Jack Weston, and Jerry Stiller.
AVC: How did you feel about the film adaptation?
RM: Oh, we were all unhappy with it, because [director] Richard Lester didn’t get it. We had a quick read-through before we went into production, and he actually said, “Ugh! All these words!” Well, that’s Terrence McNally. It’s all about attitudes. Richard Lester was all about making [homages to] silent movies with The Beatles. Remember A Hard Day’s Night? And he just didn’t know what to do with these—oh, we were just so dismayed. He ruined some parts of the movie. He ruined my number! Because he kept cutting back to Jack Weston. And I had begged him not to. I said, “Please don’t do that, it’ll break up the energy and the rhythm of the number.” In the movies, it’s a whole other thing. On stage, Jack can be reacting while I’m singing and dancing, but they’re still looking at me, because it’s a funny number. But the moment you cut away from someone in a film, especially in dance, it just destroys the number. And he killed it. It wasn’t anywhere near as fun. And it was the same number.
AVC: Well, as you say, it’s one thing to catch his reaction out of the corner of your eye, it’s another to completely put the focus on him.
RM: Do you know, by the way, why he cut to Jack Weston? Because, he said, “I’m afraid middle America won’t get it that you’re a bad singer and dancer.” I said, “This number? This crazy woman with a thick Puerto Rican accent singing ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses,’ and they’re not gonna get that?” “Well, I’m afraid they won’t.” [Makes the sound of a buzzer.] Unbelievable.
The Electric Company (1971-1977)—“Carmela / The Director / Pandora The Little Girl / Millie The Helper”
RM: I love every minute of it. I felt like I was doing a community service, which indeed I was. It sure as hell wasn’t the money! Which, you know, it’s not that they were starving us to death, but it wasn’t that kind of a job. But we got to do wonderful stuff, and we had such creative performers. You know, obviously we had Bill Cosby, and we had Morgan Freeman, who was fabulous, but our whole cast was fabulous. We played a million characters. It was doing vaudeville and burlesque, is what it was. Only clean. And no stripping! [Laughs.]
But it was the best show in the world. It was great experience. It was really like doing theater every week. We’d be doing wonderful little sketches, a lot of “ba dum pum” stuff. And I loved playing the little blond brat with the huge golden curls. Pandora. [Does the voice.] “Hi, it’s me, Pandora!” And she was horrible! What I love is that she scared Dracula out of her room. Morgan Freeman was playing Dracula, and she scared him out of her room. And the crew used to love her, because I’d always show them my panties. You know, I had little-girl frilled panties. And I’d say “hi,” and flip up the dress. “Hi!” [Laughs.] And I always had Band-Aids on my knees… There was such detail with that character. All my little Mary Janes, the shoes always swallowed my socks. Oh, I loved it. I had the most fun. It was the vaudeville I never got to do when I was a kid.
AVC: You also had the director character.
RM: Oh, that nasty Nazi? We used to call her Otto.
AVC: Yeah, and the origin of the name is pretty well documented, but did the inspiration for the name ever find out that he’d been an inspiration?
RM: Otto Preminger, you mean? [Laughs.] I don’t know. But I know I named her Otto! And I named Morgan’s character “Marcello.” You remember how he used to take his hair and make it look horrible? He was so scared of me. I remember one time I said to him, “Why don’t you put Band-Aids on your fingers, like I’m always beating them with the sign with the word on it?” And he did. And I thought I would die. Oh, he was so funny…
AVC: The Electric Company was also responsible for you earning a Grammy.
RM: Yes, I did! I got the Grammy for that one, and I got the Emmy for The Rockford Files. And also for The Muppet Show. But the Electric Company album… That was wonderful.
AVC: And I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, but thank you. That show was directly responsible for helping my reading skills.
RM: Oh, but isn’t that great? How can I ever get bored of hearing that? My husband’s German aunt from Poland learned to read English from The Electric Company. [Laughs.] She said, “Rita, dahlink, I can read the cans with the peas!” I said, “Really?!” She said, “Yes! I’m learning! I can read the peas and the carrots!”
AVC: Not too long ago, you had a chance to contribute to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s single to raise funds for Puerto Rico relief. He clearly loves any opportunity to spend time with you—I’ve seen the clip of him honoring you at the Kennedy Center Awards—but how did you enjoy the experience of working with him?
RM: Oh, are you kidding? I was thrilled to pieces. Absolutely thrilled to pieces. I was so proud. And about three weeks later, I went to Puerto Rico. I went to my hometown, because that—believe it or not—was the first place the hurricane landed, and it was just decimated. I found out something very fascinating: when there are winds that are that ferocious, they will create such a heat that they will burn the leaves off the trees. I’d never heard of that. It’s amazing. I was astounded. But that’s how they looked: burned, like a fire had taken place. The trees were sort of a charcoal color, and on some of the trees there were no leaves whatsoever.
I went there with about $30,000 that I helped to collect and that Lin-Manuel’s dad helped me collect, because he’s also very involved. He’s very politically involved. But we also brought a bunch of huge trucks, and we went to senior homes—that’s where I wanted to go—and we brought them… [Sighs.] You know, it was just the most basic things you need. We brought them toothbrushes and toothpaste. We brought them flashlights that were solar-powered, so that during the day they could sit in the sun, and they’d have light at night. Some of them still don’t have lights. Still! I mean, what’s the thing you want to do most when you’re home in the evenings? You want to read the paper, you want to play cards with your spouse or neighbors, you want to watch TV, you want to read a book… You can’t do anything of that without light. They’re just sort of paralyzed in the dark. And the only time they can see light is to go outside and see the moon and the stars.
It’s insane. And it’s absolutely obscene what has happened to that poor, beleaguered island. And I absolutely believe with all of my heart that the governor could have done a whole lot better. I’m not just speaking of the president; I’m speaking of the governor. And believe me, a lot of people feel similarly. I’m not alone. I may be the only one who’s saying it… [Laughs.] But I’m not alone. There was some deep and profound disappointment in how this was handled.
AVC: Well, at least it’s bringing people together.
RM: Yes, that’s one thing it’s certainly done: bring people together to unite. That, and now the people who are rich and successful are living in the same exact life as people who don’t have any money, because they don’t have light, either! And if you don’t have light, you don’t have a refrigerator, you don’t have air conditioning… You don’t have a lot of stuff! So it’s heartbreaking, it’s horrific, and it’s obscene. But, yes, at least it’s bringing people together.