Rita Moreno is one of the few people on earth to win an EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. But she seems genuinely surprised at being honored with the SAG Life Achievement Award: "The joy is so profound. You can wish to have an Oscar someday or some other award, but Life Achievement? You don't see yourself that way. It's an astonishing and singular experience," she says.
Despite her amazement, Moreno was an inspired choice. Her nearly 70-year acting career includes the ups and downs of every actor's life, and reflects the changes in the entertainment industry, from the heydays of radio and the studio system, to theater, basic-cable and the shifts in the agencies' roles. It also reflects the social fabric of the decades, as she fought for equality on a national level (the civil-rights march in D.C. in the 1960s) and personal level: "All my life I faced sexism and racism and then when I hit 40, ageism."
Moreno was born Rosita Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico; as a child uprooted to New York with her mother, she felt estranged and lonely but discovered the joy of performing. She started working professionally at age 13 dubbing films and doing radio. Three years later, she got her SAG card as an extra in a forgotten Army film. In 1950, she made her film debut in "So Young So Bad" under the name Rosita Moreno (taking the surname of one of her stepfathers) and soon became Rita, when she was under contract to MGM, then Fox.
It was the days of the "starlet." She says matter-of-factly: "I was not treated like a serious young actress and that was very hard. It sent me into psychotherapy, which is one of the smartest things I ever did. It taught me that I had to find value in myself." There were occasional career highlights, like a small part in "Singin' in the Rain," which gave her the chance to observe Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen in action, and as Tuptim in 1956's "The King and I," which she says was "lovely role."
But in general, the roles weren't great. "I call that my dusky maiden period. Any character who had dark skin, I got all those parts. I could play a Polynesian, East Indian princess, whatever." She also played Asians, Native Americans and a recurring theme, the Latin spitfire, a word that makes her shudder even now.
"I always had to have an accent, even though I spoke better English than many of the people (who hired me). The characters all sounded the same, because I had no idea how these nationalities sounded, but nobody else did either. It dismayed me, I began to feel demeaned, that my dignity was on the line. The roles were so embarrassing. But I had to make a living and I had to be an actress. I was determined that with perseverance and faith at some point someone would say 'This girl has talent' and would cast me in something meaningful."
It happened with the 1961 "West Side Story." For one thing, she was only the fifth Hispanic actor nominated for an Oscar, and she won. It was also the first time she played a character who stood up for herself. "Interestingly, the character of Anita became my role model after all those years. Anita was a young Hispanic woman with dignity, self-respect and enormous strength."
A few years later, she was cast onstage as Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker," the first time that ethnicity was not a requisite for the role.
Her entertaining "Rita Moreno: A Memoir" came out last year and at several points in the book, she expresses frustration at not working more. "I still feel that way!" she exclaims, though she works frequently. If it's not film, "I do theater, I do television, concerts, I do talks, lectures, I do a lot of fundraising as a performer."
A few years ago, she bowed her one-woman show, "Life Without Makeup" at Berkeley Rep. after developing stage fright. "I'm terrified that I'll disappoint everybody. This at age 77! How does that happen? And it happens to people even at my age and older.... Oh, we are so fragile, it's ridiculous!" she smiles.
Asked if she has any advice for executives in Hollywood about being more diverse, she shrugs, "I don't have anything to say to them. It's an understanding they have to come to on their own. I don't know if it will happen in my lifetime. On the other hand, you have people like Eva Longoria, Andy Garcia, Jimmy Smits, who play characters and they don't have to do accents!" she says in mock astonishment. "TV is better than film and in theater, you see every possible skin color and nationality, and that represents the real world. But I'm still waiting for a Hispanic actor or actress to get roles worthy of a nomination, and that doesn't happen too often. Oh, it's better, of course. But we still have a ways to go. But the best is yet to come."
Personally, she is enthused about working with her agency, Innovative Artists, and her manager John Ferguson, "He really looks after me."
Aside from her work, she enthuses about fundraising for children's organizations or arts centers like Berkeley Rep: "It's a wonderful way to serve and I need to serve. It's an instinct that says you're not the only person in this world, and not the only one with worries. And if you're in a position to help others who are less fortunate, you have a responsibility to help."
Considering her philanthropy, the casting barriers she has helped reduce, and her decades of entertaining people, what will she address in her acceptance speech Jan. 18? "I don't know! I want to say something meaningful."
It turns out with her career, she already has.