While the ranks of celebrities in the performing arts seem to swell year after year, there’s still a rarefied, super-elite circle to which very few ever ascend. Only 15 people have ever earned the coveted quadruple crown known as the EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. The first two EGOT winners, composer Richard Rodgers and actress Helen Hayes, are no longer with us, but Rita Moreno — the third-ever EGOT winner and first person of color to claim this distinction — is busier than ever.
Moreno’s awards are too numerous to list, but a few highlights include her 1961 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in “West Side Story,” her 1972 Grammy for Best Recording for Children with “The Electric Company,” her 1975 Tony for the role of Googie Gomez in “The Ritz,” and her Emmys in 1977 and 1978 for guest spots on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” Moreno has also been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Screen Actor’s Guild Life Achievement Award, and a National Arts Medal presented by President Barack Obama (via CNN).
As of publication, Moreno is 89, is worth more than you think, and isn’t ready to retire. As she told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I can see myself being wheeled onto the stage and someone yelling, ‘Get that old b**** off the stage!’ I love what I do.”
Rita Moreno got a very early start in show business
While many performers seem to have started their careers in diapers, few were able to overcome the same obstacles Rita Moreno faced in order to pursue acting. Far from being a legacy star raised in Hollywood, Moreno was born in Puerto Rico to her father, a farmer, and her mother, a clothing worker (via CNN). Her parents divorced when she was very young, before she and her mom emigrated to New York City.
While Moreno didn’t learn English until she entered elementary school, by the age of 11 she got her first job in the film industry, dubbing Spanish dialogue for performers including Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor (via Encyclopedia.com). She studied dance under Rita Hayworth’s uncle Paco Cansino and started performing in nightclubs at the age of seven. Shortly before she turned 14, Moreno landed a role in a Broadway show called “Skydrift.” Although the World War II drama lasted just seven performances, Moreno only had a few more years to wait before her star would be well and truly on the rise.
Rita Moreno had a long-lost brother
When Rita Moreno left Puerto Rico with her mother as a young girl, her father wasn’t the only family member she had to leave behind. She had a younger brother named Francisco who remained with her dad when Moreno’s parents divorced.
Moreno told the San Francisco Chronicle that she did see her father one more time. He came backstage after one of her performances when she was about 17 –- this was during her pre-stardom days, and it remains unclear as to where Moreno was performing at the time — perhaps New York City, maybe Puerto Rico, or a point in between.
Moreno revealed that her father cried and told her he missed her, but she shut him down right away, saying he’d never fulfilled his role as a husband or as a father. As for her brother Francisco, Moreno never reunited with him. “I tried to find him, and couldn’t ever make contact,” she said, and added the tragic coda: “I heard he died.”
Rita Moreno's "West Side Story" role was personally empowering
While Rita Moreno landed her first movie role in 1950 (a forgettable teen drama called “So Young So Bad”), she told Variety that she soon became disenchanted with her earliest roles. Native Americans, Polynesians, Southeast Asians, and “Latin spitfires” — you name it, Moreno got those roles. She called it her “dusky maiden period,” saying “any character who had dark skin, I got all those parts.”
“I was not treated like a serious young actress and that was very hard,” she shared. “It dismayed me; I began to feel demeaned, that my dignity was on the line … 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.”
The role that released her stardom, ironically, was one that fit within her studio-defined wheelhouse: the Puerto-Rican-American Anita in the 1961 film version of “West Side Story.” Moreno described Anita as “a young Hispanic woman with dignity, self-respect and enormous strength,” and said that the part “became [her] role model after all those years.”
While Moreno did fewer movie roles in the years following her Oscar win for what a 1961 Variety review called a “fiery characterization” of Anita, the acting gigs she did take on were meatier and less dependent on her ethnicity.
Rita Moreno's activism was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.
Moreno spoke with Variety about the numerous instances of prejudice she’s experience throughout her long career, so it comes as no surprise that she got involved with political activism early in life. “All my life I faced sexism and racism — and then when I hit 40, ageism,” she said. Once she became empowered by the spirit of Anita, however, Moreno took to speaking out against all of these “isms” wherever she encountered them.
In 1963, Moreno took part in one of the most storied anti-racist demonstrations of all time, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Alongside a contingent of other Hollywood types, Moreno fulfilled what she called her “responsibility” — to help others in need. In yet another historic experience, Moreno sat between Sammy Davis, Jr. and Harry Belafonte while witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream speech,” telling Entertainment Tonight that it was “the most extraordinary experience [she’s] ever had.”
“That really activated me. That did it,” she said. “I thought, with this many people, I’m not alone. I’m not alone in my hurt and I’m not alone in my fear.”
Rita Moreno created of one of the most famous lines from "The Goonies"
“Heyyy youuu guyyyys!!!” For anyone who’s seen the 1985 cult classic “The Goonies,” these three words instantly conjure up an image of Sloth dressed in full pirate regalia swashbuckling like a super-sized Errol Flynn before making the rest of the Fratellis walk the plank. What you may not know, however, is that this line was a quote from a 1970’s PBS show, “The Electric Company.” It was the catch phrase of Millie the Milk Lady (via Culture Sonar), one of several characters played by Rita Moreno on this most entertaining of children’s educational programs. In addition to Moreno, the cast also featured a young Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader (via IMDb) and Bill Cosby (via PBS) as … a less controversial version of the seriously troubled Cosby we know today.
In one of the more memorable moments from the “One Day at a Time” reboot (the original itself dating from the 1970’s), Moreno brought back her famous tagline one more time. Her character, Cuban-American grandma Lydia Riera, bellowed out those familiar words in a blast from the past half a century in the making.
Rita Moreno dated Elvis and Marlon Brando
Rita Moreno was one of Hollywood’s hottest starlets, and she dated equally famous counterparts. In her 2013 tell-all memoir “Rita Moreno: A Memoir” as reviewed by The New York Times, she revealed that Elvis – despite his looks and charms — wasn’t really boyfriend material but “more like a baby brother who couldn’t make interesting conversation.” Her relationship with Marlon Brando, on the other hand, was tumultuous and full of emotional baggage.
Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle, Moreno called it “a relationship built on sexuality and sensuality,” but as soon as she discovered another female’s clothing in Brando’s house, that was it. She also dated the notoriously eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, and once enjoyed some flirtatious attention from a senator named, you may have guessed it, John F. Kennedy.
Despite all her well-known beaus, the man who finally captured Moreno’s heart wasn’t an actor, musician, or politician, but a cardiologist. According to Encyclopedia.com, she tied the knot with Dr. Leonard I. Gordon in 1965. Together they had one daughter, Fernanda, and two grandsons, Justin and Cameron (via Grand Magazine). Moreno has called the two boys the light of her life, and described the love she feels for her them as “fathoms and fathoms deep…[and] infinite.” Those grandkids are lucky to have such an awesome abuela.
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