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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And now it's time for Wisdom Watch, our conversations with leaders who've gone before us. Those with experience and knowledge - not just smart, but wise. Today, we want to talk to a performer whose career spans more than five decades on stage, the big screen and television. We're talking about Rita Moreno, of course. She is the only woman ever to have won all four of show business' most prestigious awards - the Tony, the Oscar, the Grammy, and the Emmy. And at 75, she refuses to slow down. This fall, she is featured as a matriarch of a Cuban- American family in a new CBS series, "Cane," starring Jimmy Smits and Hector Elizondo. And we are delighted to have her join us.

Welcome, Ms. Moreno.

RITA MORENO: Michel, I'm so happy to talk to you. I just think you are fabulous. I watch you and hear you all the time.

MARTIN: I'm going to tear up.

MORENO: Oh, don't get...

MARTIN: Well, thank you for getting started. Well, let's talk about how you got started. Let's talk about the roots. You're from Puerto Rico, and your mom moved to New York, as I understand it, to work as a seamstress to make ends meet. Do you remember coming over? Do you remember the journey?

MORENO: I remember very, very clearly. First of all, it's interesting to note that my mother did something that didn't happen on those days. She got a divorce from my father, Paco Alverio(ph). I think my mom was about 20 when she decided to divorce him, left me with him to come to America to try to find a better life. And she worked as a seamstress in those sweat shops, and worked for about six months. And when she had earned enough money and learned enough English, she came back. Again, this was all by ship. And she brought me back to the United States - again, on a ship. And my first American experience was in the harbor of New York City when I saw that amazing big, tall lady. I remember thinking, oh, my goodness, a lady runs this country.

MARTIN: Oh, that's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: A little prescient, but I think it's about to happen.

MARTIN: It could be. When did the performing bug bite you?

MORENO: When I was in Puerto Rico, but when I was a tiny little girl, literally, three and four, I was dancing for grandpa. They would put on these wonderful rumba records, a salsa record, and I would shake my booty all over the living room. It was, boy, you talk about meant to be, oh, my goodness, I have never done anything else in my life except be a performer. I never did anything but what I continue to do all my life.

MARTIN: As I remember, you made your Broadway debut at 13?

MORENO: I made my debut as 13, passing for 11, and looking nine. We had good genes in my family.

MARTIN: But, you know, that sounds so magical and wonderful, but that's a tough schedule for a 13-year-old.

MORENO: Well, it sounds magical, and sometimes it felt magical. But the truth is that I had a very difficult time as a Puerto Rican in New York. I - my experience was really no different from any other immigrant that came to this country. It was rough. The kids were not nice to me in school. It was not a friendly place for Puerto Ricans.

MARTIN: What do you mean? How so?

MORENO: Well, there was a lot of racial prejudice that was very, you know, out in the open. And it followed me for many, many years in movies. Producers looking right through me, never saying hello when I was doing a part in some film. And, you know, there's a way of being racially insulting to someone without ever using the bad words. You get bypassed. It is assumed that you can only speak with an accent. In those days particularly, if you had a Hispanic name - and I started off as Rosita Moreno - you never were offered parts other than a little Spanish spitfire or, you know, that kind of thing. So...

MARTIN: You've said, you know, you changed your name from Rosita to Rita. Did the studios asked you to do that?

MORENO: Oh, yeah, actually. Actually, my true name is Rosa Dolores Alverio. And then I became Rosita Moreno when a stepfather stepped in. And when I got to MGM studios, which was my first film contract, they just felt that Rosita wasn't a good name and they changed it to Rita. And, yes, it was their idea.

MARTIN: Did they want you to go the whole way and become Rose Smith?

MORENO: Just Rita. You know, there was only one other Rita around. It was Rita Hayworth, and they thought that was a good and exotic name. They left my stepfather's name, and that's how Rita Moreno came to be.

MARTIN: And tell me about those early days as a contract player. I know that you got the Latin spitfire roles and - did you chase, even then? I mean, it's so hard for actresses to get work, period. I just wonder, were you so busy working that you just kind of put your head down and got through it? Or was it even then you were thinking, give me a break?

MORENO: I aspired to so much more than that. And it was really a rather heartbreaking time for me, because when I was out of work I was miserable. And when I got work I was relieved temporarily, and then I would be doing the same kind of roles where I had to talk like this, you know. You don't like Lolita? Well, I'm going to show you. And then I will get depressed all over again, because it's not what I wanted to do. It was not the happiest young girl who had - I really wasn't. I was...

MARTIN: Was there anyone you could talk to about all of this? Was there confidant that you had who understood what it was like to be, you know, a Latina...

MORENO: No.

MARTIN: ...performer out there?

MORENO: No, because there weren't any other people like me. I was really it. If I was doing a movie that had - supposed to have Hispanic people in it, they were maybe extras. But I also played a lot of Indian maidens, American- Indians, you know, it was just ridiculous when you think about it. But there I was in buckskins in these B-Westerns with feathers sticking out of my head. It made me into a very neurotic little Puerto Rican girl, I tell you that.

MARTIN: And when you say neurotic, is it a feeling of just not fitting in anywhere?

MORENO: Not fitting in anywhere and feeling very inferior. And I grew up feeling that way. My mom, unfortunately, wasn't a big help in that particular sense, because she felt the same way about herself.

MARTIN: How did she feel about your work?

MORENO: She was terribly proud of me. And one of the greatest moments of my life is the night that I won the Oscar for "West Side Story," and she was sitting right in the back of me in the theater. She was beside herself with pride and happiness, and it was a very emotional evening.

MARTIN: What was that like for you, to hear your name called? I mean, I just - I can only imagine sitting there...

MORENO: You know, what made it really tense and special is that Judy Garland was also nominated that year for "Judgment at Nuremberg," and she had been ill. And there was a television camera in her hospital room, all that kind of stuff and I go, well, I don't stand a chance. But I had to wait the whole evening...

MARTIN: Oh, I know.

MORENO: ...for the...

MARTIN: ...those awards are still at last, at the end of the evening.

MORENO: Yes, it was...

MARTIN: ...and so it was - you're thinking maybe, maybe.

MORENO: I was so nervous. I was so nervous. But I remember thinking as my name was called and my mom hugged me, and I remember thinking, don't you dare run to the stage. You go up there with dignity, because I remember in the past having seen actresses practically tripping over themselves to get up to the stage to grab that, you know, golden man. And I said, don't you dare. And I didn't.

MARTIN: I wish I'd talk to you before I won my Emmy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Because I think I may have fallen on the way to grab that sucker. But will they change their minds?

MORENO: I remember going backstage and running into the arms of Joan Crawford, who was the co-hostess of the evening. I started to cry, and she said, oh, there, there, there, and she put her arms around me. The woman was built like a linebacker, and she wouldn't let me go because the photographers were taking pictures. And she kept burying my face into her huge, you know, muscular chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: And they kept saying, Ms. Crawford, can we see Rita's face? But she's so upset. And they kept and, you know, my - I was muffled. I was talking into her chest. I'm really not upset. I'm not upset. I'm crying because I'm happy.

MARTIN: I hope you left a big old lipstick smear.

MORENO: And they finally had to wrest me out of her clutches and take me back to the pressroom.

MARTIN: The film was released in 1961, but we are actually observing the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of the play...

MORENO: I know.

MARTIN: ...of course, you know...

MORENO: Imagine that, 50 years.

MARTIN: ...and 50 years, and of course, your Oscar for best supporting actress, and how can we forget this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WEST SIDE STORY")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

MORENO: (As Anita) (singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion. Let it sink back in the ocean. Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing, and the money owing and the sunlight streaming and the native steaming. I like the island Manhattan.

MARTIN: I know you do.

MORENO: (singing) Smoke on your pipe and put that in there...

MARTIN: Okay, that's enough of that.

MORENO: Oh, you know, I love hearing that.

MARTIN: I was going to ask if you ever get sick of it.

MORENO: Oh, no. My goodness. It's just such a fabulous number, don't you think?

MARTIN: Of course, I do, and that's why I wanted to ask you, is this complicated for you? Because, on the hand, a huge break for you, a huge visibility and a tremendous award. This is a film that still gives people so much pleasure. I mean, I have been, you know, with - I'm embarrassed to tell you, I've been with, you know, friends watching this film and, you know, we're all just sitting there sniffling and just, you know, bawling at all the right places. And yet, and yet you're still with the accent. You're still with the brown makeup. I don't know.

MORENO: Boy, boy, oh, boy, and did we hate that, because we kept trying to let them know that Puerto Ricans were all colors, from pitch black to beige. But I heard somewhere that it was Jerome Robbins who kept saying I want more contrast. I want more contrast. And there was one makeup shade for all of us who were playing sharks, which just - I hated that. I was so offended by that. I was very torn, but, yes, it - we were - it - I was very torn.

It was a wonderful role. It was a great opportunity to work with a genius, Jerome Robbins, to sing and dance to this astonishing music. But, yeah. There was always that niggling, terrible feeling that you weren't really representing your people.

MARTIN: Anyone ever said that to you? You know, sometimes the next generation isn't as tolerant of the choices that their forebears had to make, and I just wonder if any of the later generations of actresses said, you know, why didn't you give that, you know, why?

MORENO: No, not at all, because I think if you come from where I come from, that's immediately understood. You know, I've had the occasional complaint, but the then mayor of Puerto Rico, Felicia Ringon(ph), was very unhappy about the way the Puerto Ricans were represented in the movie. She was not a happy camper. And it - that's a kind of tough thing. Also, the lyrics to "America" were changed. Particularly, the verse was really nasty about Puerto Rico in the Broadway production. If you listen to the Broadway version of the verse where she says...

(Singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion, let us sink back in the ocean.

In the original...

(Singing) Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases.

When I got the role, I was so worried and frightened that I would somehow be forced to say those words. And I remember talking to Robert Wise about it, and he said, oh, don't worry. We're not going to have those lyrics. But it was very scary for a long time while I was still in rehearsals, what we were going to do about those words?

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of your recent television work. It includes this very intense work on the HBO prison series "Oz," where you played Sister Peter Marie...

MORENO: Oh, I loved every moment of it. I felt so privileged to be working with these astonishing actors. And I think that the scandal of that series is that no one was ever even nominated for an Emmy, and I know why. I mean, I'm guessing...

MARTIN: Why?

MORENO: ...that I know why.

MARTIN: Why do you think?

MORENO: Well, it's because a lot of homosexuality, and, you know, mostly that, I think, and it was an extremely violent show. This was, by the way, before, I guess, we kind of open the door for "The Sopranos."

I began to get marvelous ideas for my character, so I would submit them to Tom Fontana, who wrote it and produced it. I said to him one day, you know, I've always wondered what the sensual life of a religious person is like, and, you know, what are the yearnings. And his eyebrow shot up to his hairline, he said, what a great idea. Oh, I said to him, it would be wonderful if I could get a crush on one of my patients. You know, so I was thinking someone my age who had just began to engage me in conversation and just reeled me in, and he just loved that. This is why I'm an actress and he's a writer, because he put me with a sexual predator of the whole prison - Chris Meloni.

MARTIN: We have a clip of the two of you together. Let's play that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OZ")

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Hello, Chris.

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Hi ya, sister.

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Can I talk to you?

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Sure. Let's go on in. What do you want?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) You missed our last two sessions. Why?

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Ever since our last time together when you got me to open up, I've been afraid to come back, afraid to expose anymore of myself to you. I mean, you know, the reality is, sister, I hate myself.

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) All the more reason why you should have come to me.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) You're probably right. You know, what it's like to want somebody? To long for them? And I'm not talking about sex. Just to touch them.

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) Yeah.

MELONI: (As Chris Keller) Of course you do. I mean, you're a psychologist. You're a nun, but you're a woman first. You know about this (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

Unidentified Man: Everything all right in there, sister?

MORENO: (As Sister Peter Marie Reimondo) I'm fine.

MARTIN: Spicy. My goodness.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: We had such a great chemistry, Chris and I. It was really, really marvelous. Oh god, we had such fun. He's a very sexy fellow.

MARTIN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: And I was the envy of every woman and gay man in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: It always pleases me is that he was so delighted that we had such a great chemistry together. I mean, it's just so, so deeply unlikely that Christopher Meloni and I would ever get it on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't know about that.

MORENO: I don't think so, Michel.

MARTIN: Well now, I want to talk about your latest project. You're starring in a new television series, in a way some of you coming full circle. Now, you're the matriarch of this wealthy Cuban family in South Florence.

MORENO: That's right.

MARTIN: It's gotten a lot of buzz.

MORENO: I tell you why I was attracted to it. When they sent me the script, I read through it and I said, my God. A wealthy, accomplished, educated, beautifully dressed Hispanic family on primetime television. It's never been done - ever - in the United States. So that immediately attracted me to the project, and I thought I want to be a part of this.

MARTIN: What do you think the secret is to your longevity in the business?

MORENO: I like to think that I can do any damn thing I want to do. And I think part of the reason I'm still around is that I do everything. I still do concerts. I sing. I don't dance anymore, but I just certainly do move around. I do television. I do lectures. I do theater.

MARTIN: So what's next? Are you going to try out for the astronaut program? What have you gone left...

MORENO: I tell you something nice that's happening. Maria Shriver asked me if I would be willing to be inducted into the California Hall of Fame. They also have a wonderful museum of history and for women.

MARTIN: Maria Shriver, being the first lady of California...

MORENO: Exactly, and...

MARTIN: ...married to the governor.

MORENO: It's going to happen in December, and I'm very, very happy about that.

MARTIN: And you're going to wear pretty dress?

MORENO: Hey, are there hookers in Houston? Am I going to wear a pretty dress? I'm going to wear all of them at once.

MARTIN: Rita Moreno is an award-winning singer, dancer and actress. She's playing the matriarch of a Cuban-American family in the new CBS drama, "Cane."

Rita Moreno, thank you so much for joining us.

MORENO: We'll have lunch.

MARTIN: Oh, let's have - we must have lunch. We'll have a nosh. We'll have a coffee somewhere.

MORENO: Well, terrific. I would love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WEST SIDE STORY")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BOY LIKE THAT I HAVE A LOVE")

MORENO: (As Anita) (Singing) A boy like that would kill your brother. Forget that boy and find another.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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