Inside The Life Of Rita Moreno

Those who know the name Rita Moreno most likely immediately think of her role as Anita in the 1961 musical movie "West Side Story." But she's acted in a variety of films through the years, including "The King and I," "Singin' in the Rain," "Carnal Knowledge," and more recently "In the Heights" and the TV series "One Day at a Time." She continues to act on both the big screen and small today even though she's 90 years old!

Moreno, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has accomplished a lot of firsts in the entertainment industry. She broke ground for a lot of Latina stars, but also struggled to break out of the stereotypical roles that Hollywood tried to force upon her. She's been acting since she was a teenager and continues to enthral audiences with her vibrant personality and undeniable talent. Check out some interesting facts about Rita Moreno.

She became her family's breadwinner

Rita Moreno was born Rosa Dolores Alverio on December 11, 1931. She lived on a farm in Puerto Rico with her family until the age of 5, according to the National Women's History Museum. Rosa and her mother then relocated to New York City, but her father and younger brother, Francisco, did not join them. Shortly after arriving in the Big Apple, Rosa took dancing lessons and began working in entertainment. As a young girl, was called derogatory names due to her Hispanic heritage, and dancing was one way for her to escape, according to The Guardian. Her performing skills would later pay off.

When she was just 11, Rosa began dubbing Spanish versions of English-speaking movies. She landed her first Broadway role in "Skydrift" when she was 13, and that's when Hollywood executives took notice of her. By the age of 15, she chose to discontinue her formal education, and when she was 16 she was supporting her family financially. Rosa signed a contract with MGM in 1950 at the age of 18, and also changed her name to Rita Moreno. Her first film roles included the musical "The Toast of New Orleans" and "Singin' in the Rain."

She reluctantly took stereotypical, unflattering roles

While Rita Moreno had no problem landing film roles, she quickly realized that she was typecast for her Puerto Rican roots. Instead of having her choice of parts, she was often presented with ethnic roles or ones with sexual undertones, according to the National Women's History Museum. Casting directors also offered her characters with Hawaiian, Native American, Egyptian, and Filipino roots. Moreno even played a Burmese character in 1956's "The King and I." These days, it's less acceptable for actors to play roles involving other races, but it still happens

In 2021, Moreno told USA Today, "I wanted to turn the parts down, but that's all that was offered and I had to make a living. I was kind of stuck." Her big break came in 1961, when she played Anita in the big-screen version of "West Side Story." She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and in 2021 she played a different part in a Steven Spielberg-directed remake of the film.

She watched MLK deliver his 'I Have A Dream' speech

On August 28, 1963, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and Rita Moreno had (practically) a front row seat at the event. The actress was sitting on the Lincoln Monument when she heard him utter the now-unforgettable words, "I have a dream." She told ET during a 2020 interview, "We were sitting literally, no more than 15 feet away from Dr. King." Singer Harry Belafonte invited Rita and other stars to attend because he wanted to show King that people in the entertainment industry supported his cause.

Rita said that looking back at the event still gave her "giant goosebumps." She explained, "It was so exciting, and I remember looking [behind] me, where the pool is at the Washington Monument, and there were thousands and thousands of people." She committed herself to remembering every detail because she knew it was a momentous moment in history. Calling the experience "extraordinary," Rita said she felt less alone at that moment because those around her also had to deal with racism like she did. 

Rita Moreno's agent raped her

Many actresses have been pressured into giving sexual favors in order to land particular roles through the years, and Rita Moreno was no exception. Her agent, a person who was supposed to be her advocate, raped her. The incident occurred when the actress was still a teenager, and she told The Guardian that she didn't leave him because she thought he was the only one who had her back in Hollywood. When she ran into him decades later, she recalled that she "went white." Moreno said she inexplicably agreed to have lunch with him and his wife, and her former agent had the audacity to tell her when they had a minute alone that he wished he'd gotten her pregnant.

It wasn't the only time that the actress dealt with predatory men in the industry. Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn said upon meeting her "You better watch out -– I'd like to f**k you," which left her dumbfounded and "horrified." She was also harassed by 20th Century Fox exec Buddy Adler, who reportedly called her constantly and essentially stalked her. Unfortunately, many actresses through the years have had to deal with sexual harassment and abuse.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Marlon Brando broke her heart

Rita Moreno has had several romantic relationships through the years, including a hot and heavy one with film icon Marlon Brando, whom she met when she was just 22 years old. The pair starred together in "Desiree," and Brando, then aged 30, played Napoleon, according to Biography. Morena was instantly smitten with the leading man and went into a "full-body blush" when she first encountered him, according to her memoir (via Biography). She described the meeting as "the sort of rush that inspires poetry and songs." She fell madly and deeply in love with Brando, whom she described as a "sensual, generous, delightfully inventive" lover.

Unfortunately, Brando was also a philanderer who didn't take monogamy seriously. He cheated on Rita frequently and even fathered children with other women while he and the actress were still seeing each other. Rita was heartbroken by both his cheating and his "emotional betrayals." Still, she was unable to leave him because she was obsessed with him. The pair eventually split up for good around 1961, but they later appeared together in the 1968 film "The Night of the Following Day." Brando tried to reconnect romantically with Rita, but she turned him down, and eventually their relationship evolved into friendship. Later in life he even spent time with Rita, her husband, and her daughter.

She dated Elvis Presley

Rita Moreno tried to get back at Marlon Brando for his infidelities by attempting to make him jealous. During a 2021 interview on "The View" (via USA Today), the actress revealed that Elvis Presley reached out to her while she was struggling in her relationship with Brando. She had recently found another woman's lingerie in the house, which angered and infuriated her. Then she received a phone call from Presley's agent, Colonel Parker, who said the singer had expressed an interest in meeting her. Moreno's response? "I thought of those panties (in Brando's home), and I said, 'Yes, I would,'" she revealed.

However, there weren't exactly sparks between Moreno and Presley. She described him as "sweet" but "boring." Yet, her decision didn't sit well with Brando, who got so angry he yelled and threw chairs across the room, a reaction Moreno described as "wonderful." Upon reflection, Moreno now believes that her relationship with Brando was unhealthy. She has expressed that part of the problem was that she was looking for a father figure and a man who would accept her unconditionally. She said, "He was really just fodder for a neurotic woman like myself at that time."

She reluctantly had an abortion

When Rita Moreno realized that there was no future for her and Elvis Presley, she ran back to Marlon Brando. After just a short period of time, she got pregnant. However, Brando was not interested in raising a child with the actress, and he decided what to do about it. Moreno revealed in her memoir (via Biography), "To my shock and horror, Marlon immediately arranged for an abortion." At the time, the medical procedure was against the law, and when it was completed, someone other than Brando picked her up to take her home. To make matters worse, the procedure had been botched, and Moreno needed to go to a hospital so the fetus could be properly removed from her uterus. She told USA Today that she bled for days following the abortion, saying "It was very scary, because I could've died."

According to Moreno, Brando was not sympathetic about the situation and instead got mad at the individual who carried out the abortion because he screwed up. Not long afterwards, Moreno and Brando's relationship fizzled for good after the actor met and fell in love with actress Tarita Teriipaia on the set of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Teriipaia would eventually become Brando's third wife, but unlike Moreno she refused to have an abortion when the star got her pregnant, which she wrote about in her memoir, according to the Irish Times

She attempted suicide

Shortly after she had the abortion and before she decided to leave Marlon Brando, Rita Moreno started filming "West Side Story," which would turn into a breakthrough role. However, she was so distraught by Brando's behavior that she tried to take her own life by ingesting a bunch of sleeping pills. She told USA Today that she felt humiliated because she allowed Brando to walk all over her. "I wanted to get rid of myself because I didn't think I deserved to live," she explained.

With such low self-esteem, she decided to end it all at Brando's home. Fortunately, an assistant found Moreno and took her to the hospital before she succumbed to the medication. The actress reportedly cried while she was unconscious, she told The Guardian. She didn't try to commit suicide for the attention. Instead, she wanted to eliminate the troublesome "bad Rita" inside of her. "But it turned out if you're going to kill the bad Rita, you're also going to kill the good one," she mused. This incident was finally what caused her to end her relationship with Brando for good.

After West Side Story, she didn't make a movie for years

Rita Moreno made a huge impression as Anita in "West Side Story," and she was inspired by the character. Anita was strong, sexy, and self-assured, which was different than how Moreno saw herself. Anita represented a woman who Moreno admired and wanted to be like, she told The Guardian. She was anything but weak and subservient, which is how Moreno saw herself at the time. 

Moreno did such a good job in the film that she won an Academy Award for her role. This achievement gave her confidence, and she thought her career was ready to flourish. Disappointingly, things did not go as planned.

Moreno ended up on a seven-year hiatus. She chose to step back because she wasn't offered any good roles. Instead, casting directors wanted her to appear in projects involving gangs that weren't as good as "West Side Story," and she was baffled. "It broke my heart," she revealed. She kept waiting for better opportunities to come along, but they never did, which she described as "horrific." And the typecasting continued even when she was in her 60s — she was offered the role of a Mexican brothel madam. She told ET that she won numerous acting accolades but she was shocked that she was still being stereotyped. She called the entire experience humiliating.

Rita Moreno is an EGOT winner

Only 16 people in the history of entertainment are EGOT winners. These individuals have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. The distinction is not only rare but highly coveted by those in the industry. What makes it particularly special for Rita Moreno is that she's the only "performer" to achieve this incredible distinction, according to PBS. She received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1962 for her role in "West Side Story," and after taking a seven-year break, returned to acting. In the 1970s, she appeared in "The Electric Company," a children's show on PBS. She also participated in a cast recording for the program, and won a Grammy Award in 1972.

Three years later, Moreno appeared in the Broadway production "The Ritz," playing "crazy Puerto Rican" singer and dancer Googie Gomez. Her skills earned her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. In 1977, she won an Emmy Award for a guest appearance on "The Muppet Show." At the time, she was just the third person to receive an EGOT, in addition to composer Richard Rodgers and actress Helen Hayes. 

Even more impressive, Moreno won a Peabody Award in 2019, according to Biography, the first Latino to do so. So, technically she's a PEGOT!

She felt liberated when her husband died

In her documentary "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It," Rita Moreno talks candidly about her 45-year marriage to cardiologist Leonard Gordon, who passed away in 2010. While the couple appeared to be happy and raised a daughter together, Moreno explained in the film that Leonard was critical of her "raucous" laughter and had control issues. When he died, Moreno was relieved. She said in the film (via USA Today): "I thought, 'It's over. I don't have to answer to anybody anymore.'" During a Q&A for the documentary she said they "ran quite an extraordinary and successful charade for many years."

While Moreno said Leonard was a "wonderful person," they weren't good together. She stayed by his side while he was sick in the hospital and played the role of a good wife, according to The Guardian. Yet, his passing brought a sense of liberation. The day after his death, she had a glass of wine and went out on her patio, where she "took in the sun and there was this enormous sense of relief."

She has undertaken therapy

While Rita Morena has been delighting audiences for years with her film and TV roles, she spent a good portion of that time unhappy with herself. She credits psychotherapy with helping her like the person she's become. Without therapy, "I wouldn't be the Rita you know and love", she told The Guardian. The problems stemmed from childhood, when she was called derogatory names such as garlic-mouth due to her Puerto Rican descent. She felt unworthy, and it took her years to get over the trauma.

Moreno has said that therapy was a long process, but in the end it helped her get rid of her insecurities and become the confident woman she is today. "I went into therapy wanting to get better, knowing that in some way I had a sickness. And the sickness was Rita hates Rita," she revealed. It took many years, but she finally found her dignity after leaving Marlon Brando. She has lived alone for the past 10 years, but says that she's happy being by herself because she finally likes the person who she is and the woman she has become.