Rita Moreno is an actress, dancer and singer whose iconic career has spanned more than 70 years. Since making her screen debut in 1950, the Puerto Rico-born star has racked up a resume full of notable roles in projects like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The King and I,” “West Side Story,” “The Electric Company,” “Oz” and “One Day At A Time.” The veteran character actress is also one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed legends as a member of the elite club whose members have won all four major American entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. She can now be seen in Steven Spielberg’s high-profile remake of “West Side Story.” To celebrate Rita’s 90th birthday on Dec. 11, 2021, join Wonderwall.com as we look back at her life and career in photos…
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Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 11, 1931, to Rosa María, a seamstress, and Francisco José “Paco” Alverío, a farmer. The beauty, who was nicknamed “Rosita,” has a younger brother named Francisco. She was raised in nearby Juncos until she and her mother moved to New York City in 1936. She’s seen here early in her career in a portrait promoting “The Toast of Louisiana” in 1950.
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After leaving Puerto Rico, she adopted the nickname Rita, as well as the surname of her mom’s second husband, Edward Moreno. Rita Moreno (seen here in a portrait circa 1950) spent her teenage years on New York’s Long Island. It wasn’t long until she began taking dancing lessons as a child and discovered her gifts as an entertainer.
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Rita Moreno started dance lessons soon after arriving in New York City. As a teenager, Rita (seen her dancing with musical theater star Ray Bolger in 1953) began lending her voice to Spanish-language versions of American films. The budding star then scored her first Broadway role in “Skydrift” at 13, which caught the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
It didn’t take long for Rita Moreno to begin her film career in the later years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The actress moved with her mom to Los Angeles and throughout the ’50s, she remained busy with minor film roles. One of her first came in the 1950 musical “The Toast of New Orleans,” which follows a bayou fisherman with a natural singing talent who falls in love with an opera star before beginning a successful opera career of his own. It marked Rita’s first big screen musical: She plays Tina (left), another performer in the film’s opera.
Rita Moreno got her first big break with a supporting role in the 1952 musical comedy “Singin’ in the Rain” alongside Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. She plays flapper and silent film star Zelda Zanders in the movie.
Early in her career, Rita Moreno began a relationship with fellow actor Marlon Brando after meeting on the set of 1954’s “Désirée.” “Just meeting him that first day sent my body temperature skyrocketing as though I had been dropped into a very hot bath, and I went into a full-body blush,” she wrote in her 2013 memoir, according to the New York Post. “It was the sort of rush that inspires poetry and songs.” The pair then began an eight-year on-and-off romance, which she later recalled as being tumultuous and full of cheating, but never without passion. “To say that he was a great lover — sensual, generous, delightfully inventive — would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul,” she revealed in her memoir. “Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I’d ever known.” The couple are seen here at a charity event in Hollywood in 1959.
Rita Moreno’s next major role came in the 1956 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King And I,” which saw her playing Tuptim, a slave brought from Burma to be one of the king’s junior wives, alongside Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. The film was a critical and financial success that won five Oscars. It was also one of the year’s highest grossing films, setting up Rita for greatness.
The ’60s kicked off with Rita Moreno’s star-making role in the 1961 big screen adaptation of the popular Broadway musical “West Side Story.” She shines as Anita, the girlfriend of the leader of the Sharks, a New York City street gang fighting for control of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The film revolves around the tragic story of Tony and Maria, two young lovers separated by rival gangs. Anita is Maria’s closest confidante, but even she cannot prevent the story’s inevitable heartbreak.
“West Side Story” — the highest grossing film of 1961 — served as a massive breakthrough for Rita Moreno. It receiving 11 Academy Award nominations and won 10 trophies including best picture and best supporting actress for the Puerto Rican star. After winning the Oscar, Rita thought she would be able to continue performing in less stereotypical film roles — but she was disappointed with what she was offered. “I didn’t make another movie for seven years after winning the Oscar,” she told The Miami Herald. “Before ‘West Side Story,’ I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in Westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After ‘West Side Story,’ it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.”
Rita Moreno took a break from Hollywood after receiving her Oscar due to her frustrations with the types of roles she was being offered. Her final film during that period was 1963’s “Cry Of Battle,” which she was shooting at the time she won her Academy Award. The coming-of-age war film follows the son of a rich American businessman who joins a gruff soldier fighting the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II. Rita portrays Sisa, who teams up with the pair and gets involved with the protagonist.
Fed up with Hollywood, Rita Moreno spent the rest of the ’60s going back to her roots: live theater. She tackled stage roles in London and New York City and participated in summer theater for the next seven years. Rita is seen here in her dressing room at the Lyric Theatre in London’s West End where she performed in the musical “She Loves Me” in 1964. “It broke my heart,” she told AARP in 2018 of her post-Oscars treatment in Hollywood. “I couldn’t understand it. I still don’t understand. And there you have it, Hollywood’s mindset at the time.”
In 1965, Rita Moreno married Dr. Leonard Gordon, a Manhattan cardiologist and internist. After their wedding (seen here), he left the East Coast to live alongside Rita in Hollywood. Leonard soon retired from medicine to work with his bride, becoming her manager and helping her secure a Hollywood return.
Rita Moreno returned to the big screen at the close of the ’60s with the lead female part in the 1968 crime film “The Night of the Following Day.” She reunited with off-screen ex Marlon Brando for the drama, which follows Rita as a drug addict who teams up with two men to kidnap a young heiress and hold her hostage in a remote French bathhouse. Film critic Roger Ebert called it “a well-made melodrama” and it proved to be a hit with audiences, marking a welcome comeback for Rita.
In the early ’70s, Rita Moreno branched out by moving into television. She was warned that acting in children’s TV could limit her career, but she was determined to forge her own path by joining the PBS children’s series “The Electric Company” as a main cast member in 1971. The show employed sketch comedy and various other devices to help elementary-age children develop their grammar and reading skills. Rita stayed on the show for six years, becoming known for screaming the opening line, “Hey, you guys!” In 1972, she won a Grammy Award for “The Electric Company Album” based on her contributions to the show’s soundtrack.
Rita Moreno continued to balance her television and theater careers, racking up a number of Broadway credits including in the 1975 comedic farce “The Ritz.” Set in a gay bathhouse in Manhattan, it depicts an unsuspecting heterosexual businessman who takes refuge from his homicidal mobster brother-in-law in the establishment and meets an assortment of oddball characters. Her acclaimed work in the musical earned her a Tony Award for best featured actress. She’s seen here with her statue alongside fellow winner Frank Langella in 1965.
In 1978, Rita Moreno landed a show of her own fittingly titled “The Rita Moreno Show.” Though a pilot was shot for the series, it never got picked up. She played Marie Constanza, the owner of a hotel fraught with problems. In the pilot episode, Marie attempts to adjust to her new responsibilities after inheriting the hotel from her former employer. Despite not getting the network treatment, it still marked an historic moment in her career.
Two years after marrying Leonard Gordon, Rita Moreno gave birth to the couple’s only child, Fernanda. The actress raised her child while starring on “The Electric Company,” and Fernanda learned to love acting herself. She’s appeared in several movies including “An Inconvenient Woman” and “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” The family is seen here at a benefit in 1982.
Rita Moreno made an appearance on “The Muppet Show” in 1977 that earned her a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program. As a result, she became the first Latina — and only the third person in history at the time (after Richard Rodgers and Helen Hayes) — to have won all four major entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, frequently referred to as an EGOT.
The following year, Rita Moreno had a guest spot on the long-running detective drama “The Rockford Files” as a former call girl. Her three-episode arc opposite James Garner’s Los Angeles-based private investigator made major waves and earned her a second Primetime Emmy Award, this time for outstanding guest actress in a drama series. Appearing in a number of television’s biggest shows helped her maintain a major profile and find consistent work in the subsequent decades.
Rita Moreno scored her next lead television role as part of the trio fronting the 1982 sitcom “9 to 5,” which was based on the hit 1980 film of the same name. She took on Lily Tomlin’s role of Violet Newstead; Rachel Dennison took on big sister Dolly Parton’s role and Valerie Curtin played the Jane Fonda part. Rita stayed on the series for three seasons before departing in 1984 to pursue other projects.
After finishing her time on “9 to 5,” Rita Moreno spent the late ’80s and early ’90s appearing on countless television shows including some of the small screen’s biggest hits like “The Love Boat,” “The Cosby Show,” “George Lopez,” “The Golden Girls,” “The Nanny” and “Miami Vice” (she played Congresswoman Madelyn Woods on a 1989 episode, seen here). Rita also notably voiced the titular character on the popular mid-’90s animated series “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?”
In 1995, Rita Moreno received her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Fellow actress Rosie Perez spoke at the dedication ceremony, telling Rita, “This is a part of history and you should have gotten this a long time ago.”
As Rita Moreno’s legacy was finally being celebrated by the entertainment industry, her family began expanding. Daughter Fernanda married David Tyler Fisher and made Rita a proud grandmother with the birth of her son, Justin Gordon Fisher, in 1996. A second grandson, Cameron David Fisher, arrived in 1999, completing the loving family. Rita and husband Leonard moved north to Berkeley, California, to be close to their daughter and grandkids. “We were out of our minds when we first found out we were going to be grandparents. And the funny thing is that it has never changed,” she told Grand magazine in 2008. “Our grandchildren are the light of our lives. One of the best experiences of our lives, if not the best, next to our daughter’s birth, is helping birth our daughter’s baby. We were at the hospital with them. I held one of her legs. It was astonishing. It was the most moving experience you can possibly imagine.”
Rita Moreno landed her next major television part on the popular HBO men’s prison drama “Oz,” which ran for six seasons from 1997 to 2003. She plays Sister Pete, a nun trained as a psychologist. She started out as a supporting player during the show’s first season before being upgraded to a main cast member for the remainder of the acclaimed series. The character is one of the main forces of good inside the fictional prison and is often helpful to the inmates in whatever conflicts they are trying to solve. Rita’s work earned her several ALMA Awards.
By the 2000s, Rita Moreno’s immeasurable talents were also being recognized by the White House. After being invited to perform at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — America’s highest civilian honor — from President George W. Bush in 2004. Then, in 2009, President Barack Obama presented her with the National Medal of Arts.
In 2006, Rita Moreno returned to the stage for a revival of Tennessee Williams’ beloved play “The Glass Menagerie” at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She played Amanda Wingfield, resident matriarch in the St. Louis-set drama about a son grappling with the decision to leave his sheltered sister with their mother.
Also in 2006, Rita Moreno had a recurring role on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” as the dying mother of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Robert Goren. The character falls ill from cancer and eventually succumbs to the disease in the heartbreaking season 6 finale of the long-running procedural drama.
Rita Moreno’s longtime husband, Leonard Gordon, passed away in 2010 at 90. The pair — seen here at the 2006 Bangkok International Film Festival — were married until his passing in Berkeley, California. When People magazine later asked Rita if she’d ever remarry, she told the outlet she’d rather “eat glass.” During a Zoom Q&A at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, she got candid about her marriage, explaining, “We had quite an extraordinary and successful charade for many years. He died while we were still married and that was 46 years. I couldn’t find a way to leave. I didn’t realize how desperately I needed to be on my own. I was punishing myself by not being on my own. It was brutal. … [He] was a wonderful parent. He was a wonderful person. It’s just that our marriage didn’t work out.”
A few years after her husband’s passing, Rita Moreno published “Rita Moreno: A Memoir.” The book provides a candid look at the Hollywood legend’s rise to fame and reveals details about difficult times in her life including the unwanted abortion and subsequent suicide attempt she went through while dating Marlon Brando in her early 20s. “I felt I had a lot of important things to say about the film industry at the time, about how women were treated at the time, how my marriage became quite unhappy after about 10, 12 years and I stuck it out for 46,” she told NPR in 2013 of why she decided to tell her story. “I’ve always had this image of this strong, sprightly person who is undaunted by anything; on the contrary, I was one of the shyest, most unsure people you ever met in your life. But I have one very specific quality: I’m plucky. I really am. I would say that’s a perfect description of my personality. I am able to get up and dust myself off and keep moving forward.”
The Screen Actors Guild paid tribute to Rita Moreno in 2014, presenting her with the 50th SAG Life Achievement Award. “No one is more deserving of this honor than the fabulous and accomplished Rita Moreno,” then-SAG co-president Robert Reardon said in a press release at the time. “She is an inspiration in every effort, but never more so than with her civil rights activism, promoting equality and diversity while ushering in a more representative depiction of the American scene on screen.” Accepting the honor from her “The Electric Company” co-star Morgan Freeman, Rita said, “I am so…,” and then sheepishly added, “I hope the man with the button was there on time.” She added in her speech that she was “breathless” and “so bloody happy.”
The following year in 2015, Rita Moreno was awarded a Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for her contribution to American culture through performing arts. She joined the likes of Seiji Ozawa, Carole King, George Lucas and Cicely Tyson to be saluted in a star-studded celebration on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage.
Rita Moreno received an honorary doctor of music degree from the Berklee College of Music in 2016 and delivered that year’s commencement address, which saw the performer break into rap mid-speech as she told graduates they “must have the audacity, the pluck, the grit, the perspicacity.” She wrote the music bit especially for the occasion after feeling inspired by the three times she saw the award-winning play “Hamilton.” The audience cheered and she added, “Yo, I’m sayin’ write your score for more than popularity — live life with clarity.”
2017 saw Rita Moreno return to television with a major part on the Netflix sitcom “One Day At A Time.” Based on the classic comedy of the same name that ran for nine seasons in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it revolves around a Cuban American family living in Los Angeles comprised of a single mother and Army veteran dealing with PTSD, her kids and her Cuban mother. The original series broke new ground with its positive portrayal of a single-mom household and the remake took it one step further by tackling issues like mental illness, immigration, sexism, homophobia, gender identity and racism that Latin people living in the United States face. The new version was celebrated by critics, with many singling out Rita’s performance as one of the biggest draws. Fans were outraged when the remake was canceled by Netflix after three seasons in 2019. Due to the passionate reaction, a fourth season was aired on Pop before it ended for good.
Rita Moreno’s latest project is the Steven Spielberg–directed adaptation of “West Side Story.” She both stars in and executive produced the big budget musical, playing a newly created character, Valentina. The stakes are high for the latest iteration of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, which is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” With the first film scoring 10 Oscars, there is pressure to see how the 2021 version stacks up.
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