Moreno, Rita (1931—)

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Moreno, Rita (1931—)

Puerto Rican actress, singer, and dancer who was the only performer ever to win all four of the entertainment world's major awards. Name variations: Rosita Moreno; Rosita Cosio. Born Rosa Dolores Alverio on December 11, 1931, in Humacao, Puerto Rico; daughter of Paco Alverio and Rosa Maria (Marcano) Alverio (a seamstress); attended P.S. 132 in New York City; took extension courses at the University of California and a year of acting lessons; married Leonard Gordon (a physician), in 1965; children: Fernanda Luisa (b. 1967).


Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (1961) and Golden Globe Award, Best Supporting Actress in a Film (1962), both for West Side Story; Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children (1972) for The Electric Company; Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Variety or Music Role (1975) for Out to Lunch; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama (1975) for The Ritz; Emmy Award for Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music Role (1977) for The Muppet Show; Emmy Award, Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series (1978), and Emmy Award nomination, Best Actress in a Drama Series (1979), both for The Rockford Files; Emmy Award nomination, Best Performer (1982) for Orphans, Waifs and Wards; Emmy Award nomination, Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Special (1982) for Portrait of a Showgirl; Emmy Award nomination, Best Actress in a Comedy Series (1983), for 9 to 5; Sarah Siddons Award (1985); Hispanic Heritage Award (1990).

Selected filmography:

Pagan Love Song (1950); The Toast of New Orleans (1950); Cattle Town (1952); The Ring (1952); Singin' in the Rain (1952); Fort Vengeance (1953); Latin Lovers (1953); El Alamein (1954); Garden of Evil (1954); Apache Uprising (1955); Untamed (1955); Seven Cities of Gold (1955); The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956); The Vagabond King (1956); The King and I (1956); The Deerslayer (1957); This Rebel Breed (1960); Summer and Smoke (1961); West Side Story (1961); Cry of Battle (1963); The Night of the Following Day (1968); Popi (1969); Marlowe (1969); Carnal Knowledge (1971); The Ritz (1976); The Boss's Son (1979); Happy Birthday, Gemini (1980); The Four Seasons (1981); Age Isn't Everything (1991); I Like It Like That (1994); Angus (1995); The Wharf Rat (1995); Women: First and Foremost—V.1 (1995); Women: First and Foremost—V.2 (1995); Women: First and Foremost—V.3 (1995); Women: First and Foremost—Collector's Boxed Set (1995).

Selected theater:

Skydrift (New York debut, Belasco Theater, 1945); She Loves You (London debut, Lyric Theater, 1964); The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (Longacre Theater, New York City, 1964); Gantry (George Abbott Theater, New York City, 1970); The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Eugene O'Neill Theater, New York City, 1970); Detective Story (Shubert Theater, Philadelphia, PA, 1973); The National Health (Long Wharf Theater, New Haven, CT, 1973–74, then Circle in the Square, New York City, 1974); The Ritz (Longacre Theater, 1975); The Rose Tattoo (Long Wharf Theater, 1977); Wally's Café (Brooks Atkinson Theater, New York City, 1981); The New Odd Couple (Broadhurst Theater, New York City, 1985).

Selected television appearances:

(specials) "Dominic's Dream" (CBS, 1974), "The Rita Moreno Show" (CBS, 1978), "Blondes vs. Brunettes" (ABC, 1984), "Rita" (also known as "Rita Moreno Show," CBS, 1986), "The Ice Capades with Kirk Cameron" (ABC, 1988), "Championship Ballroom Dancing" (PBS, 1991), "All-Star Fiesta at Ford's" (ABC, 1992), "A Capitol Fourth 1993" (PBS, 1993), "The 65th Annual Academy Awards Presentation" (ABC, 1993), "A Woman's Health" (PBS, 1994); also appeared in the specials "Working" (1982) and "The Chemical People" (1983); (series) "The Rockford Files" (NBC, beginning in 1974), "9 to 5" (ABC, 1982–83), "Top of the Heap" (Fox, 1991), "The Class of the 20th Century" (Arts & Entertainment, 1992), "Bonkers" (animated, syndicated, 1993), "The Cosby Mysteries" (NBC, 1994); also appeared in "The Electric Company" (1972); (episodic) "The Muppet Show" (syndicated, 1977), "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO, 1992), "Climax!," "Playhouse 90," "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars," and "Zane Grey Theater" (all CBS), "Fireside Theater" (NBC); (other television appearances) "Out to Lunch" (ABC, c. 1974), "Anatomy of a Seduction" (CBS movie, 1979), "Portrait of a Showgirl" (CBS movie, c. 1981), "Evita Peron " (NBC miniseries, 1981), "Orphans, Waifs, and Wards" (CBS, c. 1981).

Selected discography:

The Electric Company (Sesame Street, 1972); Media Portrayals of Latinos (National Public Radio, 1982).

Although undeniably talented, Rita Moreno had to endure many years of hard work to divorce herself from the stereotypical images of "Latin spitfire" or "Indian princess" that were frequently the only roles available for Hispanic actresses during the early years of her career. She went on to become the only person to earn all four of the entertainment business' top awards, a feat which landed her in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Moreno, born Rosa Dolores Alverio on December 11, 1931, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, never really got to know her father, as her parents divorced shortly after her birth. She was left with relatives in Puerto Rico while her mother went to New York City, hoping to improve the family's economic condition. Working as a seamstress in a lingerie factory, her mother was eventually able to earn enough to return to Puerto Rico and bring Moreno back with her to New York, where they lived in a Manhattan tenement. It was not long before Moreno, who enjoyed dancing even as a young child, was taking dancing lessons from Paco Cansino (Rita Hay-worth 's uncle), and she soon began performing in the children's theater at Macy's and at weddings and bar mitzvahs. She attended P.S. 132 until age 13, when she quit school to become an actress.

Moreno's first professional employment, in which she was billed as "Rosita Cosio" and played the part of Angelina in the war drama Skydrift (1945), was short-lived, running only seven performances. During her teens, she sangand danced in nightclubs in New York, Las Vegas, and Boston, and did dubbing for child stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O'Brien , and Peggy Ann Garner in Hollywood films destined for Spanish audiences. In 1950, she made her film debut as a delinquent in United Artists' So Young, So Bad, and that year signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She had been calling herself "Rosita Moreno," and at the request of studio officials she shortened her first name to Rita. Moreno had minor roles in 25 movies, the most notable of which were The Toast of New Orleans (1950), with Mario Lanza, and Pagan Love Song (1950), with Esther Williams . MGM then dropped her, but Moreno refused to quit acting and kept busy freelancing in Hollywood. She did obtain a small role in MGM's Singin' in the Rain (1952), but for the most part she was cast in stereotypical, ethnic roles, usually as the Latin vamp: The Fabulous Señorita (1952), The Ring (1952), Cattle Town (1952), Latin Lovers (1953), and Jivaro (1954). She also played an Arab in El Alamein (1953) and a Native American in both Fort Vengeance (1953) and The Yellow Tomahawk (1954). Disheartened by this typecasting, Moreno tried to escape her "Rita the Cheetah" image by going on stage in Tennessee Williams' Camino Real, but Williams objected to her voice and she quickly lost the part.

Moreno's stormy, longtime relationship with Marlon Brando, then at the peak of his career, and another relationship with Geordie Hormel, of the meat-packing empire, added to her notoriety. Things seemed to take a turn for the better when she was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1954. Twentieth Century-Fox offered her a contract, and soon she was singing in Garden of Evil (1954) and doing a Marilyn Monroe takeoff in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1955). Struggling to be taken seriously, Moreno underwent years of psychoanalysis, but was still unable to find a truly satisfying role until she was cast as a Burmese slave girl in the musical The King and I (1956). Despite some success, Moreno made only a few movies from 1956 to 1960: The Vagabond King (1956), The Deer-slayer (1957), and This Rebel Breed (1960). She sought relief by again returning to the stage, this time in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in theaters in Seattle, Washington, and California. Despondent over personal problems and the direction her career was taking, she unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide.

In 1961, Jerome Robbins cast Moreno in the supporting role of Anita in the movie version of West Side Story. She received raves for her performance, particularly her singing of the biting "America." The movie was a huge success, winning ten Academy Awards, one of which went to Moreno for Best Supporting Actress. From 1961 to 1971, she had roles in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke (1961) and in Cry of Battle (1963). Seeking better roles, she went to London, where in 1964 she starred in Hal Prince's She Loves Me. British performance laws then forced her to return to the United States, where she acted in Lorraine Hansberry 's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964). She received excellent reviews for her performance in Williams' The Rose Tattoo (1968) in Chicago, and the following year Brando helped her as she returned to her movie career in The Night of the Following Day (1969). Moreno also appeared in the movies Marlowe (1969), Popi (1969), and Carnal Knowledge (1971). She returned to the theater again in 1970, performing in Gantry (based on the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry) and replacing Linda Lavin in Last of the Red Hot Lovers, both in New York.

In 1971, Moreno began appearing on the Children's Television Workshop's new show, "The Electric Company." She was intrigued with the educational opportunities the show offered as well as the chance to do what she called "low comedy—some zany, bizarre, eccentric stuff." A soundtrack of the show brought Moreno, Bill Cosby and others a 1972 Grammy award for the Best Recording for Children. In 1974, Moreno was invited to a performance at the Yale Repertory Theater of Terrence McNally's new play, The Tubs, a farce set in a homosexual bath-house. She was stunned to see one of the characters, Googie Gomez, doing a number she had performed during breaks in the filming of West Side Story. Moreno had also sung this song, a rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" with an exaggerated Spanish accent, at a party where McNally had been present. Retitled The Ritz, the play opened on January 20, 1975, at Broadway's Longacre Theater, with Moreno playing Googie. Although some felt her performance was offensive to Hispanics, Moreno said her character was only making fun of the stereo-typical roles in which she had always been cast. The Ritz ran for 400 performances, and Moreno received a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress. She also appeared in the motion-picture version of The Ritz (1976). She continued her work on television, and in 1977 won an Emmy for her appearances on "The Muppet Show" that year. She won another Emmy in 1978 for her performance in "The Paper Palace" episode of "The Rockford Files." Moreno also developed a nightclub act and appeared in several movies, including The Boss's Son (1979), Happy Birthday, Gemini (1980), and The Four Seasons (1981). She was nominated for another Emmy in 1982 for her role as a secretary in ABC's comedy series "9 to 5" (based on the movie with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton ). Moreno appeared on stage in Wally's Café in 1981, and in 1985 she starred in a revised version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, playing Olive Madison to Sally Struthers ' Florence Unger. That year she also received the Sarah Siddons Award.

Married since June 1965 to Leonard Gordon, a retired internist and cardiologist who now serves as her personal manager, Moreno remains involved in a variety of activities. She has served on the boards of directors of Third World Cinema and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and on the panel of the National Foundation of the Arts. She is committed to the Hispanic community and has a strong interest in education. Her daughter with Gordon, Fernanda Luisa, has appeared in her nightclub act and in several of her stage shows. Moreno and her husband maintain homes in Pacific Palisades, California, and in Manhattan.


Current Biography Yearbook. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1985.

Rooney, Terrie M., ed. Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Tardiff, Joseph C., and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Votaw, Carmen Delgado. Puerto Rican Women. Washington DC: National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, 1995.

suggested reading:

Hadley-Garcia, George. Hispanic Hollywood: Hispanics in Motion Pictures. 1990.

Hispanic. October 1989, pp. 30–33; December 1989, p. 40; September 1990, p. 56.

Ms. January–February 1991, pp. 93–95.

People Weekly. May 3, 1982, pp. 105–107; September 21, 1998, pp. 167–168.

Suntree, Susan. Rita Moreno. NY: Chelsea House, 1993.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont