Photo by by AUSTIN HARGRAVE
Moreno between takes during the 1961 filming of West Side Story.
According to the star, just after Lear came up with the concept, he told his producing partner that he wanted to start with one person: Rita Moreno. “[Lear] said ‘I would love you in my show,’ and I said, ‘I’m in!’ Only after that did I ask what the role was,” she says with a laugh. “The show sets a new standard, I think, because every episode has a social issue.”
This is common ground for Moreno, who has spent her life championing a wealth of pressing social issues. She has aided The American Heart Association, The American Stroke Association, The Actors Fund of America, and The Jackie Robinson Foundation, to name just a few. She also lectures on issues ranging from diversity to the role of women in film.
Even today, Moreno feels women of color continue to be denied the opportunities that actors of other backgrounds enjoy. “We have come a long way, but that long way still requires more work,” she remarks. “I think Viola Davis said it beautifully: The truth is that you can’t be nominated and get awards like these unless you have the roles. It’s one thing to have a lot of presence on television, and it is another to get the roles — and there is a difference. Now, we need the writers and the directors to [create these characters], and that is going to be a lot harder to achieve.”
Moreno also notes that with each passing year, the arts seem to be drawing less support, a fact that both alarms and spurs her on. “I am doing what I can to contribute, but I just can’t believe that people think so little of the arts that they don’t support them the way they should,” she exclaims.
In a bid to inspire the next generation of entertainers, Moreno recently served as commencement speaker for Berkeley University, with a widely circulated speech conducted almost entirely in rap. “My manager and I wondered what we could do that is different from the normal commencement speech, and he came up with the idea and wrote it,” she says. “And I was just astonished at how he did that. It was marvelous and very witty but serious, as well.”
For Moreno, who recently penned an award-winning autobiography, each element of her work demands equal seriousness — and equal irreverence. “I have a big audience among younger people, and I believe they feel I am contemporary because I speak their language in some way. They just think I am very hip and unlike other 85-year-old people — I still wear leather,” she adds with a smile. “I do!”