As one of this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees, Rita Moreno’s passion for acting is akin to an unstoppable gale force wind; something that reaches and stretches and blows beyond traditional creative boundaries so that it cannot be contained. Few of her fellow female contemporaries can even begin to imagine a career which spans six decades and is crowned by the coveted EGOT quartet of awards: An Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award. She is the first Hispanic to have won all four of these major entertainment awards and the second Puerto Rican to take home an Oscar.
At 83, Rita Moreno is a one-woman theatrical wonder whose legendary stage and screen career inspires women of all ages and backgrounds to never stop reaching for their dreams and to always believe they can achieve their hearts’ desire.
Early Life and Breakthrough Role
Moreno impressively caught the attention of a Hollywood talent scout in her first Broadway role of Angelina in “Skydrift” at the tender age of 13. Her breakthrough came in 1961, when she landed the role of Anita in the feature film adaptation of “West Side Story,” for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. The New York Times dubbed Moreno a “spitfire” as Maria’s faithful friend Anita. Film lovers and critics alike couldn’t help but be drawn into Anita’s emphatic musical defense of our great nation in the famed play’s up-tempo number “America” that is meant to praise the country.
Moreno displayed some of Anita’s verve when she accepted her Academy Award for the role, and then adamantly refused to be pigeonholed into a stereotypical Latina role. She waited seven years before making another film, some of her other notable film credits include “Popi,” “Marlowe” and “Carnal Knowledge.”
Television and Broadway
Anyone growing up in the ‘70s should remember the colorful characters Moreno played on the popular PBS children’s series “The Electric Company,” like Millie the Helper. Nor can we forget her unmistakable voice belting out “HEY, YOU GUYS!” in the opening of the show. She was bright, bubbly and fun; especially as Pandora, the naughty little blonde girl who always tried to outwit adults. Pulling off sketch comedy while trying to teach kids a lesson is trickier than it looks. But Rita Moreno seemed to have a natural knack for it and her indelible “Electric Company” characters spoke to her acting versatility.
Moreno also made notable guest appearances on other popular TV shows including “The Love Boat,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Golden Girls” and “Nine to Five.” She picked up an Emmy for her guest appearance on “The Muppet Show” in 1977 and in 1978 for “The Rockford Files.” Moreno returned to the Broadway stage and garnered Tony glory in 1975 with a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in “The Ritz.”
Recent Roles and Notable Accolades
Rita Moreno has fearlessly established herself as a female Latina actress that is determined to break the mold of the kind of female character a Latina woman should portray. As recently as 2011, Moreno began performing a one-woman autobiographical show “Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup” at the Berkley Rep Theater in Berkley, California. She is also slated to star in Amy Poehler’s comedy pilot “Old Soul” for NBC.
Among her many accolades, Rita Moreno is a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement recipient, a recipient of the Library of Congress Living Legends Award, a Hispanic Organization of Latin Actresses (HOLA) Lifetime Achievement honoree, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush and was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.
Rita Moreno is one of the most decorated actresses of all time and at 83, she remains a singular creative force to be reckoned with that present and future artists can aspire to emulate in decades to come.
Moreno recently sat down with CBS This Morning to discuss her trailblazing legacy.
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Lori Melton is a freelance writer. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.