Feature photo by Mike LaMonica
Rita Moreno is the second Puerto Rican to win an Academy Award, then followed that up with a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy. The talented performer shows no sign of stopping, currently playing the mother of Fran Drescher on TV Land’s Happily Divorced and a new one woman show Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup.
Gozamos: Hello, Ms. Moreno. I am so excited to talk to you because the West Side Story touring show just opened in Chicago. The 50th anniversary is coming up that you won your Oscar for the role of Anita in.
Rita Moreno: No kidding! Are you going to see it?
Let’s talk about your show.
Which one? I am turning into the Latina Betty White!
(laughs) Life is good then. I talked to Fran Drescher recently about Unhappily Divorced on TV Land.
You did? Isn’t she a doll?
Yes and she said great thing about you.
She did? Well, I gotta hear that. You never hear that from the people themselves. What did she say?
She said you are “fantastic.” What is it like to play this part?
I love playing Dori. I love that accent and that attitude. Fran called those kitchen scenes the “jewels” because they are like little jewels. I don’t think we have done one that wasn’t wonderful and fun. It is like a little teeny one act play. It is so marvelously written. The writers have really caught Dori’s voice. The things they put in my mouth are absolutely delicious.
Was the Jewish accent difficult?
Oh god no! I am a New Yorker. That’s number one. Number two, all of my life some of my best friends used clichés and my husband was a Jew as well. I am very familiar with that koynd of accent. You know what I toyking about? When I auditioned for the role I auditioned with Fran playing herself and I think they were delighted that I had that accent. I love using it. I like accents anyways and I do have a very good ear. So good in fact that recently one day when we were rehearsing our kitchen scene with Fran, she stopped the rehearsal and said, (in Fran voice) “Have you ever played a Jewish woman before?” I said, “No, I have always wanted to because it is so rich.” She just said, “Amazing.”
She is such a character.
She is. The show is doing very well. We want this show to run. We do our last show next week. I have two days in which to prepare for the beginning of my play. I am starting rehearsals at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
It’s called Life Without Makeup.
Yes, it is about my life. From the very beginning, from the day our boat arrived at New York City harbor.
You need to make that into a movie.
(laughs) We will see. It has been so wonderfully done and is written by the man that runs the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. They have sent some amazing things to Broadway.
They sent American Idiot and Bridge & Tunnel with Sarah Jones. It is not a tryout house but that is what has happened. We are hoping that my show will end up in New York also but in the meantime you have to put that aside because if our series is going to go into a second season, I don’t know about that yet, we would have to postpone any ideas that we’ve had. I wanted to take it on a short tour to do refinements but I have to find the time to do it. It depends on if Happily Divorced runs and I sure hope it does.
Well go on tour and bring it to Chicago.
Actually Chicago would be one of my cities of choice. I don’t want to do a real big tour. Hey, by December I will be 80! I ain’t no spring chicken. I love Chicago.
You have a huge history with the city.
Oh, I know. I have been around forever. I got the Joseph Jefferson Award and the Sarah Siddons Award there. I got to know the city well because my husband went to Chicago Med and he went every year to the reunions. That city is a very exciting place to be. The food and theatre scene is spectacular there. What could be bad? Well, I could tell you what could be bad, the winters!
It’s really hot here now. Were you named after Rita Hayworth?
No. They were trying to rename me. My true name is Rosa Dolores, which is beautiful. I am so sorry now but I was young and naïve. I didn’t dare say no. They told me that I needed a new name. Moreno is my stepfather’s last name. They said, “What about Tino Marino?” I remember thinking I would be saddled with a name like that! For the first time in my life I actually said no. They said, “What about Rita? Think Rita Hayworth.” So I thought that sounded like a star name and said okay.
I have been watching you since I was kid on The Electric Company.
Oh, was that a great show or what?
Perfect for the seventies. I liked it better than Sesame Street.
It was so hip. It was meant as a follow up to Sesame Street. It was aimed at the children who were ready for some serious reading. There are two box sets of the best of and I do the commentary for them.
Morgan Freeman came out of that show.
I was one of the people that honored Morgan Freeman at the AFI Awards recently.
Where did the expression “Hey, you guys!” come from?
It came from me in a sense. They had this one skit with Millie the Helper and as a result of the success became a regular on that show, she and Bill Cosby, who was the milkman. She was supposed to let people know about things happening. I thought of Abbott and Costello. Costello used to yell “Hey Abbott” and applied that delivery to the scene with the milkman and the kids went wild. I was told the schools and yards were resounding with “Hey, you guys!” It drove the teachers and principals crazy that year but became the call to the show.
I remember you as a librarian screaming it.
They always put her in a situation where she had to whisper.
Shhh “hey, you guys!” don’t tell Rita but Happily Divorced has just been renewed for a second season to air in the spring. Visit http://www.tvland.com for listings and details. West Side Story the 50th Anniversary edition makes a Blu-ray debut on November 15.