Actress Rita Moreno is not just a great Puerto Rican-American -- she’s a national treasure. A woman with accomplishments like none other, an inspiration on countless levels, and an extraordinary groundbreaking Hollywood legend.
As she rode atop a convertible along New York’s Fifth Avenue in Sunday’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade, the pride her fellow Puerto Ricans feel for the 83-year superstar was clear.
The daughter of a Puerto Rican dad moved with her seamstress mom to a new island -- Manhattan -- in 1936, which makes her ride up Fifth Avenue all the more poignant.
The move came almost a full decade before the massive migration from Puerto Rico to America (mostly New York City) began. Between the mid-1940s and 1970, nearly a million left their beloved home, the newest wave of immigrants that redefined ever-changing New York.
By age 13, Moreno was on Broadway and for the next 70 years she’s been unstoppable.
Moreno, the parade’s grand marshal, had her two grandsons, Justin and Cameron, at her side the whole time as the huge crowd cheered her on Sunday.
The parade has had many Puerto Rican entertainers lead it in recent years: Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony to name a few. None -- and this by no means a knock to the others, who we’re huge fans of -- can hold a candle to Moreno.
Here’s our five top reasons why Moreno was such an amazing choice:
1. SHE’S AN EGOT!!!
A what? EGOTs are artists who have what are considered by many to be the four major American entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Moreno actually has two Emmys. And a Golden Globe (but that’s from the foreign press, so not an EGOT qualifier).
Only 12 artists are members of this exclusive club and Moreno is practically the founding member. The original EGOT was composer Richard Rodgers, in 1962. It wasn’t until 1977 that anyone else pulled off the four-award win: Moreno and another phenomenal legend, Helen Hayes.
The nine others are Sir John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tuck, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez.
2. WEST SIDE STORY
It was a groundbreaking film for a groundbreaking star that earned her an historic Academy Award. That appearance on Broadway at age 13 in Skydrift caught the eye of Hollywood agents. In the 1950s she appeared in Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain and the movie adaptation of the blockbuster KIng and I, a timeless musical that just won the Tony for Best Revival.
In 1961, it was another adaptation from Broadway that landed her the role originated on stage by Chita Rivera: Anita, the sister of Maria, the Puerto Rican girl who falls for Tony, a European American, in the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical, West Side Story. It was a modern day re-tooling of Romeo & Juliet on many levels that included several “if only” moments in which individual decisions and actions lead to heartbreaking tragedy. And it was set on the hardscrabble streets of New York where prejudice and real ethnic tensions were playing out.
Moreno won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her star turn as Anita, who, like Moreno’s mom. was a seamstress. Moreno was the only actual Latina in main triumvirate of Puerto Rican characters: Anita, Maria (Natalie Wood, a Russian-American), and Bernardo (George Chakiris, son of Greek immigrants).
IMDB will give you a sense of the amazing list of movies that followed -- and keep coming -- since her Oscar.
3. ELECTRIC COMPANY
Moreno gives, gives, and gives some more. She’s tremendously dedicated to the importance of education and that much-ballyhooed concept of ‘Leave no child behind.’ That’s the reason she signed on to star in PBS’ Electric Company, which lasted six seasons, ending its run in 1977 but living on in repeats. The show emphasized reading and grammar for a post-Sesame Street, elementary school audience. Speaking of Sesame Street, one of her Emmys came for her work on The Muppet Show in 1977. The other was for The Rockford Files.
4. HER AMAZING MEMOIR
In 2011, a year after the death of her cardiologist husband, Leonard Gordon, with whom she had one daughter, Fernanda Luisa Gordon, her book , “Rita Moreno: A Memoir” was released, hitting the New York Times bestseller list.
Talk about a tell all! Moreno, as she does on stage and screen, the big one and the small, let it all hang out, including her eight-year tortuous affair with Marlon Brando when he was about the hunkiest stud in Hollywood, and her pas de deux with Elvis. Wow.
Moreno and Brando met on the set of the film, “Desiree,” in 1954. He was 30. She: 22.
“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. It was the sort of rush that inspires poetry and songs,” she wrote.
The affair didn’t end well. Brando was a serial womanizer, Moreno went through a botched abortion, and, after taking a handful of sleeping pills to kill herself, woke from a coma and decided to leave him behind.
5. SHE CONSTANTLY INSPIRES
She has long fought against stereotypical roles for Latino actors and her accomplishments have inspired her fellow performers and her fans on too many levels to count.
Among them, “Jane the Virgin” star Gina Rodriguez, who pushed to have the star appear in the hit television series.
“Apparently, Gina’s always wanted to work with me. Apparently I symbolize a lot of wonderful things to her,” a flattered Moreno told Entertainment Weekly .
Moreno is now a door buster for older actresses, who often feel cast aside in Hollywood. She and the great Gena Rowlands, 84. attacked the issue head on when they appeared together in last year’s “Six dance lessons in six weeks.”
John A. Oswald is editor-at-large of Metro.US.