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Steven Eckholdt

Rita Moreno Biography

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Birth Name: Rita Moreno
Born: 12/11/1931
Birth Place: Puerto Rico

Rosita Dolores Alverio was born on Dec. 11, 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico to a farmer and a seamstress. In 1937, she moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City with her mother, Rosa Maria, and shared a tiny apartment with their relatives. Moreno began her professional career before she reached her teen years. At 11, the future star earned money by dubbing Spanish-language versions of American films. Just a few days shy of her 14th birthday, Moreno (who had adopted her stepfather's surname) made her Broadway debut in the 1945 Belasco Theatre production of "Skydrift," opposite Arthur Keegan and Eli Wallach. Using the stage name Rosita Moreno, the young actress landed her first feature film role in the drama "So Young So Bad" (1950). This led to more musical film appearances for the up-and-coming star, including supporting parts in "The Toast of New Orleans" (1950), "Pagan Love Song" (1950), and a featured role as silent screen vamp Zelda Zanners in the what most consider the greatest musical of all time, "Singin' in the Rain."

In March 1954, Moreno graced the cover of LIFE magazine, posing in a seductive, over-the-left-shoulder profile along with the headline "Rita Moreno: An Actresses' Catalog of Sex and Innocence." Even though the article pushed Moreno's career to the forefront of the entertainment industry, it also glorified the Hollywood stereotype of Hispanic actresses as "sexpots." During a Miami Herald interview later on in her career, Moreno revealed she felt humiliated whenever she was offered a role as a "Conchita" or "Lolita" in Western films, where she was often asked to act barefoot. When Moreno was not cast in vampy roles, she played exotic characters, from an Indian exchange student on the television series "Father Knows Best" (CBS, 1954-55; NBC, 1955-58; CBS, 1958-1960), to the young Burmese wife Tuptim in the 1956 musical "The King and I." Moreno admitted she took on the roles, no matter how stereotypical and degrading they were, simply because she wanted to remain in show business.

Moreno finally broke out of the Hollywood mold when she was cast in the feature film adaptation of "West Side Story." The groundbreaking Broadway musical debuted in 1957 and retold William Shakespeare's classic "Romeo & Juliet" in an urban New York setting with rival street gangs the Jets and the Sharks. The 1961 film, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, wanted to cast actors who looked believable as teenagers. Moreno stepped in for the role of Anita - originally played on Broadway by Chita Rivera - the Puerto Rican girlfriend of the Sharks' leader Bernardo (George Chakiris). As Anita, confidante of the film's heroine Maria (Natalie Wood) and the equivalent of the Nurse in Shakespeare's play, Moreno stole every scene she was in, especially with her rendition of the song-and-dance number "America." She also delivered a moving performance in a scene in which rival gang the Jets assaults Anita, which was considered the film's climax. The role earned Moreno a well-deserved Academy Award in 1962 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. "West Side Story" won several other Oscars that year as well, including Best Picture.

Despite her breakout performance and Oscar win, it took a decade for Hollywood to cast Moreno in a role that truly showcased her depth and versatility as an actress. In the 1971 Mike Nichols-directed drama "Carnal Knowledge," Moreno played a hooker, starring opposite Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel as longtime friends faced with sexual and emotional issues concerning their relationships with various women. Moreno's career reignited even further that year when she appeared on the children's variety series "The Electric Company." The program employed sketch comedy and musical performances geared to help elementary age children improve their reading skills. Moreno was part of the original cast that also included Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby. At the height of its popularity, that included a Grammy Award and several Emmy wins during its run, "The Electric Company" was cancelled in 1977 because it could not generate profit, unlike its more successful counterpart "Sesame Street" (NET, 1969-70; PBS, 1970- ), which licensed its Muppet characters for merchandising.

Moreno continued working in the world of children's television, often appearing on "The Muppet Show" (ITV, 1976-1981) for which she won her first Emmy Award in 1976 and hosting "The Muppets Go Hollywood" (1979). Moreno made a triumphant return to Broadway in 1975, starring in Terrence McNally's play "The Ritz." Her portrayal of a gay bathhouse entertainer with Broadway aspirations earned her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. She reprised her award-winning role in the 1976 feature film version. Moreno continued to work steadily in feature films and on television, earning more accolades for her guest appearances on "The Rockford Files" (NBC, 1974-1980), and recurring roles on "American Family" (PBS, 2002-04) and the harrowing prison drama "Oz" (HBO, 1997-2003). She solidified her status as a Hollywood icon when she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995. So moved was the actress at being recognized that she wept uncontrollably during the unveiling ceremony. U.S. presidents often recognized Moreno's contribution to the arts, as well, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2004 and a National Medal of Arts from Barack Obama in 2009.

By Marc Cuenco