Actress Rita Moreno shares how she blazed her own path in Hollywood

Actress Rita Moreno talks blazing her own path in Hollywood

The award-winning film and TV star discusses her long and storied career at SU's Coming Back Together weekend.
Published: September 10, 2021
Associate Professor and Director of the Setnor School of Music Milton Rubén Laufer interviews actress, dancer and singer Rita Moreno at a Coming Back Together lecture featuring Moreno on Thursday, September 9, 2021 in Syracuse University’s Goldstein Auditorium. Coming Back Together (CBT) started in 1983 as a way to bring Black and Latino/a SU alumni together every three years to celebrate achievements and stay connected with the University. The theme of this year’s reunion is “Celebrating 151 Years of Black and Latino/a Excellence at SU”.
Setnor School of Music director Milton Rubén Laufer interviews actress Rita Moreno virtually at a Coming Back Together lecture Thursday in Goldstein Auditorium.

If there’s one thing Rita Moreno’s long career has taught her, it’s how to command a room and support herself.

It’s a skill the multi-hyphenate performer developed early on in her career. The Puerto Rican actress had no cheerleader, no mentor, and no one in Hollywood who looked like her to help.

“I had nobody who said, “You know what? I think you have talent, and I’m going to push you and help you and do everything I can to make you meet your goal,’” Moreno said.

So, Moreno became her own support system and role model, and she blazed a trail for future generations in the process.

Moreno Zoomed in from her daughter’s kitchen in California to discuss parts of her career with Milton Rubén Laufer, associate professor and director of the Setnor School of Music, on Thursday as part of Syracuse University’s Coming Back Together weekend.

Jean Brooks, special events assistant director, said they were grateful to book Moreno, even virtually, because of her lasting impact.

“Not only is she such a superstar, but she’s also so cross-generational,” Brooks said.

Even with technical glitches, Moreno captivated an audience of about 40 attendees, comprised of mostly alumni and a few current students including film senior Cameron Gray.

“She’s really a storyteller. She’s down-to-earth and relatable,” Gray said. “She knows how to maneuver between really serious topics with lighter ones in a way that doesn’t make you feel down or depressed but makes you feel inspired.”

Syracuse University senior Cameron Gray asks a question at a Coming Back Together lecture featuring actress Rita Moreno on Thursday, September 9, 2021 in SU’s Goldstein Auditorium. Coming Back Together (CBT) started in 1983 as a way to bring Black and Latino/a SU alumni together every three years to celebrate achievements and stay connected with the University. The theme of this year’s reunion is “Celebrating 151 Years of Black and Latino/a Excellence at SU”.
SU senior Cameron Gray asks actress Rita Moreno a question at Thursday's Goldstein Auditorium event.

Moreno displayed her storytelling prowess with one of the most famous chapters of her life: playing the Puerto Rican spitfire Anita in West Side Story, a role she almost quit because of the original opening lyrics to “America.”

The song originally went “Puerto Rico, you ugly island/ Island of tropic diseases.”

After Moreno sang those measures, the audience muttered a chorus of shock at the racist lyrics.

“I can’t sing that. I can’t say that. I can’t do that to my people,” Moreno said.

“It’s a far cry because Puerto Rico is ‘la isla del encanto,’ the island of enchantment,” Laufer said.

Luckily for Moreno, composer Stephen Sondheim sent her revised lyrics the very day she planned to quit. A producer independent of Moreno had approached Sondheim about the problematic lyrics, so he revised them to, “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion/ Let it sink back in the ocean” and saved Moreno from quitting the film.

However, West Side Story did not propel Moreno’s film career, despite her performance earning her Oscar and Golden Globe awards.

Instead, Moreno couldn’t get work. She received role offers in lesser-quality gang movies, but, after years of playing the “dark-skinned girl with an accent” and piles of pancake makeup shades darker than her natural skin tone, Moreno said no to the offers.

When she sought help securing better roles from Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, Mengers refused to represent Moreno. Mengers didn’t think Moreno had a future in show business, and Mengers only took on clients who had the elusive “it” quality.

So Moreno forged ahead by herself as she had done for most of her career.

“I thought, ‘Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong. I’m going to keep trying,’” Moreno said

A microphone stands in front of the stage at a Coming Back Together lecture featuring actress, dancer and singer Rita Moreno on Thursday, September 9, 2021 in SU’s Goldstein Auditorium. Coming Back Together (CBT) started in 1983 as a way to bring Black and Latino/a SU alumni together every three years to celebrate achievements and stay connected with the University. The theme of this year’s reunion is “Celebrating 151 Years of Black and Latino/a Excellence at SU”.
A microphone stands in front of the stage.

This led to Moreno securing her status as an EGOT, the nickname given to artists who win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. She found work in kids’ television shows like The Electric Company, for which she received a Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album in 1972, and The Muppet Show, including an Emmy-winning performance of “Fever” with the rowdy Muppet drummer Animal in 1977. In 1975, she won a Tony for her portrayal of Googie Gomez in Terence McNally’s The Ritz.

For arts and sciences and television, film and radio alumnus and long-time Moreno fan Tony Bennia, her magic and success came from her creative spirit.

Moreno’s spirited perseverance provided her a long career that has brought her in front of modern audiences with roles in Jane the Virgin and Netflix’s Latino remake of the sitcom One Day at a Time. This December, Moreno comes full circle with the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which stars Moreno, who also served as an executive producer.

She beamed while explaining how all the Sharks are played by Hispanic actors this time. In the original film, many of the Sharks were played by white actors in brownface.

And when she talked about the talents of Ariana DeBose, the actress stepping into the role of Anita, and Rachel Zegler, who will be playing Maria, Moreno burst with pride. The trail Moreno blazed invited actors like DeBose and Ziegler to see themselves in film. Now she gets to be the role model she lacked and share the wisdom her younger self needed: “Don’t let anybody tell you what you want to do in life.”

Avatar for Katherine Kiessling

is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program and a digital producer for The NewsHouse.

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Avatar for Katherine Kiessling

is a digital producer for The NewsHouse as well as a journalist, critic, and writer.