By Dan Harris
Before Jennifer Lopez and Sophia Vergara, there was Rita Moreno.
The Hispanic heartthrob from “West Side Story” is one of the few human beings ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy. And later this month, she will be inducted into the American Songbook Hall of Fame.
“I’m astonished,” she told ABC News. “I feel very honored.”
At 81, Moreno still has the moves and the mental agility of someone decades younger.
“I wake up humming,” she told ABC News recently at her home in Berkeley, Calif. “This is the prime of my life at 81. I am the happiest Hispanic I’ve ever met. Truly. I’m a very, very happy woman.”
Moreno currently appears with Fran Drescher in TV Land’s “Happily Divorced” and just finished a movie. The autobiography she’s written, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” tells an extraordinary immigrant story.
Her mother, who gave birth to her at the age of 17, brought Moreno to New York from Puerto Rico when Moreno was 5. Her mother worked in a sweatshop while Moreno struggled to adjust.
“I was not thrilled,” she said. “It was cold. It was really gray. It was grimy. There was nothing about it [the city] to make me think that this was going to be a happy life. … It was a shock. I was not happy. I didn’t speak English.”
When she turned 17, she moved to Hollywood and signed a seven-year contract with MGM.
“It was obvious that if you were a Hispanic person, you got called all these terrible names,” she said. “The last thing I wanted in the world to be was to be a Puerto Rican girl.
“There were no role models then for me, so I wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor … Lana Turner,” she added. “I didn’t like being Hispanic. I feel sad about it because it was so futile. I wasted a lot of time trying to be what I wasn’t.”
She said studio bosses never let her forget her heritage, however. The only roles she got were as minorities – Polynesians, Arabs, American Indians, East Indians.
“I had to invent, for myself, an accent. I decided to call it ‘the universal ethnic accent,’” she said. “It’s so nice to be able to laugh at that now.”
The turning point came in 1961, when “West Side Story” happened. She also joined the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“I really became very proud of being a Hispanic,” Moreno said.
The streets of Spanish Harlem in New York erupted when she won the Oscar for best supporting actress.
“When I got that Oscar, I said to myself: ‘OK … this is it. I’m not going to do those demeaning roles anymore,’” she said. “I didn’t do a film for seven years after ‘West Side Story,’ and the Oscar and the Golden Globe.”
She eventually did more movies, branched out into television and fell into some high-profile romances with Marlon Brando and even Elvis.
Nowadays, she said, she has no plans to slow down.
“I have it all,” she said. “I have my daughter, my two grandsons, whom I worship. I have a career that’s still going on. … Who could ask for more?”