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Rita Moreno reflects on Oscar-winning role in 'West Side Story'

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

If you’ve seen the musical “West Side Story,” which adapted the star-crossed lovers theme of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and set it in gang-infested Manhattan, it isn’t hard to imagine how the young performers caught up in such a fiery, high-energy film formed lifelong bonds.

Actress Rita Moreno played the key role of Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks gang. Moreno’s sizzling performance as Anita, the unwilling go-between for the doomed Maria and Tony, earned her an Oscar.

“We had a wonderful time,” Moreno says. “We have such a really strong bond, which doesn’t happen all the time. It’s because the movie was so special, but also because it was the first film for a lot of the younger people. We really stuck to each other.”

Moreno, 82, will appear Sept. 26-28 at the Redford Theatre in Detroit for its three screenings of “West Side Story.” Before seeing the rival Sharks and Jets leap and pivot through New York streets on a full-sized movie screen (not to mention Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in all their full screen youth and beauty), fans will be able to see Moreno in person at a special “red carpet” event one hour and 15 minutes before each screening.

In 1960, the actress was recommended to “West Side Story” director Robert Wise by choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins had worked with Moreno on the 1956 Rodgers & Hammerstein film “The King and I.” It was yet another ethnic role for the Puerto Rican-born actress, who played the Indian girl Tuptim.

She was a competent dancer, but in the Spanish style, so Moreno had to adjust to the film’s cool, modern style of dancing. “I had the hardest time. I had to learn it from scratch,” she says.

Moreno and her surviving castmates still have dinner occasionally in Los Angeles. “I’m there if I can be; Russ (Tamblyn, leader of the Jets) has been there ... I still call them the kids.”

Of those “kids,” George Chakiris — her ‘Nardo’ — is now 79, as is Tamblyn. Beymer, who played Tony, is 75, and Wood, who played Maria, died in a drowning accident at age 43 in 1981. All were in their 20s during filming (Moreno was just under the wire, at 29).

Chakiris, who is godfather to Moreno’s daughter, always impressed her with his style. “It’s called elegance. Even when he would do the Sharks steps, somehow he had a way of doing them that made it so spectacularly elegant. He still carries himself that way,” Moreno says.

“West Side Story” continues to engage audiences in part because of the enduring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but also because of those breathtaking, acrobatic dance numbers.

“Those numbers will never, ever be out of fashion or out of mind,” Moreno says. “Jerome Robbins was a genius. I’m so very very proud to have the opportunity to work with him.”

To achieve those high-flying dance numbers, Robbins was rough on the cast.

“He was tough and he was mean, on the verge of cruel,” Moreno admits. “His specialty was humiliating people ... you cannot have a group of kids doing the same steps and expect everyone to be exactly on the mark, it is simply not possible. Which is why he was eventually fired from the movie.”

In the stage and movie versions, Maria, Anita, Bernardo and the Sharks are all supposed to be Puerto Rican. In reality, Moreno was the only Puerto Rican — she was brought to New York at age 5 — among the main cast members, although several of the dancers were from there. ’Nardo was, of course, played by Chakiris, who is Greek-American. Natalie Wood (Maria) was of Russian descent.

What made it worse for Moreno was that she, Wood, Chakiris and all the actors playing Puerto Ricans were daubed with the same shade of dark orange pancake makeup.

“As Puerto Ricans, we are so many different colors, some of us are jet black, some of us are brown, some olive-skinned, some very fair,” Moreno says. “We really come from Taino Indians, the Puerto Rican Indians, so many of us are copper-toned. But many invaders came through Puerto Rica, the Dutch, the French and the Spaniards, so we are many colors.”

Wood, who was only 22 during filming, stayed apart from the rowdy dancers. “Dancers are gypsies; we’re raucous and we carry on and we laugh hard,” Moreno says. “She was out of her element.”

Moreno is one of a very elite group — reportedly, eight living performers — who have won the show-biz grand slam of awards: the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony and the Grammy.

She was surprised to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1962 for “West Side Story,” because her award came at the end of the night, after the film had already scooped up several Oscars. After that, Moreno took an extended hiatus from filmmaking.

“Once and for all I was the Hispanic stereotype,” she says. “Nobody ever thought of offering me anything else. I thought, if I don’t ever work again, ha ha, I showed them.”

But she did work, almost continuously, on the stage, and broke the spitfire stereotype by playing an Irish teacher, an Italian widow, an Englishwoman and an uptight Southern matron. She won a Tony Award for her role in 1975’s “The Ritz.”

She also earned two Emmys, one for the recurring character of a prostitute in “The Rockford Files,” the late James Garner’s ’70s series (her other Emmy was for “The Muppet Show,” and her Grammy for “The Electric Company”).

Moreno and Garner were longtime friends and often found themselves at the same events, including 1963’s March on Washington. She recalls the actor chugging Pepto Bismol to offset an ulcer on the plane to Washington, D.C. He was upset that he was going to kill his career and disappoint fans. “But he came anyway,” Moreno says. “He came because he thought it was the right thing to do.”

Happily married for years, with a grown daughter, Moreno had an up and down relationship before that with Marlon Brando.

“He needed women very much, but he treated them very poorly,” Moreno says. “He didn’t trust them, he said, because of his mother, who abandoned him. But at some point you want to say, ‘Get over it.’ He really ruined a lot of women. He was impossible, sexy, charismatic and had a gorgeous intelligence.”

She had a less-enduring relationship with Elvis Presley. “He was no hound dog!” Moreno laughs. “Very sweet, nothing wrong with him, just a sweet country boy.”

As many times as she’s seen it, it’s a thrill for Moreno to watch “West Side Story.” “It looks so wonderful on a big screen,” she says. “People who’ve seen it on TV just can’t get over how different it is in a theater. That brilliant opening ... the (gang) whistle.”

She trills that eerie gang whistle down the phone line. It sends chills.

See the star in Detroit

Rita Moreno will appear at the Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser, in Detroit, Sept. 26-28, for all three screenings of the 1961 musical “West Side Story,” in which she stars with Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn.

Showings: 8 p.m. Sept. 26, 8 p.m. Sept. 27 and 1 p.m. Sept. 28. Tickets: $7.

Moreno will have a red carpet arrival one hour and 15 minutes before each screening. Autographs and photo opportunities will be available for a fee.

For tickets, go to .
Tags: 1961 film, interviews, rita moreno
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