When Rita Moreno received a call last summer from SAG-AFTRA co-President Ken Howard, her first thought was that something was wrong.
"I was in the car on my Bluetooth and he said, 'Rita, This is Ken Howard.' I said, 'Why the hell are you calling me? Do I owe dues? What's going on?' "
When he got a word in edge-wise, Howard told her the reason for the call — Moreno had been chosen the 50th recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award. Morgan Freeman, who starred with Moreno over 40 years ago in the classic PBS kids' series "The Electric Company," will present her with the award during the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday night.
Stars such as Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, Betty White and Shirley Temple have received the award. Moreno is the first Latino woman to earn the honor.
She was speechless when she learned the news. "I said, 'Let me call you back, I think I'm in shock.' I stopped the car when I could and I called him back. He said it is an extraordinary honor. I said, 'You don't have to tell me anything. It's the closest thing to getting an Oscar.' "
Moreno would know something about that. She won an Oscar for her supporting role as the fiery Anita — who could forget her pulsating "America" number? — in 1961's "West Side Story." In fact, she's the only Latino to have won an Oscar, a Tony ("The Ritz"), an Emmy (for guest starring on "The Muppet Show" and "The Rockford Files") and a Grammy ("The Electric Company Album").
She's received countless other honors as well, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts. She quips that she's earned so many honors over the years that her mantelpiece is sagging.
Over a glass of wine at a Beverly Hilton Hotel restaurant recently, Moreno is a force of nature whose vitality belies her 82 years. The diminutive actress is outspoken, poignant and funny.
"I have seen her over the years and she's so positive," Howard said about Moreno. "She's had her ups and downs — haven't we all? — but she has a vibrant personality."
And she remains a busy working actress. She just finished a run as Fran Drescher's mother in the TV Land comedy "Happily Divorced" and appears in the upcoming indie drama "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" with Gena Rowlands.
In between her acting assignments, she published her 2013 autobiography, "Rita Moreno: A Memoir," in which she not only talked about her career but her tempestuous love affair with Marlon Brando, which led to a suicide attempt in 1961. "We became obsessive lovers," said Moreno, of her romance with Brando. She later married cardiologist Leonard Gordon, who died in 2010.
The Puerto Rican-born actress, who has had her SAG card for more than six decades, has struggled over the years to avoid typecasting. It's been an uphill battle.
As an ingenue under contract to MGM in the early 1950s, she went from what Moreno describes as one "dusky maiden" role to another — she played Polynesian, Thai, Arabian and Indian. She thought of herself as "the house ethnic."
Moreno laughed at the memory. "I should have had this little kit with a shoe box that had dark Egyptian pancake makeup, two hoop earrings and an ankle bracelet."
Born Rosita Alverio, Moreno arrived in the Bronx with her mother at the age of 5. As a youngster she performed in nightclubs and made her Broadway debut at age 13 in "Skydrift." Then using her stepfather's last name of Moreno, she was put under contract to MGM while still a teen. A casting director changed her first name to Rita. The newly named Rita Moreno made her first film for the studio, the Mario Lanza musical "The Toast of New Orleans" in 1950.
She admitted she "thought twice" about taking these roles but "then always accepted because you know when you are out of work for a month or two months you'd be thinking would I get another job? I wanted to be in the movies."
Moreno thought she would break the typecasting mold when Gene Kelly hired her to play flapper actress Zelda Zanders in the 1952 classic musical "Singin' in the Rain." But she went back to playing ethnic characters, including the ill-fated Burmese slave girl Tuptim in the 1956 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I." The role may not have stretched her, but she did get to work with the legendary — and demanding — choreographer-director Jerome Robbins, who oversaw the dance sequences.
"He was the one who recommended me for Anita," she said.
Though Robbins was famously difficult to work with — he was fired from "West Side Story," which he was choreographing and co-directing with Robert Wise — Moreno thinks of him fondly.
"I do believe I worked with a genius," she said of Robbins. "If he were alive and said, 'Rita would you be interested doing this?' I would drop everything."
Screen Actors Guild Awards
When: 5 and 7 p.m. Saturday
Channel: TNT and TBS