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Rita Moreno’s Role These Days Is to Play as Many as She Can

Times Staff Writer

Rita Moreno might be a little tired when she jets into San Diego today for four nights of headlining as a singer at the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops ’88 program at Hospitality Point.

Moreno is flying in from a shoot at the Beverly Hills set of a PBS movie called “The Closed Set,” in which she plays Julie Forbes, a middle-aged actress who tries to rescue her failing career with a movie role “that may well break her back.”

“It’s not going to be easy, I’ll tell you that,” Moreno said, sitting in a bathrobe in the kitchen of the Beverly Hills home that is serving as the film’s set. “This is a really demanding role.”

But, unlike her character, Moreno--perhaps best known for her Oscar-winning supporting role as Anita in the 1961 film “West Side Story"--says she is fully ready for the challenge.

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“I’m going to eat a lot to conserve my energy,” she said. “I’m going to go on an eating binge because the one thing you need when you get that tired is fuel.”

That doesn’t mean the trim, energetic performer--listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only person to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy (she actually has two Emmys)--can’t

empathize with the Forbes character.

“It’s easy because she’s an actress, too. She’s just gone over the edge. But it’s very easy to identify with growing older, feeling unwanted sometimes because you’re not Ally Sheedy,” said the 57-year-old Moreno. “All of the really terrific women (actresses) are getting older, which should be OK, and in their cases probably will be because these are powerhouse names.

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“But you’re not going to find actresses who aren’t superstars playing major, interesting roles, because they’re not bankable. You may be brilliant and a genius, but (movie makers) couldn’t care less.”

Moreno said the few roles that do exist for middle-aged actresses are rarely satisfying.

“Women over 30 are usually somebody’s mother in a ‘Porky’s’ movie, being silly and being ridiculed,” she said. “There’s just not a whole lot for them to do. It’s just coffee-pouring on a bigger scale.”

Moreno is no stranger to the limits of typecasting. Throughout her career, she said, she has battled being stereotyped by her Puerto Rican origins into the role of criminal.

“I was just asked to see a director about a film that I would have loved to make because he is a wonderful director, and it has a superb, very hot leading man, for the part of a madam of a Mexican whorehouse,” she said.

She wasn’t interested in the part of the madam but was interested in one of the other characters, also an actress.

“When I went to see him, I said, ‘I’d like to read for the part of the actress in this,’ ” she said. “It’s a delicious part. It’s only about four scenes long, but she practically steals the movie. He was very sweet about it, and I read and he put it on tape. And, just before I left, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re not interested in the madam?’

“I said, ‘No. You can just have some mean old broad play that.’ But you know, that gets depressing, that they wouldn’t think of someone like me for the actress, which is precisely what I’m doing in (the PBS) production.”

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In spite of Hollywood’s prejudices, Moreno said, her continuing presence there has helped her get more varied roles than in the past.

“I’m one of the ones that--and I’m never quite sure how it happened--got over that awful, miserable hump. Now look, I’m playing Julie Forbes for God’s sake, not Delores Alvarez. And it’s not that I don’t want to play Hispanics. It’s just as an actress I feel you should be able to play almost everything. There are some limitations, but almost everything.”

“I think what changed it for me--and I’m still one of the very few for whom this has changed--was doing all those talk shows,” she said. “I think somehow that just being me, my American me, on those shows, convinced a lot of people who were in a position to employ me that I was just as American as anybody else if I wanted to be, or I could be just as Hispanic if I wanted to be. It depends on the hairdo and the attitude.”

In spite of her success, Moreno says things are far from equitable for Hispanic performers.

“I think it sounds so terrific because (Hispanic actors) are being spoken about a lot, and we’re being acknowledged a lot,” she said. “But you still have to beg and struggle and cajole and crawl too often for a director to see you in a role that’s not necessarily Hispanic. . . .

“I think the black population still has done a lot, lot better than we have. But I think our time seems to be coming. We’re getting more aggressive about it, and I think a lot more things are being directed at Hispanics.”

Moreno began her career as a dancer shortly after arriving in New York from Puerto Rico with her divorced mother and several relatives at age 5. After taking dance lessons for a short time, she started to dance and act professionally to supplement her family’s income.

She took parts in many B movies in the ‘50s, until landing a role in the 1956 movie “The King and I.” Other movie credits include “Summer and Smoke,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Happy Birthday Gemini” and “The Four Seasons.”

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Moreno also performed in a number of plays. Her role as Googie Gomez in “The Ritz,” a Broadway comedy by Terrence McNally, won her a Tony award in 1975.

During the 1970s, she appeared in the children’s television series “The Electric Company” and won two Emmy awards for guest appearances--one on “The Muppet Show” in 1977 and the other on “The Rockford Files” in 1978.

Now Moreno, who performs frequently at nightclubs and conventions, is looking for new parts. She said she wouldn’t mind playing Desdemona in “Othello,” Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother in “Gypsy” or “anything in a Chekhov play” on a regional stage.

“I don’t even feel wistful about it, because I will” play those roles, she said. “If I can’t do it in this medium, I’ll do it in that medium.”

Moreno, who took one year of acting classes with Jeff Corey early in her career, plans to prepare this summer in classes on scene study and script reading at the Stella Adler conservatory of Acting in Los Angeles.

She said she will probably do a movie in the near future with Marlon Brando, whom she dated sporadically in a much-publicized relationship that lasted about eight years during the 1950s.

Her upcoming projects also include co-producing a CBS movie of the week with Jane Fonda.


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