Rita Moreno is 88 but has never been busier, with the Tuesday return of her sitcom, “One Day at a Time,” and the upcoming release of a “West Side Story” remake, which she acted in and co-produced.
“One Day,” a sitcom about a Latinx family, was canceled by Netflix but picked up by Pop, home of “Schitt’s Creek,” after fans launched a campaign to bring it back. Moreno has been in tons of television shows, including semiregular appearances on “Bless This Mess” (7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Ch. 5). But she’s especially thrilled about “One Day,” in which she plays the matriarch of a clan that grapples with real-life challenges.
At a fan event around the time the pickup was announced last summer, she discovered that others also are thrilled. To a deafening degree.
“The whole cast met with fans, about 200 people in that room with us, and I’ve never done this before because I feel it’s insulting to people, but they were cheering so loud that I had to put my fingers in my ears. They were just screaming with happiness,” said Moreno by phone in November, days before she had to cancel a concert appearance at the Ordway Center because of laryngitis.
She thinks the TV show (8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Pop) has struck a chord for a variety of reasons: its representation of Latinx characters and of multiple generations of a family, as well as its recognition that laughter helps us through difficult times.
“It’s funny and very moving,” said Moreno. “It’s easy to switch from comedy to something sad and not do it well, and that’s what you usually see when shows attempt to do that. It’s unskillful and clumsy. We are so good at it — and, by the way, when I say ‘we,’ I’m really speaking of [producer] Norman Lear and the writers. It’s so hard to do it well, but they do.”
Moreno probably is best known as one of the first to achieve the Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony Award quadruple crown, an honor she racked up before the term EGOT was coined in 1984. The final bauble in Moreno’s EGOT was the Emmy, which she won in both 1977 and 1978 for guest appearances on, respectively, “The Muppets” and James Garner’s detective show, “The Rockford Files,” a plum part she was offered at a time when there weren’t a lot of plum parts coming to her.
“Jim was such a dear and a very good friend of mine,” Moreno said. “We were on the same trip together, to witness the March on Washington when Martin Luther King spoke. We were right there. Jimmy was terrified, very worried about what it would do to his career. But what makes him so special is that he attended the event nonetheless. Because, at that time, it really could have had a bad impact.”
Activism remains an important part of her life. Moreno has her share of #MeToo stories, she says, and feels a responsibility to acknowledge her bad times. In part, that’s because, after a 1990 TV interview with Bob Costas in which she discussed a suicide attempt, she saw the impact her voice could have.
“Six months later, I’m in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, which is huge. Across the lobby, I see a woman frantically waving at me, and I stood still because she obviously wanted to talk,” Moreno recalled.
“She embraced me, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And I asked, ‘Why are you thanking me?’ She said, ‘You saved my life.’ She had been watching that interview and she was going to do it that night. But she said that when I spoke about there always being hope and that I hoped people would look at me as an example of that, she didn’t do it.”
Chita or Rita?
On a lighter note, a reporter, hoping the question wasn’t offensive, asked if Moreno knows about “Chita/Rita.” Written for the parody show “Forbidden Broadway,” it’s a song in which an actor playing Chita Rivera, Broadway’s original Anita in “West Side Story,” complains about being confused with Moreno, who won an Oscar for the same role in the movie. The song goes, “She got all the glory but don’t let that cat in/I’m the fiery Latin/I was the world’s first Anita.”
“Of course!” answered Moreno. Then she launched into the number, sung to the tune of “America” from “West Side Story”: “My name is Chita and not Rita/My name is Rita and not Chita.”
“I think it’s hilarious,” continued Moreno, who has spoken about the song with Rita, er, Chita. “We’re good friends. We’ve done some stuff together over the years.”
Whatever she does in her career, “West Side Story” will remain a high point, and the planned December release of the Steven Spielberg remake, good or bad, will be a reminder of that.
“I’m excited beyond words about it, because I also have a producer credit,” said Moreno, reporting that Tony Kushner (“Angels in America,” “Lincoln”) wrote a new part for her as the widow of the guy who owns the shop where the Jets hang out. That means that between the two movie versions of the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired musical, Moreno will have played both Anita, the character based on Juliet’s confidante, the Nurse, and Valentina, a character based on Romeo’s confidant, Friar Laurence.
“Making it was the thrill of my life. My God. Full circle!” said Moreno.
Although, if it really were full circle, wouldn’t the “West Side Story” remake result in Moreno racking up another Oscar for the same story that earned her the first one 58 years ago?
“Oh, my gosh, I’m not even thinking about something like that,” Moreno replied.
She’s wise not to count any chickens. But another trip to the podium would let her improve on her first Oscar acceptance speech, which, in its entirety, was, “I can’t believe it. Good Lord. I leave you with that.”
Surely, given Hollywood’s love of drama and comebacks, as well as Moreno’s durability in the business, it’s time for a do-over?