At an age when rocking a chair is a very respectable occupation, Rita Moreno is much too busy rocking screens large and small to sit still. She’s part of a quartet of screen icons—with Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Lily Tomlin—driving the box office hit “80 for Brady.” She recently dropped in on the NBC comedy “Lopez vs Lopez,” and soon bounces back to the big screen in the action franchise chapter “Fast X” opposite Vin Diesel.
“My career has experienced a resurgence that is absolutely astonishing to me,” says Moreno, 91, adding, “I honestly don’t understand it, but I accept it. With pleasure.”
Fans will have a rare opportunity to explore this recent phenomenon and the greater Moreno legacy on Sunday in a moderated conversation with Dania Matos, University of California, Berkeley Vice Chancellor for the Division of Equity & Inclusion, at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley courtesy of Cal Performances.
“I used to do a lot of talks and I found that, to my delight, actually, it was way more fun to have someone engage me in conversation,” she says, “and I have such wonderful stories to tell.”
She’s told some of them in the 2011 stage biography “Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup” that ran at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and in her 2013 memoir.
The documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” in 2021 added more to her personal narrative and arrived alongside the Steven Spielberg directed re-adaptation of the film musical “West Side Story” which featured Moreno as executive producer, singer of the anthem “Somewhere,” and acting in a new role created specifically for her.
“There’s still more to tell,” says Moreno by phone from her Berkeley hills home. That’s not surprising given a legacy that spans over seven decades of film, television, stage and recording accomplishments.
She became the third-ever EGOT (Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony winner) in 1977, years before the acronym was coined by “Miami Vice” actor Philip Michael Thomas.
Her first encounter with “West Side Story” in 1961 earned her the Oscar playing the strong-willed and wise Anita. Her two Emmys were for very different guest roles, one on “The Rockford Files” opposite James Garner, and one on “The Muppet Show” opposite a very different, very green leading man. Then, her groundbreaking work on “The Electric Company” brought her a Grammy for her contribution to the children’s show’s soundtrack album.
In 1975 she earned a Tony Award for an acting opportunity she helped create.
“I was doing a Jimmy Coco play on Broadway called ‘The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and I used to do this crazy little Puerto Rican character, and it broke him up so hard,” she recalls. “He invited me to a party one time while we were doing the play and had me do this character who had no name in front of Terrence [McNally]. I did a couple of bits,” she continues, “with the same Puerto Rican accent and Terrence literally almost fell off his chair. When the party was over, he came to me and he said, ‘I am definitely going to write up a play for this character’ who at the time, had no name. He wrote the play. He tried it out at Yale, where he used to do that with his plays, and he named the character Rita, then in quotes “Googie Gomez” and it was played by a young, wonderful dancer who was a drama student a deal at the time named Carmen de Lavallade. A great dancer, actually.”
When “The Ritz” started its path to Broadway, McNally insisted Moreno play the Tony-winning role of Googie Gomez, which, Moreno adds, “is a good thing in as much as I invented her.”
“A Conversation with Rita Moreno” is at 3 p.m. Feb. 26 in Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $36-$82; go to calperformances.org or call (510) 642-9988.