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Rita Moreno on enduring racism and sexism, the scene that won her an Oscar, and the new "West Side Story"

Rita Moreno: The 60 Minutes Interview
Rita Moreno: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:35

Rita Moreno is best known as Anita in the movie "West Side Story." The 1961 musical broke box office records and won ten Oscars including best picture and for Moreno, best supporting actress. Not too shabby for a kid from Puerto Rico who arrived in New York with nothing. She says her showbiz longevity is sprinkled with serendipity, but we warn you, beneath the gold plate of her Oscar there is a dark Hollywood tale of pain and betrayal, reinvention and resilience.  She's only the third actor to 'EGOT' – winning the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.  And as Moreno approaches 90 with a new "West Side Story" coming out– we found an artist who is witty and candid.

Bill Whitaker: Ready if you are? 

Rita Moreno: Yes.. You want me to slate myself?

Bill Whitaker: Yes, please 

Rita Moreno: Right. Rita Moreno with one of the world's handsomest men of color. . . ever. 

Bill Whitaker: Ok, interview over. 

Rita Moreno: We're done.

Bill Whitaker: Can't do any better than that. 

Bill Whitaker: Ok, I just want to ask you about the obvious, all of your honors and awards. 

Rita Moreno: Ain't it grand? 

Rita Moreno: There's really a lot of stuff here. 

Bill Whitaker: Because you've done a lot of stuff. 

Rita Moreno: Every one of them surprise the living daylights out of me. But it's not about the awards. Don't let that sound like I'm being modest. I am not modest. I know what I have earned. I'm up to my ass in some pretty spectacular acknowledgments. But that's not what a career is. A career is working.

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Bill Whitaker and Rita Moreno

And Rita Moreno will be the first to say none of it came easy. What fueled that flawless swirl of Violet as Anita in "West Side Story" was sheer willpower.

Rita Moreno: I never stopped rehearsing. In fact, somebody told me recently that they were a dance extra on the mambo at the gym scene. And one of the girls turned to her when we had ten minutes off, and she says, "Look at Rita Moreno. She's still rehearsing." She says, "That's what you have to do to become a star."

Bill Whitaker: But what is it about you to have achieved this? 

Rita Moreno: I think that perseverance is my middle name. It's just something-- truly, that I think I inherited from my mom. 

In 1936, Moreno's mother, Rosa Maria, and wide-eyed 5-year-old Rosita, fled poverty in Puerto Rico to start a new life in New York– they landed in the Bronx. 

Rita Moreno: Or as we still call it "The Brong." 

Here she first encountered the sting of racism. 

Rita Moreno: I was being called words like, "spic." The trouble with that is that you grow up believing that you don't have any value.

Bill Whitaker: You grew up thinking you didn't have value? 

Rita Moreno: Oh, I grew up filled with self-loathing because I was a Puerto Rican. When you're little, you're told you're not worth anything, you believe it.

She found sanctuary and her passion in a Spanish dance studio and, by 17, Moreno's dramatic looks and flair caught the eye of a talent scout, who got her a meeting with none other than MGM's studio chief, Louis B. Mayer. 

Rita Moreno: And he said, "Young lady, how would you like to be under contract to MGM studios?"

Bill Whitaker: Just like that?

Rita Moreno: Just like that. 

Without so much as a screen test, in 1950, Rita Moreno found herself making movies in Hollywood. 

Rita Moreno: I went to the Commissary for the very first time, and that very day, in walks Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner. I thought I would have a heart attack.

Bill Whitaker: You. Little Rosita had arrived.

Rita Moreno:  And I really felt like one of them.

But with the Hollywood glamour came studio obligations: publicity dates for paparazzi and swank parties where the teenaged starlet found herself fighting off insistent sexual harassment from powerful men.

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Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno: It wrenches my heart, mostly that I didn't know how to handle that kind of thing. 

Bill Whitaker: Why would you be expected to? I mean that's. . . 

Rita Moreno: Well, it was very common. The casting couch there were a million jokes about that.

But Rita Moreno knew it was nothing to laugh about. 

Rita Moreno: I was raped by my agent when I was-- I was either 16 or 17. I was sitting on the couch next to him and he said, "Such a pretty girl," and he put his hand on my cheek. And mounted me. I struggled, but he did it all. 

She told us she was the family's breadwinner and had to keep working, so the insecure Rita Moreno felt she had no choice but to keep her agent. 

Bill Whitaker: Is this the source of the insecurity? 

Rita Moreno: Oh, is this at the bottom of all the insecurity? No question. 

Bill Whitaker: Why are you comfortable speaking out? 

Rita Moreno: I want women to know that all the awards in the world will never make up for the things I have experienced in my life. The be-all and end-all is respect and self-respect which took me a long time to earn. 

Hollywood can be hard on women, but for a woman of color in the 1950s, it could be corrosive.

Moreno got roles as native girls in B-musicals, caked in brown makeup, all with a vaguely Spanish accent. 

Rita Moreno: Dusky Maidens. 

Bill Whitaker: Those were the types of roles you were getting? 

Rita Moreno: With the accent. It hurts me to watch me doing stuff that is humiliating.

Bill Whitaker: You were working because of these roles. 

Rita Moreno: I accepted a lot of those, because there was nothing else. And I took them with a lot of shame. 

But she takes great pride in three scenes in an MGM blockbuster. 

Rita Moreno: "Singin' in the Rain" where I had a very tiny part.

She played famous flapper, Zelda Zanders, finally able to strut her stuff and show her true face. 

Rita Moreno: It was wonderful because I didn't need to put on that muddy brown makeup. I didn't have to speak with an accent. And I thought, "That's going to change everything."

Instead, she was dropped by MGM. She found work with other studios. And that smouldering passion to perform landed her, like a bombshell, on the cover of Life Magazine in 1954. That picture won her a new studio contract and the attention of one of the greatest actors of an era. 

Rita Moreno: Marlon Brando. Marlon took one look and he just fell. 

Bill Whitaker: He fell? 

Rita Moreno: For me. 

Bill Whitaker: Yeah.

Rita Moreno: I had a Fox contract. I met the love of my life. All was good. What could be bad?

Rita Moreno's "West Side Story" prediction 01:32

Marlon Brando takes up three chapters of Moreno's memoir and eight years of her life. Their stormy relationship nearly killed her. Brando was married when Moreno became pregnant with his child. She says he pressured her have an abortion. Afterward, she attempted suicide. 

Bill Whitaker: Why did you try to take your life? 

Rita Moreno: What I was really trying to do was kill that bad side of me that kept going back to him. That bad woman who didn't respect me, who was me, another side of me. 

Bill Whitaker: Well, thank God you failed. 

Rita Moreno: You're not kidding. 

Six months later, in the fall of 1961, people around the world got to see her playing Anita in one of the greatest musical films of all time. 

Rita Moreno: I wanted that part so badly—

Bill Whitaker: Why? What was it about Anita that made you want it so much? 

Rita Moreno: Oh! It was the part for a Hispanic girl. 

Rita Moreno: Anita, the one who had a sense of herself. A sense of dignity. And I had to portray that. And it felt really good. 

Bill Whitaker: Well, you talk about yourself like you're this bundle of insecurities and everything, but what you put on that screen, was anything but.

Rita Moreno: I could pretend I had self-respect. I'm an actress. 

Her performance was electrifying and, she says, one of the hardest things she's ever done. 

Rita Moreno: I hadn't danced in years. And I didn't dance those kind of dances. That's called jazz. I never was that-- I was a Spanish dancer. Castanets. So, when I went into "West Side Story," I had my work cut out for me.

Her most powerful scene required her to dig down into feelings she'd long tried to bury.

Rita Moreno: When we did the rape scene during rehearsals when they were mauling me and all that, the boys. I pushed them away, and started to cry, and I could not stop. All of those scars that I thought were healed just opened up. 

Rita Moreno: I was like a wounded animal when I did it again. 

Bill Whitaker: Is that on the screen? 

Rita Moreno: And that is—yes when she says, "Don't you touch me."

Rita Moreno: And I thought, "How would Marlon say that as an actor?" And it was through my teeth "Don't you touch me." That is the scene that I know got me the Oscar. 

In 1962, Moreno became the first Latina to win an Academy Award for acting. 

Bill Whitaker: So your phone must have been ringing off the hook after that—

Rita Moreno: No, the phone wasn't ringing off the hook. After West Side Story I couldn't get a job except in gang movies, lesser ones.

Bill Whitaker: Your career did not just take off? 

Rita Moreno: Hardly.

Bill Whitaker: So you took off.

Rita Moreno: Yeah.

60 Seconds with Rita Moreno 00:52

She moved to New York and found new love and new roles on Broadway. She married a cardiologist, the late Lenny Gorden and they had a daughter, Fernanda. It was here in the 70s, alongside Morgan Freeman, that Moreno won her first Grammy with the TV show, "The Electric Company." Then, a Tony for her outrageous Broadway creation, Googie Gomez. And with the help of a green frog, an Emmy rounded out the EGOT. If all the puppets and slapstick give the impression Moreno had gone to the light side, look again. In the gritty, HBO drama, "Oz" in the 1990s, she played prison psychologist Sister Peter Marie. 

Bill Whitaker: A different kind of nun. 

Rita Moreno: Different kind of nun.

Rita Moreno: It was the salvation of me as an actress, not a career. 

Since "Oz," Moreno has kept working straight into the 21st century: movies, TV, a sitcom with legendary producer Norman Lear. She's been working non-stop for 75 years. And now this.

In Steven Spielberg's version of "West Side Story," Moreno plays Valentina, the widow of Doc, who owned the candy store in the original. She's also an executive producer of the film being released December 10. 

Steven Spielberg: She's part of the ensemble. 

We talked with Steven Spielberg remotely. 

Steven Spielberg: I wanted her to really, you know, bridge the legacy of "West Side Story" and to inspire our young cast. 

And unlike the first movie, Spielberg set a mandate that all Puerto Rican characters be played by Hispanic actors.

Rita Moreno: I think Hollywood has changed. I think there are still things yet to be addressed. The representation that Hispanics get is almost nil. There are so many talented people among Hispanics. Jennifer Lopez can't be the only one.

That's why Moreno was thrilled to be part of this "West Side Story."

Bill Whitaker: She sings? 

Steven Spielberg: She sings and she acts and even though she doesn't have a dance number, I have home movies of Rita dancing with all the Sharks and the Jets. She has not lost her mojo as a dancer, at all. 

Rita Moreno recalls her decorated career 02:45

Rita Moreno, who is about to turn 90, hasn't lost a step. She admits she has stumbled along the way, but she has refused to stay down. 

Rita Moreno: I think some people would say I was tough. I think it's resilience because if I'm tough, there's a part of me then that's become hard. It's simply not in my nature. 

Bill Whitaker: But resilient? 

Rita Moreno: Resilient is what I am. I'm a real bouncer-backer.

Produced by Michael Karzis. Associate producer, Katie Kerbstat Jacobson. Broadcast associates, Emilio Almonte and Eliza Costas. Edited by Warren Lustig.

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