In 2007, I guest lectured about media to a class of students at the University of Arizona. Days earlier I had the honor of doing a phone interview with the legendary Rita Moreno, who was filming the then upcoming CBS drama "Cane." And I vividly recall my enthusiasm telling the class, and my disappointment on how they responded. Sadly, there was complete silence in the room. None of these students knew who she was.
"Oh, she won an Academy Award for the movie 'West Side Story,'" I quickly pointed out.
Guess what? They never heard of "West Wide Story" either (which, ironically, I recently attended a recent screening of thanks to Fathom Events). So, it was then and there that I recognized the importance of educating this millennial generation on these pivotal faces who have helped shape the media landscape.
Rita Moreno is one of those people.
Given the monumental success of "West Side Story," I naturally assumed she was in great demand following her Oscar win.
"Basically, I was hired to play every ethnic part the studios needed," she told me, citing parts where she had to portray Indian, Native American and Arabian characters. "No one knew what to do with a young Latina actress, particularly one they perceived as fiery as my character as Anita in ‘West Side Story.’ So, what everyone thought had to be one of the best times in my career was actually one of its worst."
"Remember, this was the 1950s and the 1960s and I looked different from the traditional actress," she added. "It was a struggle, but I was determined that one day that someone, somehow, would recognize what I had to offer. And I think my endurance only solidifies the progress we have made in on-screen diversity."
"Cane" at the time was a show about something rarely seen on television: a wealthy and accomplished Latino family who were together and supportive of each other. It only lasted one season, unfortunately. But the ultimate success of Moreno, now 86 and a current co-star of the revival of sitcom "One Day at a Time" on Netflix (also with a Latino cast) has paved the way for more diversity on screen.
This Saturday, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award-winning actress will have another honor under her proverbial belt: the 2018 Career Achievement Award from the Television Critics Association (a.k.a. TCA, which represents more than 200 professional journalists and bloggers who cover television for publications across the United States and Canada).
"A singer, dancer and actor without peer, a veteran of comedy and drama, shows for the youngest of children and the most mature of adults, Rita Moreno has been one of the medium's most versatile performers for decades," said TCA President Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter in a statement. "I can't think of anybody more deserving of joining the ultra-rare EGOT club."
EGOT stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, which is an accomplishment only a few have achieved. But, more importantly, I credit Rita Moreno in great part for the more diverse representation of society as it should be in media today.
Film historians often credit the aging process leading to Moreno’s ultimate long-term success. I recall speaking with the late (and great) Robert Osborne from Turner Classic Movies, who explained part of her later durability as no longer being associated with the spitfire type from "West Side Story." "She made great strides playing a hooker in Mike Nichols’ ‘Carnal Knowledge’ (in 1971)," he told me. "She was also the performer singing to kids on PBS’ ‘Electric Company.’ And there were so many different things in between and after."
One recent role, in fact, was the mother of Fran Drescher on TV Land sitcom "Happily Divorced," which segued that former Latina sexpot to the role of stereotypical Jewish mother. So, yes, there is not anything this performer cannot do.
"I would like to see better representation of Latinas in Hollywood," Moreno recently said at the 43rd annual Gracie Awards (which recognizes exemplary programming created by women, for women and about women in all facets of media and entertainment). "I think we need to take some very valuable lessons from the black community. They did it and they did it really well, and good for them. We will forge ahead."
As the landscape of television continues to evolve, there have been positive strides in the representation of people of color, women and the LGBTQ community (both in front of and behind the camera).
"You talk a little bit about inclusion or representative programming, and our 2018-2019 schedule will reflect that 30 of our 37 new series regulars are women and/or people of color," said The CW president Mark Pedowitz after unveiling its programming plans for next season. "Four of our 12 series have casts that are majority people of color, and all five new series have women writers and executive producers attached."
CBS, in particular, has made a noble attempt to expand its look next season. And while diversity on the small screen still does fall short of the American population, particularly in this grand melting pot we live in, 11 years after I spoke with Moreno that progress continues.
Thank you, Rita Moreno.