If you’ve seen Rita Moreno as Lydia Riera on One Day at a Time, you know the lady knows how to make an entrance.
Lydia, a retired singer-dancer, likes to dramatically part the curtain that separates the kitchen from the living room in her extended family’s crowded Cuban-American house. Then she bursts through like she’s about to take a bow at Radio City Music Hall.
“She’s hilarious. I just love playing her,” says Moreno on the phone from her home in Berkeley, Calif. . “She’s great. She’s so vain!”
Viewers will get to see more of Moreno starting Thanksgiving Monday as Global premieres new, back-to-back episodes from the truncated fourth season. The sitcom, which was based on the Norman Lear original which ran from 1975 to 1984, was revived first by Netflix before being cancelled after three seasons — then quickly scooped up — by Pop TV in the States and now Global in Canada.
“We’re the little train that could; like a cat with nine lives,” says Moreno. She plays the grandmother in the three generation household. Justina Machado — currently seen weekly as a celebrity contestant on Dancing with the Stars — plays One Day at a Time‘s lead character, single mom and army vet Penelope Alvarez.
Has Moreno been rooting for Machado on Dancing with the Stars?
“Are you kidding?” she asks. “Of course I am. I think it takes a lot of balls to just submit yourself to this kind of experience and boy, she’s got them. Let’s just say she’s got big ovaries.”
Moreno, clearly, is old enough to say what she wants. She’ll be 89 in December, as hard to believe during a spirited and far-ranging conversation with her on the phone as it is each week for viewers at home.
Born in Puerto Rico, Moreno was also clearly blessed with big ovaries along with plenty of talent. She made her Broadway debut while barely in her teens. Her television credits date back before the true dawn of regularly-scheduled network television. She had a small part in the classic Hollywood movie musical “Singing in the Rain” and became a sensation in 1961 as Anita when she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the ground-breaking musical “West Side Story.”
Moreno never stopped working or winning. She’s one of the few artists who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — the covetted “EGOT” quadruple-play.
“I’ve gone past EGOT,” she told me. “Now I have the Peabody award as well.”
There’s no acronym for that yet, she adds. “The PEGOT? No, I don’t think so.” There’s no special EGOT trophy case either. “Just shelves,” says Mareno.
It must give you great satisfaction to see all those trophies, representing such wonderful work.
It does until I’m out of work, and then I say, “How come I’m not working?”
Do you really still feel that way?
Of course I do. It’s not like people are beating my door down…
You must take some solace that there are more roles for older actors and actresses now.
Not many but yes. One of the problems is older actors are not considered for regular roles. It always has to be an older person. Actually, it doesn’t have to be. If you’re a wonderful actor, you should be able to play almost any part. Why not? Nobody thinks of that ever ever.
To what do you attribute your great health and vigor?
Oh, I think it has everything to do with genes.
One Day at a Time had to halt production last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What was that like for you?
It just got so scary. Everybody said, “You know what? You really need to leave the studio.” And then everybody said, “Well I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.” Ha! My manager, who’s also my dear friend, he said, “Don’t count on it. That’s not going to happen.” I said, “You think?” He said, “Pack stuff from the apartment in LA that you know you will need and want because you are not going back for a very long time.” He was dead on.
Have you ever seen anything like this before in terms of a production shutdown or just society shutting down?
Never. I’ve never lived through anything like this in my life.
I’m waiting for my ballot by the way – I’m very sequestered because I’ve been extremely careful… also because of my age which doesn’t help things. I really want to put that ballot in myself personally. I’m going to fill it out, sign it and have a friend take me to a ballot place.
It should be interesting on November 3rd.
You know this isn’t going to end on November 3rd.
Speaking of One Day at a Time… I love the first new episode. Ray Romano does that lovely cameo as a census taker. Have you ever worked with him before?
No and I happen to be an enormous fan of his. I still watch reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. By the way, one of our head writers, Mike Royce, was one of the producer-writers on Everybody Loves Raymond. He knows how to write for family. Believe me it takes a skill. You’re not just writing gags, you’re writing about very specific chracters and boy do we have wonderful writers.
Our other head writer is Gloria Calderon Kellett who is Cuban. She based my character on her mom. I wear my hair exactly the way her mom does – it’s a wig.
Have you ever worked with Norman Lear before?
No and this is the joy of my life, I so adore that man. I’ve always loved his work, and I’m so pleased and proud actually to be a part of something he gave birth to.
It’s surprising in a way that you two never crossed paths before.
It is but that’s showbusiness. Let me put it this way – there are a lot of people who haven’t met me!
It must sadden you though to see Broadway shutdown; to have it be dark all this time.
It saddens me and I feel really really bad for the actors and actresses who are out of work there. That is brutal, absolutely brutal. It’s not just in New York, it is theatres everywhere. You can’t do community theatre either.
Ever perform in Toronto?
I did a movie there in Toronto… what was that big room at the Royal York Hotel, the nightclub?
The Royal York had the Imperial Room.
Yes, the Imperial Room, I did that a bunch of times. It had some great acts.
Singing and dancing?
I was singing and dancing. I was doing an act. I had three boy dancers. I realized early that having young men dancers in your life is like running a kindergarden. You’re picking up their socks… it’s not necessarily fun all the time.
It shouldn’t fall to you to do all those things.
Yeah, but, it did. So there.
Tell me about the revival of West Side Story, this new Steven Spielberg production, you’re in that as well, aren’t you?
I am and I have a very special role that was written for me by Tony Kushner who did Angels in America. He made me the widow of Doc who ran the candy store where the gangs hung out. And her name is Valentina. And its not a cameo, it’s a real part.
Was this shot before the coronavirus shut down things as well?
Yes, fortunately. It was supposed to open this December. I talked to Steven recently and he said, I just will not stream this movie. You can’t do that. He’s hopeful that by next December we’ll be able to see it in a theatre. That would be wonderful.
It must be such a special thing to have been involved in this iconic film that is still considered a landmark and then to have a chance to revisit it.
It’s been absolutely thrilling. To begin with, Steven is one of my favourite directors of all time. I still love “ET.” He has such an interesting background. No film he ever makes is the same.
You have such an incredible list of credits on television, including performing with Morgan Freeman on the children’s series The Electric Company.
Oh, I loved working with him, and we were great working together. We had a super wonderful chemistry.
If you don’t mind I’d just like to ask you about one or two other shows. Let’s start with The Larry Sanders Show.
[Laughs]. You’re the second person. Because I don’t think anybody even knows that I was on that.
I’m just really curious as to what your experience was like.
You know what? It was like walking into a lunatic asylum. I’m not kidding. The world’s busiest set. There were people coming and going and yelling and banging on sets—I’ve never seen a set like that in my life. I had fun but I swear to God I didn’t understand anything that was going on. I did my lines and I got the hell out of there.
Good for you. What about The Rockford Files? There’s a great series.
Oh Jimmy, my darling Jimmy. I was very close to him. I’ve known him for ever. We had a wonderful, wonderful time. I think I got my first Emmy nomination from his show.
Sally Field played opposite James Garner in “Murphy’s Romance” and said that he was the best kisser in Hollywood.
Well, I never got to kiss him.
Well that’s sad. I was hoping for a scoop there. We’re going to go a little further back now: Zorro.
Jesus. I don’t even remember that. I really don’t. In fact I’m surprized I was in it! I’m not almost 89 for nothing!
Do you remember the first TV job you ever had?
The first TV… was when I was 12 or 13. I was in New York city. It was before we literally had regular shows on TV, so when is that – in the ‘40s? I went to the Dumont Studios. I don’t even know what the show was, if indeed it was a show. This is how long ago it was. It was when you still had to wear brown lipstick because the lights were extremely bright. And I did a tap dance and a song and dance called “Shine.”
[Moreno begins to sing an old Mills Brothers number, “Shine”]
Shine, sway your blues’ies
Why don’t you shine?
Start with your shoes’ies
Shine each place up, make it look like new
Shine your face up, I want to see you wear a smile or two…
That’s what I did.
And I went home on the subway with this insanely dark makeup – it almost looked like American Indian makeup and brown lipstick – oh, wait a minute, I had purple lipstick – and I loved being on the subway and have people look at me. [Laughs]. I wasn’t about to take that makeup off.
One Day At A Time will air two back-to-back episodes from the new fourth season at 9 p.m. ET and 9:30 p.m. ET on Global beginning Thanksgiving Monday, Oct 12.