Moreno says she was "this close" to turning the role down before Stephen Sondheim, at the request of a producer, changed the lyric to: "Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion, let it sink back in the ocean."
"And that's how Stephen Sondheim saved me from turning down this magnificent role," she says.
After becoming the first Latina actor to win an Oscar for West Side Story, Moreno expected more opportunities to follow. Instead, she was offered stereotyped roles as gang members and housewives.
"It was the heartbreak of my life," Moreno says. She turned down the parts she thought were offensive or too insignificant, and wound up not making another movie for seven years.
But eventually Moreno's career got back on track. She appeared on Broadway, was an original cast member of the children's show The Electric Company and later co-starred in the HBO prison series Oz. In 1977 she became the first Latina performer to achieve EGOT status as a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award.
The new PBS American Masters documentary, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, chronicles Moreno's early life and her storied career. In it, she opens up about her experiences with racism and sexual assault in Hollywood. Moreno appears in the forthcoming Steven Spielberg film adaptation of West Side Story, for which she also serves as an executive producer.
On the roles MGM cast her in at the beginning of her career
I got native girls. I got Pacific Island parts, I got Egyptian girl parts, anything but just acting roles. They were all very specific. They all called for an accent or two that I wasn't even familiar with. So I made up my own accents, thinking that that would enhance the parts. They all sounded Puerto Rican, actually. ... I always sounded like this because it's the only accent I understood and nobody ever said, "What are you doing? What the hell is that?" Because I would have answered, "Well, I'm trying to provide a foundation for this, this girl, this part." But nobody asked. Nobody cared. It's so odd when I look back.
On how the 1961 version of West Side Story resonated
The fact that there was a person playing a Puertorriqueña in a huge, successful musical was enough for a lot of Hispanics—not just Puerto Ricans—in this country to be thrilled to pieces. The fact that there were mistakes made ... was also almost beyond the point, because we were just so glad to be paid attention to for a change. This was an extraordinary, extraordinary experience in every possible way. And it helped to inform a lot of people who were not Hispanic about what we were about—and that was important and absolutely fabulous. There were people, particularly in Puerto Rico, who were not thrilled because they felt that depicting Puerto Ricans as gang members was offensive and insulting. I think they missed the part about Romeo and Juliet, which I thought was the genius of this. And here we are many, many, many years later with another edition of this film about to be released in December—by the way, when I will, literally, the day before we open, be 90 years old.
On having to darken her skin for film roles
I rarely, rarely ever saw my own color when I did movies. When I first went to MGM, I played a Cajun girl from New Orleans. So they actually used my own skin color. But as I got older and had more of a career, I kept getting darker and darker and darker. ... [West Side Story] was worse. That was like mud. ... It was so thick and it was so dark that our faces would streak and show our real color underneath. And I remember saying to a makeup man once, "I don't know why I have to be this color. ... This is not my color." And he actually said to me as he was making me up, "What are you, racist?" Well, talk about nonplussed. I didn't even know what to say to him.
On the allegation that her Hollywood agent raped her early in her career
The very first time I spoke about it was when I did the documentary. I mentioned it in my book, also my biography, but it's heartbreaking. By the way, I ran into this man, this agent, about five years ago in Palm Springs because it turned out he had booked me in a concert that I was going to do there. And I saw his face and I thought, oh, my God, it's him. And you know what he told me without being asked? He said, "I'm sorry I didn't make you pregnant, because that was the whole idea. ... Then you would be beholden to me forever." ... I was speechless. I was absolutely speechless, I just said, "Excuse me." And I left the room. I was dumbstruck. What do you say? "You cur, you bastard, you son of a bitch." What do you say? ... You know what, I'm glad I didn't [say anything], because that would have probably opened too many doors.
On dating Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley