Grandmother Rita Moreno: “Our Grandchildren Are The Light Of Our Lives”

Mega talented Rita Moreno tells Mary Ann Cooper, “I keep thinking I can’t possibly love any more than I do now, and I do.”

Little Rosita Dolores Alverio, who would as Rita Moreno later take Broadway and Hollywood by storm playing “Anita” in West Side Story, was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, and moved to New York at the age of 5. In preparation for an extraordinary career that has spanned six decades, she started taking dance lessons at 6 and by the age of 13 was making her Broadway debut in Skydrift.

Her other theater credits include The Odd Couple, Wally’s Café, The Ritz, Gantry, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and a Tony-nominated role in The National Health. She has also appeared on the London stage in She Loves Me and Sunset Boulevard.

Rita has appeared in more than 40 films over her career, including West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, Carnal Knowledge, The Ritz, The Four Seasons, Piñero, Casa de los Babys and April Showers.

She was a featured artist on The Electric Company and starred in the television series 9 to 5, B.L. Stryker, Cosby Mystery Series and Oz. Her other television credits include Ugly Betty, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, American Family, Murphy Brown, The Guardian, and the Showtime film Wharf Rat.

In addition to her film, stage, television and concert careers, Rita fills her spare time lecturing to various organizations and university audiences. She is also involved with a number of civic and charitable organizations. She has served on the National Endowment for the Arts as a commissioner on the President’s White House Fellowships and as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

At a White House ceremony in 2004 Rita was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal is the highest honor given to a civilian and ranks second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor as the nation’s highest award and is conferred to individuals for a lifetime of meritorious service.

Rita and her husband, Leonard Gordon, a retired physician, moved from Los Angeles to Berkeley, CA, because they “fell in love with the area,” but most importantly to be near their two grandsons, Justin and Cameron, as well as their only child, daughter Fernanda, and their son-in-law, David Fisher.

Even now, starring in the CBS hit series Cane as family matriarch Amalia Duque, Rita lives for the times she can be in her Berkeley home for her grandsons’ frequent sleepovers. As Rita told GRAND in an exclusive interview, her life resolves around these two precious grandchildren.

I have two boys. The oldest is Justin Gordon Fisher, who is 9 years old; and the baby is Cameron David Fisher, and he is 7. We were out of our minds when we first found out we were going to be grandparents. And the funny thing is that it has never changed.

We built a house here in Berkeley. First of all we came up here to be near our daughter because we’re very close to her. We were living in Los Angeles at the time. And we came up here before she got pregnant. We fell in love with the area. Eventually we built a house with room for the boys and their books and toys.

They stay over twice a week usually. They come for breakfast almost every morning. We’re very hands-on with them. My husband is out of the house right now driving them to school after making them one of their favorite drinks-maple milk.

This was an invention of mine when the older one would not drink milk. But we knew he liked maple syrup. So I thought, “Why don’t I give him a little maple syrup in his milk?” We use the kind that is sugarless. They don’t know the difference. And we put them in sippy cups even though they are older boys; it’s the only way you really can drink it in a car. So they drink their maple milk on the way to school.

“Precious” is the word Rita uses frequently to describe these boys, in part because she witnessed firsthand how perilous it was for at least one of them to enter this world.

Our grandchildren are the light of our lives. One of the best experiences of our lives, if not the best, next to our daughter’s birth, is helping birth our daughter’s baby. We were at the hospital with them [Fernanda and David]. I held one of her legs. It was astonishing. It was the most moving experience you can possibly imagine. My baby is giving birth to a baby.

There were tears of happiness, but there was also a lot of drama because my daughter was one of those people who had an allergic reaction to the fetus. Her body thought it was a foreign body in there. Her blood platelets went way, way down, which is very dangerous. It was a very scary six months of pregnancy once we found out.

They had a heart monitor to the baby during the birthing process, and I knew that little man from his heartbeat before I ever saw him. We were just scared to death that one or the other wouldn’t survive. My husband suffers from a heart condition, and the last thing we wanted to do is put him through all this worry and fright. This was a birth that was laden with drama and fear.

Fernanda was an only child; could that add to the intensity of Rita’s feelings for her and her family?

Very likely. Being an only child means that we poured all our love in her. And then to top it off, you know what’s amazing to me? That love is a bottomless well. I keep thinking I can’t possibly love any more than I do now, and I do. It’s endless and it’s bottomless. It’s fathoms and fathoms deep. It’s infinite. My husband, Leonard, and I, we love hard.

For Rita, being a grandparent conjures up a different kind of feeling than being a mother, but with just as much maternal passion.

It’s a different gestalt. You are no longer fearful that they are going to stop breathing or that something serious is going to happen, except that now there really are such worries about pedophiles; and that is constantly on our minds, and we are so vigilant when outside with them in public, keeping them right next to us.

We were watching the news on television when the kids were staying over. It’s not something the kids usually watch, but I said I have to watch because I needed to know something. And a little 2-year-old child was kidnapped, and Justin said, “What do you mean, kidnapped?” And I said, “Well, somebody stole him, and the mommy and the daddy are horribly worried.” And for some reason it clicked with him.

I think it’s finally hit home. For most children, it’s very hard to understand this because they’re so ingenuous and innocent and pure and can’t imagine that anyone could want to take them away. That night he said to my husband, “Do you think they’re going to find that baby?” And Lenny said, “Of course they’ll find him.” The next night they were here for dinner again, and they had actually found the pedophile in Thailand. So I said, “They found the kidnapper, Justin.” And he ran to the phone and called his mother, who didn’t even know what he was talking about. He said, “They found the man who stole the baby.”

Rita says she can’t help but feel sorry that her grandchildren don’t live in the world where she grew up.

I can remember a time when you went trick-or-treating by yourself or went to the bus by yourself if you had a school bus. It was not a big deal. What an age we live in. It can be dreadful. We are extremely mindful and protective and ever vigilant. These little boys are our hearts and souls. They are the air we breathe.

These grandsons who have captured Rita and Lenny so completely could not be any more different in looks and personality.

Not only are the boys different, they look different. Justin, the older one, looks like he’s right out of the Latino ghetto. He’s got great curly hair like me and his mom, and his skin is the color of café au lait. By the way, his father is not Latino; and by the way, my daughter is much fairer than I. So, go figure.

Cameron is so white you can see little veins between his eyebrows. We didn’t attend his birth. My daughter and her husband said, “Okay, one birthing with grandparents is enough.” So, when he came from the hospital and I saw him in his crib, I stared at him and said, “My God. That is a white child.” Justin and Cameron don’t look anything remotely alike, and their personalities are just as different.

Rita says at the age of 9, Justin is a jock who likes to make jewelry and beats his grandfather in chess.

Justin is the macho one. He’s also awfully smart. He’s outstanding in math. He beats my husband, who is extremely bright at chess. And this has happened since he was a little boy. He’s not a genius; he’s just wired that way. And he’s quick. He’s the clown. He plays soccer, he plays golf with his dad, he plays basketball and he swims. He’s a real little jock.

And then, which is really hilarious to us, he makes jewelry. My daughter makes jewelry with semiprecious stones [you can check out her designs at www.Nandiz.com], and one day he said, “Can I try making a necklace?” She said, “Sure,” and gave him some leftover beads and things.

He made one and gave it to his teacher, who fell in love with his work; and he’s now making necklaces. To go from jock to that is so bizarre. The hilarious thing is the teacher asked my daughter to give her a price for the necklace because she said, “I can’t take this.” Fernanda said, “I couldn’t possibly charge you.” And the teacher said, “Well, I want you to charge me and open a college fund for him.” Fernanda said, “In that case, all right.”

Rita explains that jewelry making has turned Justin into quite the young entrepreneur.

So now he makes necklaces because it got around the school, and teachers make requests like “I want one like that, but I want it a little longer” and so on. The other day he showed us one that he was going to bring to a teacher at school, and Lenny said, “How much are you asking for this one?” And I think he said something like $70. And Lenny said, “Wait a minute; that’s a lot of money.” Justin looked back and said, “Hey, these are expensive beads.”

Rita then turns to Cameron, her little “muffin.”

Cameron we call “the little poet.” He’s dreamy, and he has the most amazing vocabulary. He’s had quite a bit of trouble processing the art of reading; he just has great trouble with that. It’s one little glitch to overcome, and when he catches on, oh my God! The woman who is helping him with his reading skills says he’s going to be a monster when he catches on.

His vocabulary is so gorgeous. He says amazing things. For instance, we’re talking about a toy that was hanging in the balance in his classroom, and he says, “It has to be stabilized.” That’s how he speaks. He’s just an amazing little boy. He’s a muffin. I have no idea where his verbalization comes from, because we speak the same way to both children. I know Justin was always good at it, but Camie’s allusions are so poetic. Everybody falls in love with him because he expresses himself in such a unique way.

While Justin is fast reaching the age when little boys eschew great displays of affection from parents and grandparents, Rita still treasures such times with Cameron.

He’s going to be some amazing little adult. He’s very comfortable around adults, and he’s also the cuddler. At 7 he doesn’t mind at all sitting on my lap and putting his arms around me. It’s hard to hug Justin; I have to catch him from the rear and grab him and kiss him, and I hold real tight so he can’t get away.

Camie, God bless him, he wakes up at 6 a.m., and he immediately jumps into bed with me and gives me a hug; and we cuddle and sometimes we fall back to sleep together. But that’s Camie. He’s just so adorable. He’s a little muffin. He’s like my Pillsbury doughboy because he has a big tummy that he loves to stick out.

While to Justin and Cameron, Rita is “Granny,” Justin is just beginning to grasp the fact that she is beloved all over the world for her body of great work.

We really never talked too much about my show business career. About a year ago when he was 8, it suddenly occurred to Justin that I was “famous.” Lenny was taking him to school, and Justin said, “Is Granny famous?” And Lenny said, “Well, yes, she is.” And he asked, “Do people know her in the United States?” And Lenny said, “Yes, they do.” “Do they know her in Europe?” And Lenny said, “Yes.” And then there was a big pause, and suddenly Justin says, “Well, do they know her in Costa Rica?” Who knows why! Maybe he was having geography that day.

The boys are already celebrating Rita’s distinguished career and legacy even though they might not yet be aware of just how remarkable their granny truly is.

I have two very precious medals on ribbons. One of them is from the Library of Congress, and it’s the Living Legends medal; and the other is the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to me a couple of years ago, and they parade around the house wearing them. They just love wearing them.

The other thing is now when I pick Justin up from school, I’ll find him in the schoolyard playing with the kids. If there’s somebody there playing with him who doesn’t know me, he’ll bring me over to him; and he’ll say to me, “OK, tell him who you are. Go ahead, go ahead, tell him who you are.” And the other kids at this point say, “We know. You’re the only person who has won all these amazing awards, right?”

Life is all about perspective, and Rita views each of her grandson’s achievements through the lens of her own hard-earned accomplishments.

Last year, Justin won a soccer trophy. You know what they look like. They’re sort of tacky with a figure of a soccer player on top, and the little base has his name on it. He came to the house one afternoon, and he showed it off. I said, “You must be so proud of it.” And he said, “I am!” He has always called my Oscar my “little gold man,” and he said, “You know what? I’m so proud of this I think it should sit next to the little gold man.” And that’s exactly where it went!

Sidebar: A lifetime of awards and achievements

Rita Moreno is one of a select group of performers to have won all four of the most prestigious show business awards: an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy. She won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of “Anita” in West Side Story. She is a three-time Golden Globe nominee, a BAFTA Award nominee and six-time Emmy Award nominee and two-time winner (for The Muppet Show in 1977 and The Rockford Files in 1978).

She received a Grammy Award in 1972 for her performance on The Electric Company album for children based on the long-running television show of the same name. She received a Tony Award in 1975 for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role in The Ritz. She is a two-time Drama Desk Award nominee and also received six ALMA Award nominations and three wins (for Oz in 1998, 1999 and 2002, and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998). She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995.

But the hits just keep on coming for Rita. “I got a call from Maria Shriver a couple of months ago. She asked if I would be one of her inductees for the California Hall of Fame. And I said I would love to do it. This is her pet project. Not only am I being inducted, but on the same day Tiger Woods, Elizabeth Taylor, Steve Jobs, Robert Mondavi and Willie Mays are being inducted as well. That kind of acclaim is what you hope for as a performer, but you really don’t believe it. It’s always in the back of your mind. It’s been quite an amazing life. And being a Latino makes it even more special because I am the only Latino to accomplish this so far.”

Sidebar: From Latin spitfire to raising Cane

Rita Moreno is at the top of her game starring in the CBS hit series Cane. The ensemble cast in this drama about the external rivalries and internal power struggles of a large Cuban-American family that owns a rum-and-sugar empire in South Florida stars Jimmy Smits, Hector Elizondo, Nestor Carbonell, Eddie Matos and Michael Trevino-arguably, part of the most gorgeous cast on television today.

Rita says she is thrilled to be a part of Cane because of the talent assembled and the quality of the production. She says she looks at her three grown sons in the show and has to fan herself. “They are just so hot,” she says. She says the show is a far cry from the career options she had when she first came to Hollywood. “When I was breaking into the business, the movies were filled with little Indian maidens and Latin spitfires. That’s what it was.

Nowadays when young people ask me, ‘Well, why did you put up with it?’ I say, ‘Oh, you have no idea, do you?’ I was determined that if I just kept trying to make films and was in films one day, something wonderful would happen, which of course, it did. But it was very, very hard. Jennifer Lopez, who is one of my admirers because she said I inspired her before she became famous, doesn’t have a clue; none of these people have a clue how tough it was back then.

“I got the Oscar [for West Side Story], and I was invited to do more gang movies in lesser projects, which I turned down. That was very sad for a while; I didn’t do a movie for about six years after I won the Oscar. I was offered some things, but they were all the terrible gang-type movies; and I didn’t want to do that again. But I never gave up thinking things were going to change. I think that’s what’s called perseverance.”

Published in GRAND Magazine Issue 20 January/February 2008

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