By the time she won her first Emmy in 1977 for “The Muppet Show,” Rita Moreno already had an Oscar, Tony and Grammy. That officially made her an EGOT winner — long before “30 Rock” popularized the phrase. She broke more Emmy ground in 1983 as the first Latina nominated for lead actress in a comedy [for “9 to 5”]. This season Moreno guest-starred on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Grace and Frankie” and multiple episodes of “Jane the Virgin.”
You won your first Emmy for “The Muppet Show” but couldn’t attend.
I was doing “Scapino” playing a male role in Milwaukee, Wis. What was fun about that is that the award actually happened during intermission. I had the TV on my dressing room, I yelled up and down. The management told the audience, so when I came on stage they whooped. It was pretty marvelous.
Then you won the next year, too, for “The Rockford Files.”
I was thrilled. Jim Garner was there and we were dear and warm friends. He was so proud. That made me feel so good, because it was the most unexpected thing, really. One of the nicest things [about ‘Rockford’] is they actually allowed me to improvise here and there. I thought of things that the character would say. She was a “Sweet Charity” hooker. What made me laugh a lot after was people would say to me, “I love that character, you should do a series about her.” I’d say, “What, of a hooker? Are we gonna do phone booth scenes?” People loved her so much they forgot she was a hooker.
You also thanked “Rockford” writer Juanita Bartlett as “a lady who really knows how to write about ladies.”
At a time when nobody gave a sh–. I really believe people who should be thanked, should be thanked. I also should have thanked Jim for hiring someone like that. I’m thrilled I did it that. It showed I was really thinking and I was sincere.
You had a special relationship with James Garner.
One of my sweetest most poignant memories of him — I was one of the actors who was invited by Harry Belafonte to go to the march on Washington. I was one of the people, along with Sammy Davis Jr. and of course Harry, to sit about 15 feet away from Dr. King when he made his speech. We were right there at the Lincoln monument, with thousands and thousands of people. I remember hearing Mahalia say “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin. Tell ‘em about the dream.” I was there. I get goosebumps every time I think of that.
Jim had been invited by Harry because Harry didn’t want just black actors. Jim came along, what was so touching was on the airplane he was having such a fright, he thought maybe that in the name of something very fine and good his career might be over. It sounds odd now but he took his chance. He was downing tums all over the place. I just thought, “He’s brave, this is a brave thing for him to do.” It’s not brave for me, but that’s a whole other thing. I was very touched by that. He made a choice. I always loved him even more for that.
Did you know at the time what kind of impact you were making on the Latino community?
Not at all, not even a little bit. At that time, Latino people were not in the habit of writing fan mail. I rarely heard from the Latino community. I began to think, “Maybe they don’t like what I’m doing, maybe they don’t like me.” It wasn’t until after I won the Oscar that I began to hear stories about how Spanish Harlem went insane when my name was called. But I didn’t hear about it until a couple of years after I won. It was not in our culture to write fan letters. They were so proud, still are. Which is just fabulous. I, who never had a role model, have become a role model.
What does being one of the few EGOT winners mean to you?
It means everything. It means I, this kid from Puerto Rico, have all this amazing hardware on my shelf. I didn’t buy it. I never took out an ad for “West Side Story.” I was in the Philippines doing a crappy WWII movie, playing yet another dusky maiden.