In grammar school circles, Rita Moreno is America's pet teacher for her off-the-wall characterizations on The Electric Company, PBS's postgraduate supplement to Sesame Street. The kids' parents, though, have a slightly different impression of Rita. She was the self-styled "Latin Inferno," the perennial Hollywood starlet who succeeded in winning an Oscar (as Anita in West Side Story) and failed in a suicide attempt in the pad of longtime lover Marlon Brando.

But that was 13 years ago and, as Rita says, in her up-front, down-home (Puerto Rico, originally) fashion, "You can't keep a good spic down." Moreno's a candidate this weekend (April 20) for a Tony Award for her performance as Googie Gomez, the tamale chanteuse in The Ritz, Terrence McNally's crazed comedy set in a gay bathhouse. "I'm flying high these days," she declares of her TV-Broadway parlay, adding, "but the best is what I have at home." By that she means cardiologist husband Leonard Gordon and their 8-year-old daughter, Fernanda. Leonard, she says, is "my rock, a nice Jewish doctor, but that's redundant." At 43, Rita Moreno is what she has never been before: mellow.

The Gordons live in an eight-room apartment in a landmark building on Manhattan's West Side, "just 100 blocks," Rita points out, "from the Spanish Harlem ghetto where I was raised." Her divorced mother (who ultimately was married five times) brought Rita to New York at age 3, and held two jobs to buy her dancing lessons. At 7 she was already performing professionally. "To start that young," Rita now believes, "is a killer for a child." By 13 she was on Broadway in Skydrift and eventually met Louis B. Mayer, who whisked her to Hollywood at 17. There the studios took away her name, Rosita Dolores Alverio, but not the ethnic typecasting. At first Rita was just another contract player in the pool (literally, in Esther Williams' Pagan Love Song). She got out of the "That's Entertainment" musicals and into 14 "B" pictures in 11 traumatic years. "I knew what my scripts would say," she recalls, "before I opened them: 'Enter Conchita.' I played handmaidens, Indian squaws and Mexican dancers..."

She played more dramatic parts, though, in the gossip columns as, for example, in 1954 when she was involved in assaulting two six-foot cops (she's 5'2") during a marijuana bust at the home of a boyfriend, meat-packing heir Geordie Hormel. Then came Brando, a love affair that was "off and on" for eight years. "Marlon has always liked Latin women," she says. "I don't think he ever went out with a blonde. He has the reputation of being tough or cold, but in reality he is a very gentle, loving man." It was as much Moreno's career frustration and "the dead-end environment" of Hollywood as her relationship with Brando that led to her near-fatal overdose of pills. In fact, Marlon is a close friend today of Rita, her husband and daughter, Nandy. "Nandy came home from school one day and found him playing the congas in our living room," says Rita, "so she still calls him 'the man with the drums.' "

Thinking back on the suicide attempt, Moreno says, "the thought that I may never have lived to see that beautiful creature Nandy just tears at me sometimes. But not for long. I can't dwell on past mistakes." She credits her recovery to six years of analysis, returning to New York and the stage and, primarily, to marrying Leonard in 1965. "We balance each other," she explains. "I am not exactly Mrs. Good Housekeeping, although I love to cook, bake, even iron, but only because it's not mandatory."

What Rita has made mandatory in her life are the sort of solid Broadway roles less available to her in Hollywood (The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The National Health, plus The Electric Company). On non-matinee days she sometimes tapes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's an obligation she doesn't mind, especially to help Hispanic students with their school problems (her own mother never learned to read English fluently). "I love performing for kids," she says, "but you can't play down to them, of course. Then it would be Captain Kangaroo."

Not that the old spitfire has become the sobersided matron she sometimes sounds like these days. "I laugh my ass off everywhere I go," reports Rita, "talking to cab drivers, 4-year-olds...At times, Leonard and Nandy think I'm a little loco, but then I remind them of where I came from and where I am going." Back to movies? A screen version of The Ritz? That too gives her a laugh. "You know how Hollywood works," she cracks. "They'll probably let Freddie Prinze play it in drag."