09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Clark Gable swept her off her feet, Gene Kelly gave her tango lessons, and Yul Brynner paid for acting classes. But it was Jack Nicholson who gave Rita Moreno the ultimate compliment. "When I was doing [1971's] Carnal Knowledge with him," Moreno recalls, "he said, 'You know, I used to sit on the curb just outside the gate of MGM and watch people go in. I used to wait for you. You used to give me heart attacks!' "
"What do you mean?" asked Moreno, who was making B movies as an ingenue in the mid-'50s when Nicholson was still an MGM office boy. " 'Well,' he said, 'you used to wear these very tight, white dresses and you'd be very tan.' "
Moreno, 66, lets out a girlish laugh. "I love telling that story," says one of the few performers to sweep showbiz's Big Four—an Oscar (for 1961's West Side Story), a Tony (1975's The Ritz), two Emmys (for appearances on The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files) and a Grammy (for contributing, with Bill Cosby and others, to the soundtrack album of PBS's The Electric Company, on which she was a '70s regular). Now she bustles about the skylit, three-bedroom Berkeley, Calif., house she shares with her husband, Dr. Leonard Gordon, 78, a retired physician. Recently, the couple became first-time grandparents. (Their daughter Fernanda Luisa Fisher, 31, an actress, gave birth to a son, Justin, on July 26.)
But grandma Rita is hardly ready for the rocking chair. She's a political activist (last spring, she lobbied on Capitol Hill for a program to keep disadvantaged Latino kids in elementary school). And on HBO's Oz, a critically acclaimed dramatic series set in a fictional maximum security prison, Moreno is back for a second season as Sister Peter Marie Reimondo, a streetwise nun who offers counsel and compassion to the hardened lifers. "Sister Pete is people-smart and down-to-earth, like me," says Moreno. To her costars, Moreno is unique. Says Ernie Hudson (Warden Leo Glynn): "After all she's accomplished, she's reaching, still hungry."
Her appetite for showbiz was first piqued in 1935, when 4-year-old Rosa Dolores Alverio moved from Puerto Rico to New York City with her mother, Rosa, a divorced garment worker (now 81). Soon, little Rosita was performing in children's shows at Macy's. At 13, she made her Broadway debut in Skydrift, a 1945 drama with Eli Wallach. A Hollywood talent scout spotted her at a dance school recital, and at 17 (as Rita Moreno) she went to work under contract at MGM.
"Only two things ever made me wet my knickers," she says. "Working with Gene Kelly and meeting Clark Gable." Kelly ("my idol") took her under his wing on the set of 1952's Singin' in the Rain, where she tangoed in a bit part. Even the imperious Yul Brynner, the King of 1956's film version of The King and I, played big brother by sending Moreno (cast as a slave girl) to an acting coach. "He wanted everyone to be at least as good as he was," she says.
As for Marlon Brando, whom she began dating in the early '50s, "I don't talk about him. We went together for [almost] 10 years. That's as much as I say." In April 1961, when their affair ended, she took an overdose of sleeping pills. "It's unfortunate that I once described my suicide attempt as therapeutic," she says, "because suicide is not therapeutic. It was a turning point in my life, though. Life is really very precious, and I was reminded of that."
Later that year she appeared in West Side Story in the role of Anita. Its demanding choreography "damn near killed me," she laughs. "I was the old lady of that group." In December 1964, she and Gordon, a New York City cardiologist, went out on a double date with friends. Six months later, they wed. "In order to be married to someone like Rita, you have to have your own ego pretty well in place. And I did," says Gordon. "I dominate—but only in wrestling," adds Moreno. Giggling, she explains, "We wrestle on the bed. I usually win because I get him laughing so hard."
She's also still winning compliments from younger men. On the Oz set last season, "I'd be sitting there alone," she recalls, "and some gorilla would come over and gently say, 'Hi, my mother just loves you. Can I have your autograph?' "
Michael A. Lipton
Ron Arias in Berkeley