Even when you're both showbiz legends, sometimes it takes a few decades -- quite a few, in fact -- to find the right project together.
Take the case of Rita Moreno, the 85-year-old Puerto Rican-born actress, singer and dancer whose career spans over seven decades and includes such highlights as "Singin' In the Rain," "The King and I," "West Side Story," "The Electric Company," and "Oz," not to mention a mantle that includes an an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and Tony AND a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Moreno has longed to work with pioneering television writer/producer Norman Lear, the 94-year game-changing auteur who melded the sitcom form with social commentary with a hit string of issue-probing, often hotly political series including "All In the Family," "The Jeffersons," "Maude," "Good Times," Sanford and Son," and "One Day at a Time."
Sitting together over breakfast at the London Hotel, Moreno recalls the first time their professional paths crossed in the early '80s, when she was auditioning for a role in Lear's "P.O.P.," an ultimately failed pilot-turned-TV-movie starring character actor Charles Durning -- an encounter she remembers well, though her story is clearly news to Lear.
"I came in to see Norman about playing his wife, and he said to me, 'What the hell are you doing here?' That's when we met," Moreno tells Moviefone. "I said, 'Well, I'm here to see you about playing Charlie Durning's wife.' He said, 'Look at you! You're too young!' I hadn't worked for a number of years. I was really desperate, and he said, 'You look too young.' I said, but I'm 60. I remember saying, 'But I'm 60!' He said, 'But you don't look it! Get out of here!' And I went to my car, and I sat there and sobbed."
"Oh my God," says Lear, cringing at the story.
"That was such a curse for me," adds Moreno. "I always looked better than my age -- not 'better,' that's a silly way of saying it. But it was a curse. I could never get a part of a grown woman because I always looked younger, but I hadn't worked in so long, and when he said no -- 'Oh, man! Not again!' I've always wanted to work with him, but he kept getting older, I kept getting older, and I thought, it's not going to be."
"That's one thing that we did together: we got older," chuckles Lear, noting of the decades-old slight, "We're making it up to her."
He is indeed. That's because Lear has, at last, found the right role for Moreno: In Netflix's reimagined version of his '70s-era classic "One Day at a Time," she has the plumb role of Lydia, the outspoken, oft-interfering live-in mother of Penelope (Justina Machado), the newly separated mom trying to navigate single parenthood to her two teens. As the meddling abuela, Moreno is a constant scene-stealer in both comedic and dramatic moments, swiftly reminding audiences of exactly why she's earned so much awards show hardware. The show itself is a deft reinvention, with contemporary feminist and Latino angles, and Lear feels the current socio-political climate is ripe for a resurgence of his smart, pointed style of sitcom storytelling.
"It's certainly ripe for Latinos, these three generations of Latino women," he says. "I couldn't resist it. Years ago, I did a show called "a.k.a. Pablo," so I've always been interested in doing something with a Latino family. When they came to me with, 'Wouldn't this be interesting to do "One Day at a Time" as a Latino family -- and three generations was their thought, also -- within a few hours I called Rita."
"I'm asked so often, 'So, how did you end up on this? I say, two words: Norman Lear," nods Moreno. "He said 'I want you to do this' and I said, "OK. What is it?' I've always wanted to work with him. I couldn't believe that Norman Lear was finally going to be in my life."
Even though the producer had her at hello, Moreno was impressed with the 13-episode series that ultimately resulted from his collaboration with writer/producers Gloria Calderon Kelltt and Mike Royce. "It's such a relevant show," she says. "See, that's one of its glories: It's so relevant -- the fact that Justina's character is an Army vet, do you know how that opens up all kinds of story ideas? And boy, we've used them, too. They're fabulous. Fabulous."
"I think this show has set a new standard for what a so-called Latino show is, and more than that, in the sense of authenticity," says Moreno. "That's the first thing I said when I wrote Norman a note after I read the first draft. I said, 'It's so authentic.' And the other thing is that they maintain a fantastic balance -- and this is tough -- of not leaving out your audience who doesn't speak Spanish. In other words, the rest of the world. This is not just about Cubans, or Latinos or Puerto Ricans: it's about a family."
"It's about our common humanity," nods Lear, who series have, along with trenchant commentary, have also been brilliantly cast -- he is, after all, the man who brought actors like Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Esther Rolle, Redd Foxx and dozens more to television. Of "One Day at a Time" lead Machado, he says "I was reminded of Carroll O'Connor sitting down with the script as Archie Bunker. He wasn't off the first page before I thought, 'Oh God!'"
"I think Justina Machado is nothing less than brilliant,' nods Moreno. "I am so proud to work with her. She's taught me some things -- not on purpose, but just watching and observing her. She's a sensational actress and she's funny, and she can cry at the drop of a hat, literally ... I told her last night, after watching the shows again. I said, nobody, no actress that I know of in my experience, personally, listens the way you do as an actress. She is so inside that moment, wow. It's a thrill to work with her."
Both of the veterans reveal that they were happy to utilize the traditional but now less-in-favor four-camera, live-audience format that characterized so many of Lear's earlier series, including "One Day at a Time." "We love theater," explains Lear. "Rita's out of theater, I fell in love with theater as a young teenager. So always, everything I've ever done in television has been done in front of a live audience."
Still, the live performance aspect does come with some extra butterflies. "You get very nervous," admits Moreno. "I am now 85. And memorizing a half-hour script every week, I was very nervous about that. It did great things for my mind. It made me more alert, interestingly -- isn't that the truth? You make demands on your brain and it reacts. And because of that, when we finished our 13th episode, I went out on a three-month tour doing talks and my cabaret act. it just really makes you work. It keeps you alert."
Neither Lear nor Moreno has shown any interest in slowing their respective paces down throughout their long careers. "I love what I do," the actress shrugs simply. "And to get paid for doing what I love is a very nice thing. I call that balance."
"I love what she does, too, and to be able to get up and live with it, how great is that?" agrees Lear. "[At the premiere screening] I felt it the same way. It'd been weeks and weeks since we finished the 13 episodes, but I sit down in front of stage a screen, and my feeling, every part of me says 'Take it!' It isn't that I've been a part of it and that I'm waiting for a certain moment. And last night it took me."
"Oh, he really was, as they say in Puerto Rico, kvelling!" laughs Moreno, with a quick aside. "That's a Jewish word -- I was married to one of those people."
As he thinks back on his experience with both the original series and the new "One Day at a Time," Lear reveals that, as different as they and the times that produced them are, they've both filled him with a similar sense of pride.
"It's such a gift and a kick to see a group of disparate actors," he says. "In this case, it was in two hours, in three days, five days -- suddenly they're like they've lived together all their lives."
"One Day It a Time" is now streaming on Netflix.