Each is an icon in their own right: Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican-born American performer, achieved the rare coveted EGOT honor, being one of only a small cadre in history who have earned an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. And Marlon Brando became a screen legend for his roles in classic films like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather, earning him the honor of American Film Institute’s fourth greatest male movie star.
And in the early days of their burgeoning careers, fate brought them together, fueling a steamy relationship that had as much romance as it did drama—so dangerous that at one point Moreno’s life was on the line.
Even so, their magnetism was undeniable, and they kept finding their way back together, resulting in a tumultuous eight-year relationship that was more marked by scandal than love. Though Brando died in 2004 of pulmonary fibrosis, Moreno — who was married to Leonard Gordon in 1965 until his 2010 death — still considers Brando a major force in her life.
“He was a big love of mine in my life,” she told People in 2017, pointing to a photo of Brando in her bedroom. “This one, it’s almost seems like a vignette out of a movie, so that’s why it’s there. He was the lust of my life,” she said, before pointing to a photo of Gordon and calling him the “love of my life.”
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There were sparks between them from the very start
Born Ruby Dolores Alverio, Moreno moved to the Bronx with her family when she was five and was discovered when she was 16, quickly being signed by movie producer Louis B. Mayer. By the time she was 22 in 1954, she found herself in a makeup room on the set of Désirée — the film where Brando, who was 30 at the time, was playing Napoleon.
“Just meeting him that first day sent my body temperature skyrocketing as though I had been dropped into a very hot bath, and I went into a full-body blush,” she wrote in her self-titled 2013 memoir, according to The New York Post. “It was the sort of rush that inspires poetry and songs.”
That was just the beginning, and Moreno was not short on details. “To say that he was a great lover — sensual, generous, delightfully inventive — would be gravely understating what he did not only to my body, but for my soul,” she revealed in her memoir. “Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I’d ever known.”
She knew she was his type, telling People back in 1975: “Marlon has always liked Latin women… 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.”
Moreno tried to make Brando jealous after his infidelities
But that level of passion came with a dark side as well. Brando pursued other women, marrying Anna Kashfi in 1957 and Movita Castaneda in 1960 and fathering children with both of them during his “off and on” time with Moreno.
The pain was numbing for Moreno, who wrote, “He broke my heart and came close to crushing my very spirit with his physical infidelities and, worse, with his emotional betrayals.” Though she quickly saw his pattern, she couldn’t deny the attraction. “I couldn’t stay away,” she continued. “In fact, I was becoming addicted to the challenge of winning him over and over again.”
The best way she could figure out to get his attention was by dating other men. First she tried with Dennis Hopper — and then, Elvis Presley. “I knew no one could possibly make Marlon Brando more jealous,” she wrote in her book.
However, the passion with Presley wasn’t even remotely on the same level as it was with Brando. She said she had a moment when she watched him eat a peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich and thought he might enjoy the meal more than he did her, according to the Post. And with that, she went back to Brando again.
Rita Moreno and Marlon Brando talk while filming ‘The Night of the Following Day.’
The pain of the relationship began to catch up with Moreno
Not long after their reconciliation, Moreno found out she was pregnant with Brando’s child, but the reaction was not at all what she expected. “To my shock and horror, Marlon immediately arranged for an abortion,” she wrote, recalling that he arranged for someone else to pick her up after the procedure, which was illegal at the time.
But things hadn’t gone smoothly — she soon found out the fetus was still inside of her and had to be removed surgically at the hospital. Instead of sympathy, Brando expressed anger that the person who performed the abortion had wronged him.
Brando then took off to film Mutiny on the Bounty, where he fell for co-star Tarita Teriipaia. Moreno had recently wrapped what would become her star-making role in West Side Story, but behind closed doors, seeing him with yet another woman was all too much. When he returned home, Moreno swallowed a bunch of his sleeping pills in one gulp.
“I went to bed to die,” she wrote in the book. “This wasn’t a revenge suicide, but a consolation, an escape-from-pain death.” And if it weren’t for his assistant finding her and rushing her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped, her fate may have been completely different.
Looking back, she told USA Today: “It was humiliating and I was letting him step all over me… I wanted to get rid of myself because I didn’t think I deserved to live.”
A therapist asked them to not see each other again, and the two agreed. Brando went on to marry Teriipaia in 1962.
They connected once again for professional reasons
About six years later in 1968, Moreno reached out to Brando again, and he cast her as his love interest in The Night of the Following Day, which filmed in France.
Waking up after a reunion dinner filled with too much wine, Moreno found Brando breathing on her neck, begging, “That’s all I want, to sleep with you.” She denied him.
Back on the set, there was a scene when she had to slap him, and it triggered old memories. “As the synapses of my brain reconnected, old wounds, hurts, resentment and disrespect coursed through my body,” she wrote. “The festering decay rose like pond scum to the surface, and Rita Moreno emerged as the offended lover.”
It was a flood of emotions that she had buried deep. “It opened up this well of hurt and rage, and disappointment, that had been obviously sitting there for years and years and years unexpressed,” she told Vulture. “The pond scum just came right up to the surface. It had been sitting there all these years, and I went berserk. That was for real. I don’t even know what I was saying. It surprised the hell out of him, of course, and he kept trying to defend himself by putting his arms up and all that. The director could not have been happier, so he kept the camera rolling.”
Moreno and Brando eventually formed a friendship
Watching the scene back now, Moreno is still filled with pain. “I know what I’m experiencing, and it hurts me so much that it took me so long to express what I was feeling,” she continued to Vulture. “It breaks my heart, actually. And I feel so sorry for that girl on the screen. I really, really do.”
Yet despite the pain of it all, Moreno and Brando became permanent fixtures in each other’s lives. Brando became friendly with Moreno, as well as Gordon and their daughter Fernanda “Nandy” Gordon. “Nandy came home from school one day and found him playing the congas in our living room,” Moreno told People in 1975. “So she still calls him ‘the man with the drums.’”
She’s also grateful that Brando introduced her to therapy, which has been so essential to her life. “And at one point he said to me, ‘You need help,’ which now makes me really laugh hard because it’s one loony telling the other loony that they need help,” she told Vulture. “It turned out he was absolutely right. It’s probably the greatest favor I ever did for myself.”
Through the end of Brando’s life, they remained in touch, but Moreno never was the one to reach out again. “We had a telephone friendship after that,” she continued. “He did the calling, I never called him.”