Rita Moreno, who was honored earlier this year with a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award at the tender age of 82, is a member of one of the entertainment world’s most exclusive clubs: she’s one of only 14 performers in history to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony—the famous “EGOT” awards superfecta. What is perhaps most extraordinary about Ms. Moreno, however, is that six-plus decades after she first began performing in the notoriously youth-obsessed world of show business, she remains as busy—and, in crucial ways, as vibrant—as ever. To cite just a couple of examples, she’s slated to appear in Amy Poehler’s NBC pilot, Old Soul, and provides the voice of a headstrong blue macaw, Auntie Mimi, in Rio 2.
But when LIFE.com recently spoke by phone with Ms. Moreno—she was enjoying a rare rainy day at her home in the drought-parched hills overlooking San Francisco Bay—the conversation centered not on her current endeavors, but on an issue of LIFE magazine that landed on newsstands and in subscribers’ mailboxes 60 years ago. Gracing that March 1, 1954, issue was a vivacious, bare-shouldered 22-year-old Rita Moreno, gazing at the viewer in what might well be the most playfully sexy portrait ever to appear on the cover of LIFE.
For Moreno, however, it was the way she made it on to that cover—not the picture itself—that, all these years later, stirs her remarkably sharp memory.
“Do you know how I got on the cover in the first place?” she asks. “Oh, it was such a wacky thing. I Love Lucy was enormously popular at the time, sitcoms were just taking hold on television, and the Desilu people decided to go into production with some other shows—including one starring Ray Bolger [best-known today as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz]. It turned out that he just wasn’t right for the medium, and the show didn’t get off the ground—but during rehearsals I happened to be on set one day when a LIFE photographer showed up to chronicle the action. Well, the pictures made it back to the editors at LIFE and, the way I heard it, someone saw me in one of the shots and said, ‘Who’s that girl?'”
“Next thing I know, LIFE calls me up about a photo shoot. The idea behind Loomis Dean’s pictures—showing me in all sorts of silly poses, pretending to act out this huge gamut of emotions—was ridiculous, but the photos were lovely. And I was happy to be in LIFE.” She pauses. “Oh, who am I kidding? I was fucking thrilled.
“The writer assigned to the piece, who was there during the shoot, told me that the magazine wanted a picture for the cover. I could not believe it. Twenty-two years old, and I was going to be on the cover of LIFE! But then he says, ‘I have to warn you—if Eisenhower gets a cold, you’ll get bumped.'”
At this, Moreno lets out a full, hugely contagious laugh. Her ebullience, the sureness of her voice, the nimbleness and clarity of her memories—all of these traits, and more, make it hard to believe that the woman is in her early 80s.
As excited and proud as she was about her LIFE cover—”I was running all over, buying copies and giving them to friends, beside myself with happiness,” she says—Moreno recalls that, to her surprise, it didn’t immediately translate into significantly more work, or better, more nuanced roles. “Maybe because I was a Latina,” she says. “Who knows?”
But she also remembers that Daryl Zanuck, the legendary Hollywood producer and studio head, reportedly saw the cover and said, “Get me that girl. Can she speak English?”
“Who says that sort of thing?” the Puerto Rico-born Moreno asks, with a bemused—but far from bitter—chuckle.
Before our phone call ends, Moreno offers one last insight into how “delicious” (her word) it was for a young actress to suddenly see her own face on the cover of arguably the most influential magazine on the planet. Chuckling at the memory, she says that she “would walk into stores with a copy of the magazine, carrying it so you could see the cover, or laying it down on the counter—face up, of course—while I looked at a scarf or something. Oh, it was so wonderful.” And then she laughs, even louder this time.
Sixty years later, there’s something deeply moving, and genuinely endearing, about this world-famous, powerhouse entertainer looking back at her younger self—and liking what she sees.
But then, who can blame her?
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com