Rita Moreno Says Michael Jackson Copied Some of Her Dance Moves for 'Thriller' (Exclusive)

"He told me one day that I was a huge favorite of his," the 'West Side Story' alum says of the King of Pop

<p>Michael Tullberg/Getty; KMazur/WireImage</p> Rita Moreno; Michael Jackson

Michael Tullberg/Getty; KMazur/WireImage

Rita Moreno; Michael Jackson

Rita Moreno says the origin of some of Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” dances started with her.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, the Singin' in the Rain actress, 92, recalls a conversation with the late King of Pop in which she claims he confessed that she was the inspiration behind one of his most notable dance routines to date.

“I’m always shocked when Michael — I love to tell the story,” she began.

“He told me one day that I was a huge favorite of his, [in this] tiny little voice. And he said, ‘I’ve always loved your dancing, and I copied some of the steps,’ and sure enough, when I saw ‘Thriller,’ I saw some of the steps from ‘America.’”

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Rita Moreno — "America" in 1961
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Rita Moreno — "America" in 1961

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Moreno may be best known for her role as Anita in the 1961 version of West Side Story. In the famed musical, she does a dance performance with a team of dancers for a song called “America.”

"Thriller” was released in 1982 and premiered as a nearly 14-minute-long musical horror film which showed Jackson transforming into a zombie-like creature after an evening movie date.

MCA/Universal/Everett Collection Michael Jackson — "Thriller"
MCA/Universal/Everett Collection Michael Jackson — "Thriller"

The spooky song even began with a warning signed by Jackson before the music video played: “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”

According to Rolling Stone, it cost half-a-million dollars to turn “Thriller” into a reality, thus making it the most expensive music video out at the time.

“Oh he loved, he loved 'America,'" Moreno tells PEOPLE of Jackson.

“He just loved the choreography. He was influenced by Jerome Robbins,” the actress said of the late dancer and choreographer. “Oh, very much. Very much."

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And the EGOT winner doesn’t seem to mind that she inspired dance moves that still live on today. In fact, she tells PEOPLE that she doesn’t believe performers who claim they don’t care about accolades.

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“I love being awarded. I love the attention,” Moreno says. “I think that most actors who tell you they don’t want the attention are lying.”

“There’s a part of us that more often than not, there are some who aren’t that way, but very few, very few. We love it. It’s food for us in many important ways, not just show ways,” she tells PEOPLE.

For more from Rita Moreno, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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