Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nosotros amamos Ricardo Montalban

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon es un evento dedicado a celebrar los logros de los latinos en la industria del cine a lo largo de la historia, organizado por Once Upon a Screen y Movie Star Makeover. Para obtener una lista de bloggers que participan, por favor visite los enlaces en cualquier sitio.

"My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island!"

And with a beverage raised in salute, the mysterious yet charismatic host played by Ricardo Montalban welcomed television viewers every week to his tropical getaway resort where dreams literally come true... for a price. I watched Fantasy Island all the time, coming on right after The Love Boat on Saturday nights. It was an easier show for me as a kid to grasp, I think, than the more adult-oriented Love Boat, with all its silly shipboard romances and 70s-style hanky panky. I probably watched it more for the celebrity guest stars than anything else.

Montalban, circa 1951.
You're welcome, ladies.
Fantasy Island, however, was wish-fulfillment of a different kind. If it were made in 2014, it would no doubt have an ongoing "mythology" built around the secret of how the island works, who Mr. Roarke really is, and similar crap like that, a la Lost. But it didn't need any of that silliness back then. The vaguely Twilight Zone-light premise was enough for the show to be entertaining, for me and a lot of other viewers, and a big reason why was the presence of a smooth operator like Montalban. (Yes, I'm aware of the rebooted version with Malcolm McDowell; it never interested me much.)

For the Mexico City native, it was the latest turn in a long career that stretched back to the early 40s. Born in 1920 as Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino, he moved from Mexico to Hollywood as a teen, where his brother Carlos was pursuing a film career. Ricardo learned English in the process, and eventually, they went east to New York, where he did some stage work for a time. Back in Mexico, he built a career in the film industry there until he caught MGM's attention. His debut Hollywood film, 1947's Fiesta, was with Esther Williams. From there, he did a lot of "Latin Lover"-type roles, as well as various other stereotypical Hispanic (and occasional non-Hispanic) roles. In the mid-50s, he returned to the stage, earning a Tony nomination for the 1957 musical Jamaica, with Lena Horne. He would return to the stage periodically for decades afterward.

Montalban as Khan in Star Trek
In the 60s, Montalban was immersed in television, and among the many shows he appeared in, including Playhouse 90, Bonanza, The Loretta Young Show, The Untouchables, Dr. Kildare and The Man From UNCLE, there was, of course, his unforgettable turn in an original Star Trek episode as the genetically-enhanced superman Khan. (Little known fact: in 1956, Montalban appeared on the TV show Chevron Hall of Stars in a sci-fi episode called "The Secret Defense of 117," written by none other than future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.)

Khan was a conqueror from a period in Earth's history where war and internal conflict still ran rampant between nations. In the episode, Mr. Spock is appalled to discover that Captain Kirk admires the man in a way, despite his brutality, because that barbarism is part of humanity's nature, even in a future society where humanity is unified in peace. Montalban has some great scenes, especially the ones in which he attempts to match wits with Kirk and Spock over dinner, and also when he seduces a young woman lieutenant into doing his will. Watching him closely, one can see that his performance is very much in the eyes. Years later, of course, he would return to this role in the second Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, revered by genre fans as a modern classic.

Montalban w/Herve Villechaize,
from Fantasy Island
Fantasy Island's Mr. Roarke, by contrast, was much lighter, but even here there were places where he gave the character a certain edge. Rare is the TV show these days in which a mystery remains a mystery for long, and I don't think it hurt the show to keep Mr. Roarke - or, for that matter, his diminutive sidekick Tattoo - an enigma. Re-watching it on YouTube, I still found it enjoyable. It was a product of its time, reflecting the tastes of executive producer Aaron Spelling, of Charlie's Angels and The Love Boat fame. Apparently, ABC initially wanted Orson Welles as Mr. Roarke. Can you imagine?

In the 80s, Montalban also enjoyed a stretch as a recurring character on Dynasty, and its spin-off, The Colbys, playing a European shipping tycoon with the unlikely name of Zach Powers. The only clips of him in the show that I could find on YouTube were dubbed into Spanish, so I can't attest to how he was on the show, but I imagine he fit in well with the rest of the cast.

Montalban continued to appear in films as well as TV, including Sweet Charity (with Shirley MacLaine), two Planet of the Apes movies, and The Naked Gun, plus his Emmy-winning role in the TV mini-series How the West Was Won, but he wanted better roles for himself and for other Latinos. In 1970, he and several other Latino actors founded the Nosotros Foundation, which strove to improve acting opportunities for Latinos in Hollywood. The Golden Eagle Awards were started by the Foundation to honor Latino actors and it's held at the Ricardo Montalban Theater in Hollywood as part of the Nosotros American Latino Film Festival.

Back in 1951, while filming a Western, Montalban fell off a horse, and was trampled by another one. As a result, he sustained a back injury that never healed. In 1993, after nine hours of spinal surgery, he was paralyzed below the waist and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. However, this did not adversely affect his career. He continued to appear on TV (also doing voice work for animated series) and film, including two Spy Kids movies from Latino director Robert Rodriguez.

Montalban died in 2009 at age 88. As a Trekkie, I, of course, tend to think of him as Khan first (a role which that other guy can never replace), and indeed, it's perhaps his best-known role, but he had a rich and vibrant career, one in which he overcame Latino stereotypes imposed on him to become a respected and beloved actor to several generations of film and television lovers.


  1. On behalf of ladies everywhere, thank you for that picture.

    Ricardo Montalban was an actor both electrifying and soulful.

    Senor Senior Sr. on "Kim Possible" earned him the title from my daughter of "the cool guy", and that was before she met Khan!

    If he had been in no other movies but "Battleground" Montalban would be a favourite of mine. It is his long, varied career, successful marriage and his commitment to art and his community that most admirable.

  2. 'Battleground,' eh? I'll have to look that one up.

  3. You had me at the Spanish intro. Nicely done. :) I also love that you delve into Fantasy Island and his role as Khan on Trek, which I adore. I too grew up watching both of those shows and my affection for Montalban is connected more to that than his film work. Wonderful post, Rich. Muchisimas gracias por tomar parte en este evento!


  4. So does this mean I got the Spanish right? Hadda use Google.

  5. I didn't realize he was paralyzed. Where was I? I would have loved to have married him. While with a romantic foreigner persona which can make my eyes roll, he seemed simply kind and nice. One day I want to visit the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles.

  6. I vaguely remember reading about it around the time it happened. I didn't remember the part about him being in surgery for nine hours though.

  7. When I was a kid, I hadn't seen his Star Trek episodes and I had no interest in Fantasy Island (I can't imagine a more apt description of ABC's programming at the time and the influence of producer Aaron Spelling). For me, Ricardo Montalban will always be Armando, helper of two generations of apes in the Planet of the Apes series.

  8. LOL Well, who knows, if I had been a little older in the 70s, maybe I would've felt the same way about Fantasy Island. I dunno.

    I've seen the Apes sequels, but not enough to associate him with those movies. Maybe I'll binge-watch a bunch of them one day for the blog.

  9. I'm certainly only familiar with Ricardo Montalban's fine work in Star Trek II (my dad is a big fan!) so it was great to be introduced to all the facets of his career. Fantasy Island sounds like the perfect Sunday afternoon treat...!

  10. By all means, check it out, but remember that it's basically fluff.

  11. Everybody who has watched Fantasy Island wanted to go there... maybe only to meet Mr. Roarke!
    It's always a pleasure to see Ricardo as a supporting player in films lik Sweet Charity and Madam X. What a great guy!
    And that photo of him as Khan will haunt me for a couple of nights...
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  12. I'm pretty sure I saw SWEET CHARITY back in my video store days but I wasn't impressed with it at the time. Don't remember what he did in the movie.


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