"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.
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
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
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.