January 14, 2009

Esteemed Actor Ricardo Montalban Dies

Fantasy Island's 'Mr. Roarke,' Star Trek's 'Khan' swatted away Latin
stereotypes and created
opportunities for promising thesps

Ricardo Montalban
Watch Montalban's exclusive conversation with the Television Archive about his life and career. Excerpt below.
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Ricardo Montalban, the award-winning actor who starred in numerous feature films and became a pop-culture icon as the enigmatic Mr. Roarke on the television series Fantasy Island, died January 14 at his Los Angeles home. He was 88.

Beyond his prolific acting career, Montalban was a pioneering advocate for Latins in the entertainment industry.

The son of parents who had emigrated from Spain, Montalban was born in Mexico City on November 25, 1920. Brought up to speak Castilian Spanish, Montalban was teased by his schoolmates for the way he spoke.

This early experience was echoed in later years when, after moving to the United States, he endured prejudice due to his Mexican origins.

The youngest of four children, Montalban left Mexico for Los Angeles after graduating from high school. The move was encouraged by his oldest brother, Carlos, who had lived in Los Angeles and worked in the Hollywood movie studios.

Montalban studied English at L.A.’s Fairfax High School, where an MGM talent scout took note of him in a student play.

Although offered a screen test, he declined the opportunity joined his brother on a trip to New York City. There, he appeared in a short film that led to small roles in various plays.

He returned to Mexico when his mother became ill, but continued to seek work as an actor. He gradually broke into Mexican films, and eventually MGM sought him out again to play a bullfighter in the Esther Williams film Fiesta, much of which was shot in Mexico.

That film led to a contract with the legendary studio, and in the ensuing eight years he appeared in several productions with some of the biggest stars of the era, including Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Van Johnson and June Allyson.

But for all of his success at the time, a breakout role eluded him, perhaps because he was often typecast in so-called “Latin Lover” parts.

When MGM did not renew his contract in 1953, Montalban enjoyed success on stage as the star of a touring production of Don Juan in Hell that eventually went to Broadway.

In 1955, he appeared on Broadway in Seventh Heaven; a few years later he starred opposite Lena Horne in Jamaica, which ran for 555 performances and earned him a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical.

He also continued to work in films, including Sayonara and The Singing Nun, and in the mid-’50s he expanded into television as well. Early TV appearances included Colgate Theater and Playhouse 90, and over the years he appeared in episodes of dozens of series, from Ben Casey and Bonanza to Murder, She Wrote and Chicago Hope.

Years after appearing as the villainous Khan Noonien Singh in a 1967 episode of Star Trek, he reprised the role in the 1982 feature film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

In 1978 Montalban won a Primetime Emmy for his performance as Chief Satangkai in the ABC miniseries How the West Was Won. In the late 1980s he was one of the stars of the ABC series The Colbys, a spin-off of Dynasty.

But he is best remembered for Fantasy Island, which aired from 1978-1984. The Aaron Spelling production was set in a lush island paradise where guests would venture to fulfill long-held dreams—and inevitably faced difficult life lessons along the way.

Along with his diminutive sidekick Tattoo, played by Herve Villechaize, Montalban’s Mr. Roarke served as the mystery-shrouded host to the island’s visitors.

His other most recognized television role may have been as the pitchman for the Chrysler automobile Cordoba. In a series of commercials, Montalban extolled the vehicle’s “soft Corinthian leather,” which became an enduring catch phrase.

In 1970, Montalban organized fellow Latino actors into an organization called Nosotros (Spanish for “We”'), and became its first president. The group’s objective was to improve the image of Spanish-speaking Americans on the screen, to assure that Latin-American actors were not discriminated against and to stimulate Latino actors to study their profession.

To draw attention to the achievements of Latin performer, Nosotros established the Golden Eagle Awards, an annual ceremony dedicated to recognizing Latino stars, shows and movies. One of its honors is the Ricardo Montalban Life Achievement Award.

The Ricardo Montalban Foundation, formed in 1999, purchased the former Doolittle Theatre near Hollywood and Vine to stage Latino productions and renamed the theater after Montalban.

The Ricardo Montalban Theatre, Los Angeles, California.

While shooting the 1951 Western Across the Wide Missouri, starring Clark Gable, Montalban suffered a spinal injury when he fell from a horse. From then on, he walked with a limp, which he managed to conceal during his performances.

Further spinal problems emerged in 1993, when he lost the feeling in his leg, and subsequent tests revealed that he had suffered a small hemorrhage in his neck, similar to the injury decades earlier. He underwent nine-and-a-half hours of spinal surgery at UCLA Medical Center.

Although debilitated by severe pain, Montalban continued to act well into his seventies and eighties. He appeared in another Aaron Spelling series, 1994’s Heaven Help Us, as an angel. He also remained a familiar face in such movies as the 1988 release Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and in Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002) and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003).

In recent years he remained busy with voice-over work, including episodes of the animated series Dora the Explorer, Kim Possible and Family Guy.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II named Montalban, a devout Catholic, a Knight Commander of St. Gregory, the highest honor bestowed upon non-clergy in the Roman Catholic Church.

And 1988, then-Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid gave Montalban the Recognition of Merit award, the highest honor bestowed on Mexican civilians, for his work helping to raise more than $10 million after the Mexico City earthquake.

From 1965 to 1970, Montalban was vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, which gave him a life achievement award in 1993.

Montalban’s wife of more than 50 years, Georgiana Young, the sister of actress Loretta Young, died in 2007. He is survived by two daughters, two sons and six grandchildren.

Ricardo Montalban talks with
Archive of American Television

In August 2002, Ricardo Montalban had an extensive conversation with Karen Herman of the Archive of American Television about his life and career.

He spoke of his desire to keep his name despite the Hollywood pressure to change it to “Ricky Martin" and of his early courting by Hollywood and his eventual signing with MGM.

Montalban discussed his appearance in one of the early “soundies” of the 1940s, He’s A Latin From Staten Island, described Hollywood's Latin stereotypes and discussed how he was not cast in Mexican roles, but rather more “exotic” South American “types.”

He talked of touring the country to promote movies—in the studios’ attempt to steer the public from television—and of the "truth in acting" he discovered through his acting studies with Stanislavsky disciple Seki Sano in the early 1940s. Plus, he recalled appearances on several “live” dramatic television anthologies of the 1950s, including Climax! and The Loretta Young Show.

Montalban described his recreation of the role of Khan from the 1967 “Space Seed” episode of Star Trek to the 1982 feature film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which required him to review his earlier performance to recapture the spirit of the part.

Plus, he spoke in great detail about the part for which he is most associated: Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. He discussed producer Aaron Spelling’s concept, the use of Roarke in setting the stage for each episode, and the challenges of production. He also spoke of his well-known appearances as spokesman for Chrysler Cordoba.

He looked back on his founding of Nosotros, an organization to promote opportunities for Hispanic actors and to help eradicate stereotypical images of them in Hollywood. Montalban described the organization’s goals and how its founding caused him to be blacklisted temporarily from the industry.

See the full five-part interview with Ricardo Montalban here.

The complete interview is also available for viewing at the AAT office, located on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences plaza in North Hollywood. Contact the Television Archive at (818) 754-2800 for more information.

To learn more about this life and works of this American Archive of Television personality online, please visit the Archive of American Television Update blog

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