Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino (1920-2009) was born exactly a hundred years ago today in Mexico City to Spanish immigrants from Castile (and exactly fifty-four years before I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the wife of a partial descendant of admittedly distant Spanish immigrants from the Canary Islands).
Following his brother to Hollywood and then New York in search of fame and fortune, he moved back to Mexico to help care for his dying mother, later becoming a minor film star in Mexico’s burgeoning cinema industry during the 1940s, appearing with, among others, the legendary Cantinflas. American studio executives made note of his work and he made his Hollywood debut in 1947’s Fiesta, starring Esther Williams (he’d appear with Williams several times). He almost instantly achieved a minor celebrity, appearing on the cover of Life in 1949 and supporting a number of stars during the waning days of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” studio system.
An early starring vehicle in 1954’s The Saracen Blade, directed by William Castle.
Like many of his better-known contemporaries, he quickly took to the new medium of television, appearing with greater and greater prominence in a number of series during the 1950s and 1960s (as well as maintaining a steady presence in live theater well into the 1990s, garnering a Tony nomination for his role in 1958’s Jamaica). While the best-known of his appearances in this vein is probably (for obvious reasons) his sinister Khan Noonien Singh in the OS Star Trek classic “The Space Seed” (1967), I’m quite fond of Nick Grobbo, his genial yet formidable, better-heeled rival to Robert Wagner’s raffish gentleman burglar Alex Mundy in ABC’s It Takes A Thief.
As Nick Grobbo in “The Thingumabob Heist” (1968) with Kay Peters.
In several of these, he’d play a number of ethnicities as was the accepted-by-some standard of the time, ranging from the South Asian Khan to Native Americans (he won an Emmy in 1978 for his role as Satangkai in How the West Was Won and he’s apparently a major player in John Ford’s 1964 elegy Cheyenne Autumn, though I haven’t seen it) and even Japanese! A growing and understandable resentment at the attitudes leading thereto (a 1953 film—with Lana Turner—is literally titled Latin Lovers) led him to get more assertive and even political in his insistence on greater respect and representation, at least for Hispanic actors in Hollywood. He and a number of others established the Nosotros Foundation in 1970 to work for the latter, in the face of confusion and annoyance from the powers-that-be. While there was considerable support for the venture from many quarters, Montalban was certain that it cost him roles from threatened studios.
“I know my own needs”: Montalban with the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba.
It was at this time that, perhaps as a result, he began to appear in the commercials that first worked to revive his star for a whole new generation and audience, namely for the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba, whose marginally more fuel-efficient younger generations Montalban would help advertise throughout the decade (as well as the LeBaron during the 80s). While trading to some extent on the very stereotypes Montalban had worked so hard to dispel (and despite mangling the pronunciation of “Cordoba” at the behest of nervous ad execs), they were neutralized by his now much more confident self-image and inimitable voice, to the point that they were affectionately parodied by Aykroyd and Belushi on Saturday Night Live in Quien es mas macho?. As so many now know, “Corinthian leather” isn’t actually a thing, which Montalban took pains to make clear during his appearance with David Letterman.
I’m still not sure how to post videos, and y’all don’t need to see David Letterman, right?
Later that decade, he became one of the major faces of the bewildering, Dionysian fever dream that was American television during the rise of Aaron Spelling. Having read the Wikipedia entry for Fantasy Island a few times, it’s now hard to believe it actually happened, never mind that I enjoyed watching it as a kid. Nevertheless, it was a massive hit for ABC, and not a little of that was down to Montalban’s impeccably urbane performance as the island’s mysterious host, Mr. Roarke (who could have been anything from a deposed monarch to a renegade Time Lord—Montalban himself apparently considered Mr. Roarke a more service-oriented version of Milton’s Lucifer, a fallen angel sentenced to provide life lessons as a penance for excessive pride).
“Smiles, everybody! Smiles!”
When Nicholas Meyer planned the sequel to the visually spectacular but narratively mystifying Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he went into the original series’ past for inspiration, in part hoping for support from fandom, then in its second glorious decade of impassioned and unerring devotion to sweet reason and a properly proportional approach to then-niche interests. Khan, a cryogenically frozen warlord from the 1990s who had tried to take over the Enterprise in the aforementioned “The Space Seed,” was a ready-made link to the past, and Montalban’s inherent popularity in the early 80s certainly didn’t hurt. The latter, for his part, was eager to get his hands on a meaty, relatively complex role after years of playing the admirable but austere Mr. Roarke. The results are, of course, iconic.
“It is very cooooold… in spaaaaaaace!!!”
The long-distance contest between Montalban and Shatner is really one of cinema’s unique moments, an indelible achievement in a kind of old-fashioned thespian power with added dimensions due to its place in the sci-fi universe. Mike Nelson once wrote that a major appeal of Star Trek for Trek-skeptical him was that the actors were “as old as rocks,” and watching these two guys who came up through the merciless Hollywood studio system and then the steadier channels of TV (each, weirdly enough, originally hailing from a separate next-door neighbor to the United States) work their dramatic muscles (in a way they hadn’t gotten to do in years) during the whiz-bang 80s takes on such deeper meaning when their history is taken into account. Speaking of muscles, the urban legend that Khan’s chest was fake was something Meyer was quick to dispel; Montalban stuck to an exacting exercise routine well into old age.
Early publicity photo from something which looks awesome.
After the end of Fantasy Island, Montalban took a deservingly relaxed approach to his later career, showing up now and again in stuff like The Colbys (I’d completely forgotten he was the bad guy in the first Naked Gun before doing research for this post) but concentrating more on theater and as an elder statesman for his community both on-screen and off (among other things, playing “Grandfather” in the sequels to Robert Rodriguez’s popular Spy Kids). He also concentrated, like many older actors, on voice work, one favorite role of mine his kindly, slightly befuddled villain “Senor Senior, Sr.” in Disney’s Kim Possible.
Watching The Colbys would have been worth it just to see him and Stephanie Beacham chew scenery together.
Montalban died in 2009. Among his legacies are the Ricardo Montalban Theater in Los Angeles, bought by the Nosotros Foundation and renovated to promote Latinx dramatic work and representation; though hardly immune to the commercial misfortunes and setbacks that plague so much of the arts community, the theater remains open and active.
Knocking back champagne later tonight for my forty-sixth (I didn’t quite “make forty-five great again,” as my sister-in-law encouraged, but I tried) and may give Wrath of Khan another spin. I try and watch it every year. Have a great day, folks!