Feature

Ricardo Montalban

The Mexican-American actor who exuded foreign charisma

The Mexican-American actor who exuded foreign charisma
Ricardo Montalban
1920–2009

With his dark good looks, commanding physique, and richly accented voice, Ricardo Montalban was the embodiment of suave machismo. In a 60-year career he portrayed not only conventional Latin types but also more exotic characters, especially the all-powerful Mr. Roarke on ABC’s Fantasy Island.

Montalban came to Los Angeles from Mexico City as a teenager, said the London Times. After debuting on Broadway in Her Cardboard Lover, he joined MGM and “was quickly typecast as a Latin lover, picking up roles that might once have been played by Rudolph Valentino.” Following such big-screen fare as Fiesta (1947), Sombrero (1953), and the aptly named Latin Lovers (1953), MGM dropped him, freeing him to play other roles. Montalban played a Japanese kabuki actor in Sayonara (1957), an Indian chief in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and an Italian movie star in Sweet Charity (1969). He also did much TV work, memorably portraying the genetically engineered superwarrior Khan Noonien Singh in “Space Seed,” a 1967 episode of Star Trek.

Montalban’s “villainous, vengeful” reprise of that role in the critically acclaimed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was one of several ventures that gave him “renewed visibility in middle age,” said The Washington Post. He was the humane circus owner Armando in two Planet of the Apes movies, and his purring endorsement of the Chrysler Cordoba’s “soft, Corinthian leather” became a kitschy catchphrase of the 1970s. As the white-suited, black-tied host of Fantasy Island (1978–84), “he greeted a series of guest actors with drinks and allowed them to live out a fantasy of their choosing.” Montalban once mused about the enigmatic role: “Was he a magician? A hypnotist? Did he use hallucinogenic drugs? I finally came across a character that works for me. He was the essence of mystery.”

Though he was nominated for a Tony for Jamaica in 1958 and won an Emmy for How the West Was Won in 1978, Montalban’s proudest personal achievement was Nosotros, the actors’ group he founded in 1970 to combat the traditional image of Latin Americans as “bandidos, peons, and gigolos,” as he put it. In his honor, Nosotros renamed the Doolittle Theater near Hollywood and Vine for him.

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