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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

HE WAS SMOOTHER THAN RICH CORINTHIAN LEATHER-R.I.P. RICARDO MONTALBAN (1920-2009)

Ricardo Montalban in perhaps his best-known role: the enigmatic Mr. Roarke on FANTASY ISLAND (1978-1984).

There are a handful of actors whose names are synonymous with "cool" in the heart and mind of Yer Bunche: Sean Connery. Lee Marvin. James Coburn. Richard Roundtree. Leonard Nimoy (in both his Spock and Paris personas).

And then there was Ricardo Montalban.

God DAMN, was he ever one smooth son of a bitch. Every role I ever saw him in just oozed a Latin awesomeness and command of whatever scene he was in (and inevitably stole), even a role as ludicrous as when he gave voice to a cow in an episode of FAMILY GUY. He started his career as the prototypical — and eventually stereotypical — "Latin lover," but to those of my generation he will live forever as Mr. Roarke, the enigmatic, white-suited host of TV's FANTASY ISLAND, a show that many families at the time watched every Saturday night without fail (back-to-back with the far less interesting, to me anyway, THE LOVE BOAT).

But if I may commit TV junkie blasphemy, fuck Mr. Roarke! Fuck him in the goddamned ear! It's all about Khan Noonien Singh, baby, and you motherfuckers know I'm right!

Ricardo rocking the spaceways as Khan Noonien Singh on STAR TREK, way back in 1967. Classic line from the episode: "It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed. Some would prefer it to be more honest, more... open."

First memorably popping up on the original series STAR TREK episode "Space Seed" (1967), Khan was the leader of a bunch of genetically-enhanced and incredibly dangerous supermen who gave the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise a very hard time indeed, and the suave, classy Kahn really got to me as a kid because I couldn't help rooting for him (up to a point). At the end of the episode, Captain Kirk managed to maroon Khan and his people — plus one of the Enterprise crew who defected and eventually became Khan's wife — on some backwater planet and swore that Starfleet would check in on them every now and then...

Yeah, right! That priapic douchebag forgot all about Khan and his gang, leaving them to rot for the next fifteen years, and when the TREK movie franchise looked for a way to continue after the utterly fucking feeble celluloid sedative that was STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), the filmmakers wisely chose to bring back the TV seres' most memorable villain.

Ricardo in full-tilt macho/crazy/pissed-off mode in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. If ever there was a character with extremely good reason to be cheesed, it was Khan, especially after being fucked over by Captain Kirk's negligence.

Quite understandably miffed at not only being stranded on a remote world for nearly two decades but also having to suffer through that already crappy planet being ecologically decimated when its sister planet exploded, Khan and his raggedy-yet-hardy tribe hijack a starship and engage Kirk in the fight of his career. Montalban chews the scenery like a wolverine on crack, practically foaming at the mouth and quoting classical sources willy-nilly, perhaps most notably this bit from MOBY DICK:

"To the last, I will grapple with thee... from Hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!"

Every word was directed straight at Captain Kirk, and you just knew that Khan meant every word of that shit! If Montalban had never acted again, his bravura performance in THE WRATH OF KHAN would have ensured him pop culture immortality. And now he's gone.

From today's Los Angeles Times:

'Fantasy Island' actor Ricardo Montalban dies at 88

Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times
Montalban suffered from a painful spinal condition in his old age, but remained active in trying to raise the profile of Latinos in Hollywood.
He was often cast -- and stereotyped -- as a Latin lover and later was best known as Mr. Roarke of 'Fantasy Island.' He was respected for his work to improve the roles and image of other Latino actors.
By Lorenza Muñoz
2:20 PM PST, January 14, 2009
Ricardo Montalban, the suave leading man who was one of the first Mexican-born actors to make it big in Hollywood and who was best known for his role as Mr. Roarke on ABC's "Fantasy Island," has died. He was 88.

Montalban died Wednesday morning at his Los Angeles home of complications related to old age, said his son-in-law, Gilbert Smith.

Beginning in the 1940s, Montalban starred in dozens of films with some of the greatest names in movies, including Clark Gable and Lana Turner. When major film roles dried up for him in the 1970s, he turned to stage and eventually TV, where he became familiar to millions as the mysterious host whose signature line, "Welcome to Fantasy Island," opened the hit show that ran from 1978 to 1984.

Within the entertainment industry, Montalban was widely respected for his efforts to create opportunities for Latinos, although he and others believed that his activism hurt his career. In 1970, he founded the nonprofit Nosotros Foundation to improve the image and increase employment of Latinos in Hollywood.

"He paved the way for being outspoken about the images and roles that Latinos were playing in movies," said Luis Reyes, author of "Hispanics in Hollywood" (2000).

On Wednesday, actor Edward James Olmos called Montalban "one of the true giants of arts and culture."

"He was a stellar artist and a consummate person and performer with a tremendous understanding of culture . . . and the ability to express it in his work," Olmos told The Times.

After MGM dropped Montalban's contract in 1953, he initially turned to the stage in a touring production of George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell," playing the title character and co-starring with Agnes Moorehead. He continued to appear in films and, in the 1970s and '80s, became a commercial spokesman for Chrysler. He was particularly known -- and later widely spoofed -- for his silky allusion to the "soft Corinthian leather" of the Chrysler Cordoba, although no such leather actually existed.

Also in the late 1970s, he won an Emmy for his performance as Chief Satangkai in the television miniseries "How the West Was Won."

The Chrysler ads, along with his role in "Don Juan in Hell," led to producer Aaron Spelling offering Montalban "Fantasy Island," which renewed his career and gave him financial stability.

While making "Fantasy Island," Montalban also gave one of his best movie performances -- as Khan Noonian Singh in the " Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982), a follow-up to a beloved 1967 "Star Trek" television episode, "Space Seed," that also featured Montalban.

As Khan, Montalban was deliciously over the top, vowing to wreak revenge on Star Trek Admiral James T. Kirk: "I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nivea, and 'round the Antares maelstrom, and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up."

New York Times movie critic Janet Maslin wrote that Montalban, "with his fierce profile, long white hair, manful decolletage and space-age jewelry looks like either the world's oldest rock star or its hippest Indian chief." And New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael said Montalban's performance as Khan "was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen."

Born Nov. 25, 1920, Montalban was the youngest of four children of Castilian Spaniards who had immigrated in 1906 to Mexico City, where Montalban's father owned a dry goods store. When he was 5, the family moved to the arid northern city of Torreon. After graduating from high school, Montalban was taken to Los Angeles by his oldest brother, Carlos, who had lived here and had gotten work in the Hollywood studios.

"I felt as if I knew California already, because of the movies," Montalban said in "Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds," the 1980 autobiography he wrote with Bob Thomas.

Montalban studied English at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, where an MGM talent scout noticed him in a student play. He was offered a screen test, but his brother advised him against taking it and took him on a business trip to New York City.

By that time, however, the acting bug had hit and soon the handsome Montalban found himself the star of a short film that was made to play on a screen atop a jukebox. That three-minute movie, whichdebuted at the Hurricane Bar in midtown Manhattan, led to small roles in various plays.

When his mother's illness took him back to Mexico, Montalban searched for acting jobs there and got a one-line role in a parody of "The Three Musketeers," starring Cantinflas. Around that time, he also met Georgiana Belzer, a model and Loretta Young's sister, whom he married in 1944. He intended to stay in Mexico, where his film career was starting to take off.

But MGM came calling again and wanted him to play a bullfighter in the Esther Williams' film "Fiesta," much of which was shot in Mexico. He is remembered best in that 1947 film for a dance scene with the young Cyd Charisse.

"Fiesta" led to a contract at MGM, where he remained for eight years and had a friendly rivalry with Fernando Lamas -- later Williams' real-life husband -- as the resident "Latin lovers" for the studio. Indeed, Billy Crystal immortalized this duel between the two men with his classic "Saturday Night Live" skit, "Quien es mas macho, Fernando Lamas or Ricardo Montalban?"

Besides "Fiesta," Montalban appeared as the Latin lover with Williams in two other late-1940s films, "On an Island With You" and "Neptune's Daughter." So blatant was the typecasting that he appeared in a 1953 film with Turner titled "Latin Lovers."

"He was incredibly handsome, he gave a style and dignity to all of his roles -- no matter what role he played," said author Reyes.

In 1949, he played a Mexican federal agent in Anthony Mann's "Border Incident," which also starred a future California senator, George Murphy, and he appeared with Murphy and Van Johnson in William A. Wellman's "Battleground," a film about the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

Director John Sturges gave him the leading role of Lt. Peter Morales in "Mystery Street" in 1950 and, that same year, a starring role with June Allyson and Dick Powell in "Right Cross." Also in 1950, Montalban was Jane Powell's Cuban love interest in "Two Weeks With Love." The following year, Montalban co-starred with Gable in Wellman's "Across the Wide Missouri."

But, as he wrote in his autobiography, he never was cast in the dramatic role at MGM that would have made him a major movie star.

"He appeared to have everything else -- a marvelous camera face, the physique of a trained dancer, talent, a fine voice (he could even sing), warmth and great charm," Kael wrote. "Maybe the charm was a drawback -- it may have made him seem too likable "

After MGM dropped him in 1953, Montalban went on the road with Moorehead and others in "Don Juan in Hell," which was later revived on Broadway with him in the lead. In 1955, he appeared on Broadway in the short-lived "Seventh Heaven" and in the late 1950s starred with Lena Horne in "Jamaica," which ran for 555 performances and earned him a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical.

He played a Kabuki theater actor in "Sayonara" (1957) and co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in the 1966 film "The Singing Nun." Decades later, he appeared as the evil tycoon in the 1988 box-office comedy smash "Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" and had a prominent role as the grandfather in "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" (2003). He had also appeared in "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams" (2002).

Beginning in the mid-1950s, he made the first of many TV appearances. In addition to his role as Chief Satangkai in the 1978 ABC miniseries "How the West Was Won," he appeared in the "Dynasty" spinoff "The Colbys" in the late 1980s. More recently, he voiced Señor Señor Sr. on the Disney Channel's animated series "Kim Possible."

But it was "Fantasy Island" that created his lasting image in front of the Hollywood cameras.

Elegantly attired in a white suit and black tie, Montalban created such an iconic -- albeit somewhat kitschy -- figure that he often reprised the character insubsequent films and television shows.

The show's executive producer, Aaron Spelling, told TV Guide in 1980 that Montalban gave Mr. Roarke the "other-worldly quality we needed." Many credited the repartee between Mr. Roarke and the character of Tattoo, played by the 3-foot-10-inch Herve Villechaize, for keeping viewers tuning in.

Montalban told TV Guide that his character "manipulates everything and everyone. In the eye of the fantasizer, Roarke has the power of life and death."

Although Montalban expressed appreciation for his success, he complained continually throughout his career that Hollywood lacked respect for Mexican American actors. He said that while under contract at MGM, he portrayed Cubans, Brazilians and Argentines, but almost never Mexicans.

"Mexican is not a nice-sounding word and Hollywood is at fault for this because we have been portrayed in this ungodly manner," he said. He challenged Hollywood to stop stereotyping Latin actors by casting them only as prostitutes, maids, gang-bangers and bandidos.

By establishing the Nosotros Foundation, Montalban attempted to highlight and recognize Latino participation in the arts and entertainment. In 1970, the foundation created the Golden Eagle Awards, an annual awards show that recognizes Latino stars, shows and movies. Among those who received awards in 2004 was Hector Elizondo, who was given the Ricardo Montalban Life Achievement Award.

In 1999, the Ricardo Montalban Foundation was formed. It purchased the former Doolittle Theatre near Hollywood and Vine to stage Latino productions and named the theater after Montalban. But as was reported by The Times in 2005, the theater was mired in financial problems and no plays had yet been staged.

"It just takes time," Montalban told The Times' Agustin Gurza in August 2005. "This is all new for us."

He had been confined to a wheelchair in recent years, in nearly constant pain from a congenital condition that affected his spine. But he was philosophical about his suffering.

"My acting ability, what I have achieved in my life, I think has grown because of the physical pain," he said.

A deeply spiritual man, Montalban once said that the guiding force in his life was his Catholic faith. In 1998, Pope John Paul II made him a Knight Commander of St. Gregory, the highest honor bestowed upon non-clergy in the Roman Catholic Church.

Also in 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 achievementaward in 1993.

He is survived by two daughters, Laura Montalban and Anita Smith; two sons, Mark Montalban and Victor Montalban; and six grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Muñoz is a former Times staff writer.

3 comments:

jewishwarriorprincess said...

Such a loss. He was handsome and talented and what a great set of pecs. I still think they are real. :-)

Ravens said...

They were. Montalban was an amateur body-builder.

Dammit. When I was a kid, I thought he was the King of Cool. Still a hell of a star, with a small yet enduring legacy.

Damn, I wish Father Time would stop killing off all the great icons...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Roarke was the man of mystery my mother wouldn't let me see.

Jes