Ricardo Montalbán: Suave and Sophistication

He was the personification of suave sophistication in every role he played.

Both his infamous roles – the villainous Khan Noonien Singh from Star Trek and the welcoming Mr Roarke from Fantasy Island – carried themselves with grace and confidence. Such qualities came naturally to the Mexican-born American thespian who has had a remarkable seven-decade career in the entertainment business.

His mainstream movie career began when he was plucked from Mexico’s movie industry by MGM in the 1940s. His first role was that of a bullfighter, cast opposite Esther Williams. MGM quickly put him on contract and he would go on to appear along side many screen legends, including Clarke Gable, Lana Turner and Marlon Brando. Though he was working in Hollywood, he was often cast in stereotypical roles, as the Latin heartthrob or as one of the Asian characters.

Montalbán first on-screen leading role was in Border Incident, a 1949 film in which he starred alongside actor George Murphy. During the ’50s and ’60s he was one of only a handful of active Hispanic actors and Montalbán was proud to be one of them.

During the late ’60s, Montalbán appeared in the now classic episode of Star Trek, called Space Seed. In it, he portrayed the character of Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered human and some would say one of worthiest opponents of Captain James T. Kirk and perhaps even a worthy opponent to William Shatner, in terms of screen presence.

When major film roles dried up for him in the 1970s, he turned to stage and eventually TV, where he was familiar to millions as the mysterious host whose signature line, “Welcome to Fantasy Island,” opened the hit show Fantasy Island.

During this time, he also won an Emmy for his performance as Chief Satangkai in the 1978 television miniseries How the West Was Won. In the 1970s and 80s, Montalbán was also familiar to TV viewers as a commercial spokesman for car manufacturer Chrysler.

Montalbán also gave one of his best movie performances by revisiting the character of Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a follow-up to television episode of the series that also featured the character. The New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael said Montalbán’s performance as Khan “was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen.”

As time went on, his roles diversified, he played the evil tycoon in the 1988 comedy hit Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and had a prominent role as the grandfather in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.

He was widely respected for his efforts to create opportunities for Latinos. He even co-created the nonprofit Nosotros Foundation, to help improve the image and increase employment of Latinos in Hollywood. Though some critics say that this move hurt his image as a Latino, but Montalbán did not care.

While filming a scene for the 1951 film Across the Wide Missouri, Montalbán was reportedly thrown off a horse, knocked out, and walked on by another horse, leaving him with a spinal injury that troubled him for the rest of his life and grew more painful as he aged. In 1993, he underwent nine-and-a-half hours of spinal surgery, but it only made the pain worse. Montalbán continued to work, usually delivering his lines from a wheelchair.

Montalbán died on January 14, 2009 at his home in Los Angeles, California at the age of 88. The cause of death was not officially identified, although his son-in-law, Gilbert Smith, did say he died of “complications from advancing age.” He is survived by four children: Laura, Mark, Anita and Victor.

No comments: