Host of 'Fantasy Island' And Star of '40s Musicals Advocated for Latino Actors

Actor Ricardo Montalban, famous for his role in TV series "Fantasy Island," died today in his Los Angeles home at the age of 88.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ricardo Montalbán, 88, a Mexican-born actor who starred in Hollywood dramas and candy-colored musicals in the 1940s and '50s and was perhaps best known as the debonair host of the TV drama "Fantasy Island" and as pitchman for the "soft Corinthian leather" of the Chrysler Cordoba, died Jan. 14 at his home in Los Angeles. He had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Montalbán parlayed early success as a leading man of Mexican cinema into a Hollywood contract in the late '40s as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio's resident "Latin lover" opposite Esther Williams.

Given big budgets, the films were splashy showcases for swimming star Williams but were considered breakthroughs in the respect that, at least in the case of "Neptune's Daughter" (1949), a white actress was romantically involved with Mr. Montalbán's character. In other roles, he was her brother.

Decades later, he campaigned actively to improve the variety of parts available to Hispanic and Latino actors. This was crucial, he said, at a time when "the only Hispanics children could see were banditos, peons and gigolos."

Although he continued in lighter fare at MGM, he also acted in several first-rate dramas, including William Wellman's "Battleground" (1949) as a soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, and "Border Incident" (1949) and "Mystery Street" (1950) as law enforcement officials.

But for the most part, he remained busy in an almost ridiculous array of ethnic movie roles. He was an American Indian in "Across the Wide Missouri" (1951) with Clark Gable, a Japanese kabuki actor in "Sayonara" (1957) with Marlon Brando and the rich Italian ladies' man in the musical "Sweet Charity" (1968) with Shirley MacLaine. He played a French duke in the comedy "Love Is a Ball" (1963) and won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of an Indian chief in the TV miniseries "How the West Was Won, Part II" (1978).

Mr. Montalbán received a Tony Award nomination for his long-running stage role as Lena Horne's fisherman lover in the musical "Jamaica" (1957) and began to make forays onto TV programs, including westerns and sitcoms.

His best-remembered work on the small screen was the role of the white-suited Mr. Roarke in "Fantasy Island," a romantic drama that aired on ABC from 1978 to 1984. Like other shows produced by Aaron Spelling, it featured an exotic locale where women tended to remove clothing.

Television scholar Robert J. Thompson of Syracuse University said the show's casting of Mr. Montalbán as Mr. Roarke and the diminutive actor Hervé Villechaize as his sidekick Tattoo was significant "in an era when you did not see a lot of people of different ethnic groups and colors on television."

Moreover, Thompson said, Mr. Montalbán's portrayal of Mr. Roarke was elegant, sexual, powerful and able to add "gravitas to a show with an otherwise pretty cheesy pedigree." In each episode, Mr. Roarke greeted a series of guest actors with drinks and allowed them to live out a fantasy of their choosing, often with the characters becoming sadder but wiser.

Explaining the role of Mr. Roarke, Mr. Montalbán told an interviewer at the time: "Was he a magician? A hypnotist? Did he use hallucinogenic drugs? I finally came across a character that works for me. He has the essence of mystery, but I need a point of view so that my performance is consistent. I now play him 95 percent believable and 5 percent mystery. He doesn't have to behave mysteriously, only what he does is mysterious."

The show gave Mr. Montalbán a renewed visibility in middle age. He also won many fans as the title villain in the hit movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982). Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that Mr. Montalbán "plays his fiery villainy to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty; his bravado is grandly comic." The actor parodied his suave persona as the unscrupulous businessman who hatches a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth II in "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" (1988).

Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino was born Nov. 25, 1920, in Mexico City to Spanish immigrants. Their adherence to old country ways led to embarrassing moments in adolescence, including his mother's insistence on lace collars and short pants "long after my legs had grown long and hairy," he wrote in his 1980 memoir, "Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds."

He spent his teenage years in Los Angeles, where he learned English and began acting in high school. After a brief period of stage work in New York, he made more than two dozen movies in Mexico, notably as a free-spirited son in "La Casa de la Zorra" (The House of the Fox) in 1945, before Hollywood recruited him as part of the wartime effort to embrace Latin America.

Mr. Montalbán had strong feelings about what he considered the misplaced judgment of Hollywood producers to cast with a lack of knowledge when it came to characters of various ethnic origins.

Starting in the late 1960s, Mr. Montalbán became a leading voice in the effort to promote Hispanic actors for roles and helped found the trade organization Nosotros to improve the image of Hispanics in the movies and on television.

"Hollywood has never killed my enthusiasm or optimism," he told the (Portland) Oregonian newspaper in 1988, "but it did kill my dreams. I became realistic about where I stand in regard to the roles that are written -- they are not written for me."

"In Hollywood," he added, "the best roles are written for Americans. If your name is as Latin as mine and you have an accent, Hollywood doesn't write for you. I have had to scrape around and find something, then tell my agent, 'Please, maybe I could do that role if it is changed slightly -- if the character isn't born in Boston.' "

One of his earliest mentors was actor and director Norman Foster, who while filming in Mexico helped bring Mr. Montalbán to attention in Hollywood. They became brothers-in-law, having both married into the family of actress siblings that included Loretta Young. Mr. Montalbán was married to Georgiana Young from 1944 until her death in 2007.

Survivors include their four children, Laura Montalbán of New York, Mark Montalbán of Los Angeles, Anita Smith of Los Angeles and Victor Montalbán of San Luis Obispo, Calif.; and six grandchildren.

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