The Appreciation of Ricardo Montalbán
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Ricardo Montalbán made the most of showbiz's scrambled transmissions about the idea of exotic people.
He was the multi-ethnic "other"-for-hire, a Mexican-born actor who arrived to do westerns or add calypso, meringue and matador moments to MGM studio fare, and then got by quite nicely on his ability to "do" Asian or Native American or interstellar ultrahuman. It's the sort of career that could launch a hundred USC or NYU film theory dissertations all about an industry that can transmogrify anything brown or tan into any race or ethnicity. Montalbán transcended this with an endless supply of suave and a finely tuned notion of melodrama.
Not coincidentally is Montalbán -- who died yesterday in Los Angeles at 88 of congestive heart failure -- remembered for selling us on the "luxury" of confabulated, mid-1970s coupe upholstery. (Corinthian leather?) He was fancy and handsome like that, and just strange enough to suggest mystery. Ultimately it's all about how you look. Maybe his career was all upholstery, of the finest sort that Hollywood manufactures. A representation of a whiff of an idea of a concept of classiness. Hugh Hefner times Cary Grant divided by Jose Cuervo.
In a white suit, as Mr. Roarke, the mystical proprietor of "Fantasy Island," Montalbán welcomed us to a tropical television paradise where vacation dreams turned slightly sinister. It was the perfect sort of thing for people with nothing to do on Saturday nights -- when the ABC series aired for seven seasons, paired with the "The Love Boat." Thanks to Montalbán, it's impossible to cash in Marriott points at a resort hotel with banyan ceiling fans and not hear his voice in your head: Smiles, everyone. Smiles. Although ostensibly adult in theme, the audience for "Fantasy Island" included anyone who was an adolescent in the 1970s: For us, the voice of Montalbán supplied this weird edge to babysitting gigs. Who was this man supposed to be? (God? The devil?)
An actor. An accidental icon. What a wonderful thing to become, to be known everywhere you go, to have every flight attendant or waiter speak your lines back to you. (Then again, being "Ricardo Montalbán" must have had its limits. When does the joke turn on you? His last credits? Cartoons, with a voice that could only be his, and will now be approximated by imitators.)
Mr. Roarke would have been enough to seal him forever into the mind's museum. The Chrysler Cordoba might have been enough to do it.
But then came Khan Noonien Singh. You can just call him Khan, as in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of . . ." Now Montalbán's death takes its place as yet another "Star Trek" obit, and these things are very important if your pop-culture Richter scale is hooked up to geekdom's fault line. He first played Khan in an episode of the original "Star Trek" in 1967, which should have meant no big deal, since Montalbán also had bit parts in episodes of everything then ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," "Gunsmoke," "Marcus Welby, M.D." . . .).
For some wonderfully inane reason, the makers of "Star Trek" movies built the 1982 movie sequel around villainous, vengeful Khan, and Montalbán accepted the challenge of chewing more scenery than William Shatner. Wearing a silver mullet and what appears to be a prosthetic, muscled chest (Montalbán reportedly insisted those pecs were his), the actor memorably channeled a well-mannered rage. For Trekkies, "The Wrath of Khan" is pure Hemingway. They gave him the very best lines ever uttered in sci-fi, such as: "I've done far worse than kill you, Admiral. I've hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me, as you left her; marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet. Buried alive. Buried alive . . . " (Shatner's apoplectic Kirk: "KHAAANNN!")
But they couldn't outdo "Moby-Dick."
Khan (dying, about to explode in a nebula, quoting Melville and just oozing ridiculous amounts of pomposity): "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!"
All of which is to say it's a sad day in the basement.
Wonderful day on the island, though. (Smiles, everyone. Smiles.)