No Montalban is an Island: Ricardo Montalban Before, During and After “Mr. Roarke”

A few words today in memory of beloved screen star Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009).

It would be foolhardy of us not to make Montalban’s best-known role, the suave and jovial Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island (1977-1984) a focus of this post, but at the same time it would be both unjust and a blunder to make it the sole focus. Montalban had been a star for over three decades when he became Mr. Roarke at age 57. When the show premiered, I was too young to know his movies from the ’40s and ’50s, but I absolutely knew his more contemporary work, from his roles in two Planet of the Apes movies, through his 1967 turn in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed”, his appearances on others shows like Columbo and Wonder Woman and High Chaparral, and of course from Chrysler Cordoba commercials (with their “Co-rinthian Leath-air”).

And certainly much more than that. You saw Ricardo Montalban everywhere. Mexican by birth, though his parents were Spanish, Montalban normally played Latin characters, although he was sometimes cast as Native Americans in westerns, or even Asians, as he was on Hawaii Five-0. His Star Trek character Kahn was a South Asian. Montalban spoke perfect English, but his moderate accent precluded him from stepping too far beyond ethnic or foreign roles, although he managed to do even that on a couple of occasions.

Montalban’s striking good-looks, extraordinary physique (he worked out daily, in part to treat a spinal deformation), and obvious intelligence at least spared him the indignity of playing the loutish bandito characters so many of his countrymen were forced to portray. But he did get locked into a stereotype, that of the “Latin Lover”. This type of character had been a Hollywood staple since the earliest days of silents; Montalban was one of the last actors to be branded as such as a specialized type. It was largely through his own efforts that the category ceased to exist in quite so overt a fashion.

Musicals were an early staple of Montalban’s career. Circa 1940 he appeared in the choruses of three minute Soundie shorts (films that were shown on jukeboxes, a brief fad at the time). In one of these, called “He’s a Latin from Staten Island” Montalban played the lead, though Gus Van of the team of Van and Schenck dubbed his singing voice. These short films were produced in New York. He then returned to Mexico for a time and became a star in his home country, appearing in over a dozen movies between 1942 and 1947. After moving to Hollywood he was initially paired with Esther Williams in musicals: Fiesta (1947), On an Island With You (1948), and Neptune’s Daughter (1949). In 1949 he was featured on the cover of Life Magazine!

Some of his films at the time were noir, such as Border Incident (1949) with George Murphy, and Mystery Street (1950), in which he plays a Massachusetts police officer. He played Native Americans in such westerns as Across the Wide Missouri (1951) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Usually though he was paired with some (usually) very white actress, playing every straight woman’s fantasy: he’s Johnny Monterez in Right Cross (1950) with June Allyson; Demi Armendez in Two Weeks with Love (1950) with Jane Powell; Marcos Zappa in The Mark of the Renegade (1951) with Cyd Charisse; Chu Chu Ramirez in My Man and I (1952) with Shelley Winters; Pepe Gonzalez in Sombrero (1953) with Yvonne de Carlo; and Roberto Santos in Latin Lovers (1953) with Lana Turner. Towards the mid ’50s he seems intentionally to have been able to switch it up, playing other sorts of characters in other sorts of scenarios (sometime he is not Latin, or conversely, sometimes all the characters are Latin.) And by the late ’50s he concentrated almost entirely on television, where he worked constantly for decades, which is why I knew him so well before he even played Mr. Roarke.

In 1970, along with Henry Darrow and other actors of Latino descent, Montalban co-founded the Nosotros Foundation to advocate better roles and treatment by the industry. Hence this TV Guide headline:

Montalban was a complex individual. He never sought U.S. citizenship, remaining a proud non-hyphenated Mexican. But at the same time, as an actor, he resented having to only play Mexicans.

Then, in 1977, this familiar face and voice became still more familiar. I am old enough to recall my first impressions of Fantasy Island from the very first TV movies that served as pilots (I was 12 at the time). The show’s island setting made a pictorial sense, even if it never made logical sense. Did you ever stop to think about those images? It strongly suggests the Caribbean. This distinguished Latin man in a white suit, with his Latin looking dwarf assistant (Herve Villechaize, who was actually French), those wicker chairs, the bell tower atop what looks like a Catholic church? And those little puddle jumper planes that deliver the guests?  And also, in the early movies, and some of the later seasons, there is a supernatural, even occasionally sinister vibe that conjures images of voodoo and the like. When it premiered it reminded me of this TV movie. Yet the whole thing takes place on a Pacific Island, much more like Hawaii or something, and is clearly shot in Southern California.

Surely I don’t have to lay out the premise for you, do I? Producer Aaron Spelling had struck pay dirt the previous year with The Love Boat. Fantasy Island was similar to that show, in that it showcased a vacation destination which allowed all manner of celebrity guests every week. Unlike The Love Boat, though, Fantasy Island wasn’t a sitcom with a laugh track, and all of the plots weren’t about romance, although many were. Basically, wealthy people paid Mr. Roarke tens of thousands of dollars to make their fantasies come true. And he did so, but was a bit of a spoilsport about it, usually subverting their fantasies somehow in order to teach them a “valuable lesson”. This is how TV worked in those days. At the height of the 70s, when Spelling initially pitched the show, he did it tongue-in-check. Basically the IMPLIED premise of the show had been something like “Porn/ Prostitute/ Drugs and Gluttony Island”. But given the limitations of the medium, it actually became quite the opposite, something actually downright Puritanical. Each story is basically that of King Midas: a person wishes for a thing, gets too much of the thing, then regrets the original wish. Amazingly, none of Mr. Roarke’s customers ever demanded their money back.

I came across these highly amusing ads for the show in old TV Guides recently.

Andy Garcia played a Fantasy Island-era Montalban recently in the Herve Villechaize bio-pic My Dinner with Herve (2018). As depicted in the film, Montalban was the long-suffering co-star of a ranting, out of control little person who thought he was the whole show. (Other sources seem to bear this depiction out)  As we have said, Montalban had been a star for over three decades by that point. Villechaize had only been on anyone’s radar since the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). Vilechaize’s poor attitude and unreasonable demands eventually got him shit-canned, and the last season of the series made do without Tattoo to ring the bell and point to ze plane.

And the real star of the show became apparent immediately afterwards. Villechaize went on to…oblivion. And Montalban went immediately on to a regular role on The Colbys (1985-87). Not to mention his bravura turn in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), perhaps his finest performance, and easily the best of the original Star Trek feature films. In 1994 he starred in another TV series called Heaven Help Us. And in the early oughts he played the grandpa in the Spy Kids movies. Among many other credits.

Montalban was married to Georgiana Young, an actress best known for being in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). She was Loretta Young’s half-sister. The pair were married in 1944. Both devout Catholics, they remained married until her death in 2007. Montalban died two years later, age 88, of heart failure.

I’m bummed that I couldn’t find photographic evidence of it this morning, but I did an impression of Ricardo Montalban in my high school talent show in 1982. Actually, it was my impression of Eugene Levy’s impression of him, which was to die for. In SCTV‘s Fantasy Island sketch, a green-screened John Candy played Tattoo — a somewhat less sensitive portrayal than Peter Dinklage’s. Those were very different times.