Remembering The Great Ricardo Montalban

On January 14th, the 88 year-old patriarch of Hispanic- and Latino-American actors left us with memories of such genre favorites as Fantasy Island and Star Trek.
When UCLA's Doolittle Theatre was rechristened the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre on May 11, 2004, the eponymous Mexican-born actor rolled his wheelchair onto the stage and reiterated his famous "five stages of the actor." They were:
1. Who is Ricardo Montalbán?
2. Get me Ricardo Montalbán.
3. Get me a Ricardo Montalbán type.
4. Get me a young Ricardo Montalbán.
5. Who is Ricardo Montalbán?

Number Five is a no-brainer to millions of fans who followed his TV work in the 1960s and 70s and then bestowed "Legend" status upon him for a little space movie about a guy named Khan. But Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino, who died of congestive heart failure at home in Los Angeles, already was the star of a dozen Mexican movies in 1946 when brought to Hollywood, where MGM Studios wanted to change his name to "Ricky Martin."

Beyond that, showbiz tried to change his ethnicity, as well, frequently casting him as Asians and Native Americans, though he did get the occasional "Latin lover." The actor, however, never stooped to stereotype when assuming these stereotyped characters.

"Because we should always respect other nationalities, I have always tried to play them with dignity," he once said.

When the opportunity to act on television presented itself in 1956, Montalban -- unlike many of his peers -- relished it. "It is to TV that I owe my freedom from bondage of the Latin lover roles. Television came along and gave me parts to chew on. It gave me wings as an actor."

He spread those wings and soared through such classic genre series as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible and Wonder Woman. But in 1978 he took on the part with which he still is most-widely associated: the mysterious, white-suited Mister Roarke, who presided over the popular Fantasy Island until 1984.

Even while headlining that show, Montalban still had the energy to help save a flickering franchise. For the 1982 feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he inhabited the title character -- which he'd originated on TV in 1967 -- and made him one of the 10 greatest villains in cinema history. This was no mean feat, since Montalban didn't film his scenes with actor William Shatner, who played nemesis James T. Kirk.

"I had to do my lines with the script girl, who, as you might imagine, sounded nothing like Bill," Montalban told the Toronto Sun.

Nevertheless, his critically-praised performance stole the film and likely paved the way for future Trek flicks, the producers of which used Khan as the model when creating new baddies. Additionally, Montalban's physique -- amply on display in the movie -- gave rise to the fallacious legend that the actor's bulging chest had been artificially enhanced.

"It's hard to believe he was sixty-one when he was such a great villain," commented MANDY on the Sci Fi Wire boards. "So many people see a sixty-one-year-old and worry they'll break a hip, but not this guy."

Sadly, he did have to worry about something like that. In 1993, Montalban underwent surgery to address a spinal injury he'd suffered on a film more than 40 years earlier. But the surgery was unsuccessful and the actor gave the majority of his remaining performances from his wheelchair. Writer-director Robert Rodriguez was a big enough fan to incorporate that into Montalban's role for 2002's Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams.

The actor also found great success and fulfillment off-screen. In 1998, Roman Catholic Montalban was named a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, the highest honor bestowed by the Church upon non-clergy. More importantly, he enjoyed 63 years of marriage and four children with fellow thespian Georgiana Young, who'd been nicknamed "Georgie" by her sister, Oscar winner Loretta Young.

Georgie passed on in November '07, and now Ricardo is gone, too. As The Washington Post's HANK STUEVER put it, "The voice that promised us paradise falls silent." Don't lament, though. Sure, the clearest soundbyte in your head may be Khan using his last breath to spit Moby Dick at Captain Kirk. But however you choose to remember the great Ricardo Montalban, there should be, as Mister Roarke would say, "Smiles, everyone. Smiles."

[Thanks to PATRICK LEE and the Sci Fi Wire Staff, and to Wikipedia.]
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