Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Khan, Cordobas and...Class. The death of an icon.
I was extremely sad to find out that Ricardo Montalban died today at the age of 88. I remember vividly those Saturday nights watching Mr. Rourke say "smiles, smiles, everyone!"
He was a part of my childhood AND later by way of Star Trek movies, my adolescence. Remember, "revenge is a dish best served cold!"
I found the most complete report of his life on, of all places, Bloomberg.com. They did such a great job, filled with factoids, that I had to copy it here. Read on. You will love it. It does Ricardo justice.
Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Ricardo Montalban, the Mexican-born actor whose regal bearing and sonorous voice led to roles as a science-fiction villain, the host on the mysterious “Fantasy Island” and pitchman for the “soft Corinthian leather” of the Chrysler Cordoba, has died. He was 88.
Montalban died at his home in Los Angeles, the Associated Press reported today, citing City Council President Eric Garcetti. No cause or date of death was given.
Though he appeared in movies with stars such as Esther Williams, Lana Turner and Shirley MacLaine, Montalban said Hollywood wasn’t willing to make full use of a Latin-American actor. He once tried out for a part of a Mexican, only to lose out to American actor John Garfield.
So Montalban turned to television, starting with the live dramas of the 1950s that many actors shied away from. New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael called Montalban “one of those potentially major actors who never got the roles that might have made them movie stars.”
Montalban was perhaps best known for his portrayal of the character Khan Noonian Singh, a genetically engineered, tyrannical super-human introduced in a 1967 episode of “Star Trek” that ended with the space ship USS Enterprise depositing Khan and his followers on an inhospitable planet. The plotline resumed 15 years later in the movie “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), with Montalban’s character seeking vengeance.
In 1974, Montalban played the title role in George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell” on a six-month national tour after two-dozen performances on Broadway. In Detroit, his performance drew the interest of executives at Chrysler Corp., which was about to unveil a new car with a Spanish name: the Cordoba.
In television advertisements for the car, Montalban extolled the “tastefulness of its appearance” and the “thickly cushioned luxury of seats available even in soft Corinthian leather.”
The phrase “Corinthian leather,” which rolled off Montalban’s tongue, had been made up by copy writers at Young & Rubicam, Adweek later reported. No matter: it became a popular line, widely imitated and parodied.
Montalban worked with Chrysler for 15 years, hawking other luxury models including the LeBaron and the New Yorker.
Aaron Spelling, the prolific TV producer whose creations dominated ABC prime time in the 1970s and early 1980s, saw the Cordoba commercial and thought of Montalban for a new show about an island that lets visitors live out a lifelong dream.
As Mr. Roarke, the white-suited superintendent of “Fantasy Island,” Montalban oversaw the fulfillment of the dreams, urging his staff to welcome each week’s visitors with “smiles, everyone, smiles!”
Though Roarke’s powers were never explained, Montalban said he came up with a theory that informed his portrayal.
“I decided this man was an angel that still had a little bit of sin of pride in him -- too proud,” Montalban said in a 2002 interview with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation. In this view, Roarke was in charge of purgatory, “where people go through tests, and some of them go for the better, and some for the worse.”
The series ran from 1978 to 1984 and cemented Montalban’s reputation as a congenial and cooperative star.
“Working with Ricardo was a joy,” Spelling, who died in 2006, wrote in “Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life,” his 1996 memoir. “Ricardo made good scripts better and not-so-good scripts work. I don’t remember him ever doing any rewrites. He set a perfect example for the rest of the cast.”
Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban Merino was born Nov. 25, 1920, in Mexico City. His parents had emigrated from northern Spain so Montalban’s father could take a job running a store. After a few years the family settled in Torreon, in northern Mexico.
Montalban moved in with an older brother in Los Angeles to attend high school. There, he got the acting bug after landing the lead in a school play.
After moving to New York, he appeared on stage and in the short musical films known as “soundies.” Frustrated after losing the part of a Mexican to Garfield in “Tortilla Flat” (1942), he returned to Mexico.
Leaving the U.S. behind, he recalled feeling, “I have no chance in this country. They don’t write for Mexicans.”
He made 13 films in four years and became a star in his native country, then was rediscovered by Hollywood when Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer went on location in Mexico to film the Esther Williams matador movie “Fiesta” (1947). In an improbable pairing, given their different accents and appearances, he and Williams were cast as twins.
Signed by MGM, Montalban played twice more opposite Williams, as her fiance in “On an Island With You” (1948) and as the Argentinian polo player who wins her heart in “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949). In that film they sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which won Frank Loesser an Academy Award for best original score.
Montalban also played a wealthy Brazilian who charms Lana Turner in “Latin Lovers” (1953).
After MGM chose not to renew his contract, Montalban turned to television, appearing in episodes of live drama shows including “Ford Television Theatre” and “Playhouse 90.”
He would go on to appear in movies including the John Ford- directed western “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), “Madame X” (1966) with Lana Turner and John Forsythe, “Sweet Charity” (1969) and “The Naked Gun” (1988).
His biggest TV role after “Fantasy Island” was as Zach Powers on “The Colbys,” the Spelling-produced “Dynasty” spinoff that aired on ABC from 1985-87. Montalban played a scheming business rival of the Colby clan.
Montalban won an Emmy award for outstanding supporting actor playing a Sioux Indian leader in “How the West Was Won” (1978), a television mini-series. The Screen Actors Guild gave him a lifetime achievement award in 1993.
He founded Nosotros, a Hollywood-based nonprofit that trains and supports Latino actors. The group bought and renovated a theater, which opened in 2004.
Montalban’s brother Carlos played a Latin American dictator in Woody Allen’s “Bananas” (1971) and appeared as El Exigente in TV commercials for Savarin coffee.
Montalban’s wife of more than 60 years, Georgiana, a half- sister of film star Loretta Young, died in 2007. They had four children: Mark, Victor, Laura and Anita.