Turning Fantasy into reality
Actor Ricardo Montalban, best known as the debonair and mysterious Mr. Roarke on the popular television series "
Born Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban Merino in
Ricardo Montalban fought against
Montalban was a
What we've lost, simply put, is one of the last remaining Hispanics who first busted through
Already a Latin American star when he hit
Latino actors were mostly relegated to playing stereotypical ethnic bit roles – everything from filthy Mexican peasants to Japanese soldiers – even if they had the chops to do more. It's as if they were paying a never-ending string of dues for a reward that rarely came.
Hispanics who succeeded in old Hollywood did so by either passing as Anglos, as in the case of Rita Hayworth – a flamenco-dancer-turned-actress who became a leading lady only after dying her dark hair red and dropping her Spanish father's last name of Cansino – or by sheer will and the willingness to risk obscurity, as in the case of Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno.
By the time
Montalban chose another path. After a phenomenal start working alongside stars including Clark Gable, Lana Turner and Cyd Charisse, Montalban played small roles as Latin lovers and, bizarrely, as a Japanese Kabuki actor (Sayonara) and an Indian chief (TV's How the West Was Won, for which he won the Emmy).
Part of the reason was money – he was a married father of four. The other reason was simply because he wanted to act. "I never had the luxury of getting 10, five or even two scripts at a time," Montalban said in the interview. "As a Mexican actor, you got one, take it or leave it. I always tried to play people of different nationalities with the dignity that I wished Americans would show when they play Mexicans."
Montalban challenged studio executives on their portrayals of Latinos and later took the issue public by co-founding the non-profit Nosotros ("we" in Spanish), which pushes studios to give Latino actors more opportunities and present a more balanced portrayal of Latinos onscreen. That got the actor virtually blacklisted, and he was forced for years to make a living by hitting the road with a theatre troupe.
But two roles brought him acclaim and pop culture status late in his career: One was as the villain Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the other was as Mr Roarke on
In 1982, Montalban starred as arch-villain Khan Noonien Singh in "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," reprising a role he had played on a single episode of the television show in 1967.
And watching his visceral portrayal of Khan, a superhuman banished to the far reaches of the universe by Captain Kirk who comes back seeking revenge, you can't help but wonder how much of the rage is real. Reality-based or not, the performance was ballsy and grand. Said legendary film critic Pauline Kael: "It was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen."
Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams performed a song together that became an Oscar winner, "Baby It's Cold Outside" which is still played from time to time around Christmas. There are other versions, but the original is a classic.
What's changed in
"He was one of the true giants of arts and culture," Olmos told the Los Angeles Times. "He was a stellar artist and a consummate person and performer with a tremendous understanding of culture ... and the ability to express it in his work."
Montalban, whose wife of 63 years, Georgiana, died in 2007, is survived by his four children and by six grandchildren
Here's hoping Olmos is not the only one who remembers. Thanks, Ricardo Montalban, and RIP.