Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ricardo Montalban R.I.P.

Another acting legend has died. Ricardo Montalban, who played roles from The White King of Alice Through the Looking Glass to Khan Noonien Singh of Star Trek, passed yesterday at the age of 88.

Ricardo Montalban was born on November 25, 1920 in Mexico City, Mexico. His parents had immigrated there from Castile in 1906. His father operated a dry goods store. As a teenager Montalban moved to Los Angeles with his brother Carlos, who worked for the major studios. Montalban was studying English at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles when he was noticed by a talent scout for MGM. His brother Carlos advised him against it. It was when his brother took him on a business trip to New York City that Ricardo Montalban appeared in a Soundie, a short film that was essentially the predecessor of music videos (they played on specially made jukeboxes with small screens). The Soundie led to small parts in plays.

It was when his mother fell ill that Montalban returned to Mexico. There he appeared in a bit part in the Cantinflas movie Los Tres mosqueteros, a parody of The Three Musketeers. Montalban's film career took off in Mexico, where he appeared in such films as Santa, Cinco fueron escogidos, and La Fuga (his first role as a male lead). He had planned to remain in Mexico when in 1947 MGM asked him to appear in Fiesta, which would be his American feature film debut. Following Fiesta he received a contract with MGM. For the next many years Montalban appeared in such films as Neptune's Daughter, Mystery Street, Across the Wide Missouri, and The Saracen Blade.

MGM dropped Montalban in 1953. He went on the road with Agnes Moorehead in Don Juan in Hell, then played in Seventh Heaven and Jamaica on Broadway. He also made his debut on television in a 1955 episode of The Ford Television Theatre. In the Fifties Montalban appeared in such shows as Chevron Hall of Stars, General Electric Theatre, Climax, Wagon Train, and Playhouse 90. The Sixties would see much of Montalban's career spent on television, as he was a regular guest star on TV shows. He appeared on such shows as Bonanaza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, The Defenders, Burke's Law, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Daniel Boone, The Wild Wild West, Combat, Star Trek (in what may have been his most memorable role, as Khan), Mission: Impossible, I Spy, and Ironside. Montalban also continued to appear in movies, such as Let No Man Write My Epitaph, The Reluctant Saint, Cheyenne Autumn, The Money Trap, and Sweet Charity.

The Seventies saw Ricardo Montalban continue to appear frequently on television. He guest starred on Gunsmoke, Marcus Welby M.D., Hawaii Five-O, and Columbo. During the decade he appeared in a recurring role on Executive Suite and as the star of Fantasy Island, playing the mysterious Mr. Rourke. He also continued to appear on film, in The Deserter, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and The Train Robbers. He also appeared on Broadway in a revival Don Juan in Hell, in which he had toured twenty years earlier. Montalban also appeared in a successful series of commercials for the Chrysler Cordoba during the decade.

The Eighties saw Ricardo Montalban reprise his role as Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, immortalising the character as one of the great science fiction villains of the big screen. He also appeared in Cannonball Run II and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad. On television he had a regular role on The Colbys. The Nineties saw Montalban guest star on B. L. Stryker and Murder She Wrote. From the Nineties into the Naughts he would lend his voice to cartoons ranging from Freakazoid to Kim Possible. He appeared in the films Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.

Ricardo Montalban was the vice president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965 to 1970. In 1970 he founded the Nostros Foundation to improve the image of Hispanics in Hollywood. In 1999 the Ricardo Montalban Foundation was founded to stage Hispanic productions. The Foundation bought the former Doolittle Theatre and renamed it in Montalban's honour. In 1998 Pope John Paul II named Ricardo Montalban a Knight Commander of St. Gregory, the highest honour a layman can achieve in the Roman Catholic church.

If Ricardo Montalban played the superman Khan Noonien Singh so well, it was perhaps because he seemed as if he was a superman to so many of us. He was handsome, suave, charming, and, above all else, cool--everything the rest of we men long to be. This is not to say that Ricardo Montalban was not capable of playing a variety of roles. He could just as easily play a down on his luck Native American on Bonanza as he could the superhuman Khan or the nearly omnipotent Mr. Rourke. He could be convincing as both Police Lieutenant Peter Morales in Mystery Street and the gangster Frank Makouris on The Untouchables. Montalban could play a enormous variety of roles.

From all reports Ricardo Montalban was more than a great actor, but a great man as well. In founding the Nostros Foundation and promoting the image of Hispanics in the United States, he sought to end the stereotyping of those of Spanish heritage. He was well known as a philanthropist, active in supporting the American Cancer Society, the Knights of Columbus, and many others. He was a devoted family man, married to the same woman for over sixty years (Georgiana Young, sister of Loretta Young). In the end, Ricardo Montalban was about as far removed from Khan as one could be, a man who was warm, caring, and devoted to his fellow human beings. He was a great actor and a great man. Será extrañado muy mucho.


Toby O'B said...

Mark Evanier has a very nice personal anecdote about Mr. Montalban which shows what a nice man he was.

You can find it here:

Squirrel said...

Rest in Peace Mr. Montalban.