This week here at the Classic Video Showplace, we continue our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month with part two in our series on the legendary and diverse career of Richardo Montalban.
After having over a decade of success in full length films, Ricardo Montalban had seen enough of stereotypical Hollywood roles and decided to make the potential career-killing decision to leave Hollywood and turn down any roles that featured Spanish or Mexican actors in a stereotypical or prejudicial way.
He left Hollywood to star in the Mexican produced films, Untouched and A Life in the Balance. He traveled to Italy to make The Queen of Babylon and Desert Warrior. He starred on Broadway in Seventh Heaven and co-starred with Lena Horne singing calypso in Jamaica, a role which earned him a Tony Award.
He even played the role of a Japanese dancer in 1957’s Sayonara, a role which he believed was worthy of an Academy Award.
Montalban would return to Hollywood to star in numerous movies and in television guest appearances, provided that he played roles that did NOT enhance a prejudice of stereotypes against Hispanic actors.
Between 1960 and 1978, Ricardo starred in 27 films and was on over 50 television shows, including top hits like The Untouchables, Bonanza, Here’s Lucy, The Dinah Shore Show, Gunsmoke, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Virginian, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, and Police Story.
For 13 years, he was the spokesperson for Chrysler motors and his pitches of the car’s “rich Carenthian leather,” struck a chord with the public.
In 1978, he was selected in one of his most memorable roles as Mr. Roarke on the ABC drama Fantasy Island. A role which lasted seven years and made him a television icon.
In 1982, film director Nicolas Meyer was given the task of saving the Star Trek “enterprise,” after its first feature film disappointed critics and fans of the show.
Meyers and Executive Producer Harve Bennett went through the entire catalog of original episodes and selected Montalban’s performance on an episode called, “The Space Seed,” to build the movie that would eventually become, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.
Ricardo revealed in interviews that he asked for the original tapes of that performance. He said he wanted to build the anger his exiled character exhibited on that episode and add 15 years of frustration and revenge to recreate his memorable “Khan” for the film.
His performance not only made him one of the greatest villains in cinematic history but the movie, even today, is regarded as the greatest Star Trek film ever. It saved the “Trek” franchise and spawned numerous television shows, webcasts, books, movies sequels and reboots, which are still being produced today. (Ricardo’s legendary performance as Khan was recreated posthumously for the 2019 show, Star Trek: Short Treks.)
Montalban showed his versatility a few years later by starring as another memorable villain in the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy classic, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (I personally think the last thirty minutes of that film is the funniest half hour in cinematic history.)
Ricardo would continue to be a popular television star on shows throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, in programs like Murder She Wrote, Dynasty, The Colbys and Chicago Hope as well as a voice-over actor on Kim Possible, Dora The Explorer, Family Guy, and American Dad.
Despite being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of life because of a birth defect that was triggered by a movie stunt accident (see “part one” of our blog for more on that), Ricardo continued to perform as a voiceover actor and had on-camera appearances on both the small and large screen, including being a part of the Spy Kids film trilogy.
Montalban died due to “complications from advanced age” at his Los Angeles home in November 2008–a little more than 14 months after the passing of Georgiana Young, his wife of 53 years.
Montalban was 88.
Ricardo Montalban’s work deserves iconic status, not just during Hispanic Heritage Month, but for all time. His tremendous and diverse work on screen, the class he exhibited in interviews, the respect he showed his peers and his then-radical decision to risk his career in order to change people’s preconceived notions about Spanish and Mexican people, all put in a class by himself in the entertainment industry.
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