Monday, June 3, 2019


Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino was born on November 25, 1920 in Mexico City.  He was raised in a large Roman Catholic family, and by the time he was a teenager, he and his brother had emigrated to the United States.  Like many 20th Century immigrants, they settled in New York City, where he began his acting career with a much shorter name - Ricardo Montalban.

In 1941, he had small, uncredited roles in the films Her Cardboard Lover and He's a Latin From Staten Island.  That same year, he returned to Mexico to see his ailing mother.  After her funeral, he resumed his career in Mexico, with roles in such films as The Saint That Forged a Country, Fantasia Ranchera, and a production of The Three Musketeers.

He worked consistently throughout the 40s and quickly earned starring roles in his native Mexico.  Eventually Hollywood noticed, and he was cast in his first U.S. production, Fiesta, opposite Esther Williams. Here's the trailer. The film was a financial success, so MGM Studios signed Montalban to a long-term contract.

His first leading role was in the 1949 film Border Incident alongside George Murphy. Watch the trailer here.  The film wasn't as successful as Fiesta, but it did earn Montalban a spot on the cover of Life Magazine, the first Hispanic actor to ever receive that honor. 

"I was king for a week," Montalban mused, "I thought the offers would flood in, but after a week - nothing." 

Montalban's films continued to disappoint at the box office, leading to his dismissal from MGM in 1953.

"I played caricatures of what a Latin is supposed to be like," he later recounted.  "In reality, we are family men."

Montalban began working in television, with guest spots on such series as Ben Casey, Burke's Law, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  He also appeared on a series called The Lieutenant, created by Hollywood newcomer Gene Roddenberry.  You see where this is going?

It was through this association that in 1966, Montalban would be cast in what would arguably be his most famous role, Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek.  Here's a clip of him going head to head with William Shatner's Captain Kirk.  Watch him discuss the episode here.

Ricardo Montalban and
Roddy McDowall.
In the early 70s, Montalban returned to the silver screen for both Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) playing a circus owner who befriends the wayward simians.  Click on the titles for the very groovy 70s trailers.  And here's Montalban discussing his work in the films.

He continued to guest on a number of series throughout the 70s, including Columbo.  Watch his episode in its entirety here.  And here's a clip of him on Hawaii Five-O.  The original.  Not the current dumb one.
"Fine, Corinthian leather."

He supplemented his income in a series of now-famous commercials for the Chrysler Cordoba, which gave birth to his oft-repeated catchphrase "fine, Corinthian leather."  Watch one of those ads here.

All of this was building up to his most famous role on television, that of Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island.  Watch the iconic intro here.  Smiles, everyone!

The series came about completely by accident, Montalban would later recount.  Series creator Aaron Spelling, frustrated with ABC for rejecting a number of his proposed series, sarcastically suggested a show about a place where all your sexual fantasies can be realized.  The light bulb went off over Spelling's head, and thus was born Fantasy Island, though it was broadened to include simple, every day fantasies as well.  Montalban relished playing the character.  Watch him discuss playing Mr. Roarke here.

Montalban with his Fantasy Island
co-star Herve Villechaize.
Montalban's co-star was James Bond veteran Herve Villechaize.  In the beginning, Montalban would later recount, Villechaize was a delight to work with, but it became increasingly hard to do so as the series continued.  Watch him discuss that often strenuous relationship here.  Most people forget that Villechaize left the series before it ended it's seven-year run.  During the final season, he was replaced by future Mr. Belvedere actor Christopher Hewett.  The two lacked chemistry however, and it is often cited as one reason why the series was cancelled.

It was during the run of Fantasy Island that Montalban received a phone call that would forever enshrine him in the pop culture Hall of Fame.  Paramount was producing a second Star Trek feature film, one that would revive his character of Khan.  After six years as the more mild-mannered Mr. Roarke, Montalban welcomed the opportunity to take on such a passionate role.  Watch him discuss that decision here.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, opened on June 4, 1982.  It broke the box office and remains one of the most popular films in the series to date.  Watch the film's trailer here.  And here he is chewing up the scenery with Shatner.  Oh, and here's his death scene.

Montalban was also a social activist.  In 1970, he co-created the Nosotros Foundation (We) to advocate for Latinos in the film industry.  Here's their Facebook page. He had often been disappointed by the manner in which Mexicans were portrayed, and through Nosotros, he sought to change that perception. 

Montalban continued acting throughout the 80s, most notably in the film The Naked GunHere he matches wits with series star Leslie Nielsen.

In the early 2000s, Montalban appeared as the grandfather in the Spy Kids series of films.  Watch one of his scenes here

Ultimately, it would be his final role.  After a series of health complications, the actor passed on January 14, 2009 from congestive heart failure.  True to his Catholic upbringing, he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City
Section EE, Tier 3, Grave 21

RIP, Your Excellency.

  • Montalban released his autobiography Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds in 1980.  Pick up a copy on Amazon here.
  • In 1973, Montalban was in a touring production of The King and IHere he is promoting it on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.
  • In 2018, HBO produced a documentary film entitled My Dinner With Herve, chronicling the life of Herve Villechaize.  Actor Andy Garcia portrayed Montalban in the film.  Watch the trailer here.
  • Gene Roddenberry served in World War 2 with an officer named Noonien Singh.  After the war, they lost touch with one another, so in the days before Facebook, Roddenberry used his television series as a means to try to find his old friend, naming the Khan character after him.  By 1988, Roddenberry still hadn't found him, so he gave a similar name to Data's creator on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Noonien Soong.
  • This author unsuccessfully tried to buy the burial plot next to Montalban.  Although currently unoccupied, it already has an owner.

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