Simply put, he was a legend.
While most of us might think of him as something of a semi-comical figure, knowing him primarily from his days as the mysterious Mister Roarke on the hit ABC show Fantasy Island, Ricardo Montalbán, who died yesterday, was much more than a man in a white suit.
As a kid, both the immigrant and native-born sides of my family had a profound amount of respect for him, as an actor and advocate. People lie Cesar Romero, Anthony Quinn, and Montalbán were the symbols of talent and dignity within our transnational culture. Montalbán–whose 66 year marriage to Georgiana Belzer was legendary within the Spanish media–was always held in a little bit more esteem than the other two. I remember seeing him on a Spanish interview show when I was about ten or eleven. He spoke about his glory days in Hollywood but also about the limiting ways Latinos were (and continued to be) depicted in television and movies. He never faltered in thinking beyond his own success and fame.
It’s no wonder so many Mexicans on this side of the border respected him. We could relate to his bicultural life. He was a star of stage, television, and cinema–in both Mexico and the United States. When he began his career in Hollywood in his early twenties he had already been acting for years in both Mexican films and stage productions. He would continue to perform in productions made on both sides of the border through the forties. When he became a contract MGM actor in that decade, he was one of only a handful of actual Mexicans of the silver screen.
Montalbán knew first hand the limitations faced by Latinos in the U.S., professionally and otherwise. He often was cast as the “Latin lover” in his early films and, after leaving MGM, he found himself relegated to playing a host of “ethnic” roles. As a young Mexican in 1940s Los Angeles, he also recalled instances of witnessing segregation and discrimination.
All this fueled a political committment to improving life for Latinos in the U.S. He lent his fame to causes like the Council on Mexican-American Affairs, a group founded in 1955 to work for Mexican American rights. He advocated for a more responsible form of depicting Latinos in cinema, both informally and as the founder of the Nosotros Foundation, a group he led from its 1969 start. Through Nosotros, Montalbán represented a consistent voice for dismatling sterotypes and opening doors to the next generation of Latino actors.
He paid the price for his political committments. He attributed his inability to find work in the fifites to an industry that saw him as a trouble maker. He was misquoted in the press at the time as complaining about Anglos playing Mexicans in film. Although all his political committments were moderate by even contemporary standards, he was cast as a Latin radical for a time, a reputation that stuck with him for some time.
Of course, for those of us who are part of generation x, he was also Mister Roarke and Khan in the classic Star Trek sequel released in 1982.