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.
Thoughtful obituaries can be found at the Los Angeles Times, La Jornada, and the Huffington Post. For more on his politics, see his autobiography, Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds (1980).
9 thoughts on “Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán Merino (1920-2009)”
Did you hear Adolfo Guzman-Lopez’s tribute to him on KPCC this morning?
Now my cousin Enrique will have to play himself if they make a movie about his wife Natalie…
I hadn’t; thanks for that. It was a wonderful piece:
“They wanted to change my name to Ricky Martin.”
Thought you might be interested in this, from National Review:
Many moons ago, opening the mail at NR, there in my hands was an order for a book from one Ricardo Montalban of California. Could it be? Mr. Corinthian leather — a subscriber?! Let’s find out. Ed Capano, then the Publisher, wrote the customer, and indeed it was that Ricardo Montalban. He called. When you get a live one at NR, you yank the hook, and the conversation eventually got around to: “So Ricardo, would you do a National Review subscription commercial?” He hemmed a little and hawed a little — at 70-something, getting work in Hollywood was hard enough. He begged off, but promised to come visit us the next time he was in New York. Adios and click. Five minutes later, there’s a call for Ed. It is Montalban, chastising himself — something along the lines of “What am I, a man or a mouse?!” and saying of course, he will do the NR commercial. But it wasn’t to be (we believed him about how doing such might boomerang with bookings, so we didn’t press the matter further). A few months later he was in NYC, and he did come to lunch (with his stunning wife, Georgiana, Loretta Young’s sister) and regaled us with stories (interesting tidbits such as über-Catholic Christopher Hewett, a.k.a. “Mr. Belvedere” and “Roger DeBris” from The Producers, handing out Miraculous Medals on the set of Fantasy Island). Ricardo Montalban was an absolutely delightful man. We met him again in L.A. when he came to a National Review Institute dinner (where, nobly perturbed, he stood up and hushed the chattering crowd because Bill Bennett was speaking. Just the hint of the wrath of Khan was enough to bring instant silence).
I dare say you could ever find a negative memory of the man. he was a class act. Thanks for the post.
I dare say you could ever find a negative memory of the man. he was a class act. Thanks for the post, PTM.
Late in the game but just found your site. I remember he played Japanese in Sayanora. Latinos had it better than Asians and still do. Nevertheless I think his accent limited him because obviously Montalban is of European background….maybe no Native-Indian background. Also his name. If he had an American accent and was “Ricky Martin” back in the day, perhaps he would have had Anglo roles.
Anthony Quinn looked more mestizo but had great roles….lots of European (aka white) roles. Also his name is from his Irish side. Yet he was married to Cecil B. DeMille’s daughter.
I don’t know. It could be a variety of reasons.
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