Born in Mexico in 1920, actor Ricardo Montalban launched his film career in his native country and returned to the United States in 1947 for his first leading role in the musical Fiesta, in which he starred opposite Esther Williams. The dark, handsome actor with the romantic Spanish accent would go on to play numerous Latin lover-type roles. It was his role as Mr. Roarke on the television show Fantasy Island that launched Montalban into true stardom.
Acclaimed actor Ricardo Montalban was born Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino on November 25, 1920, in Mexico City, Mexico. Though audiences might best remember him as Mr. Roarke, the suave host of the hit television series Fantasy Island, Montalban has had a long acting career spanning back to the 1940s.
The son of Spanish immigrants to Mexico, Montalban first moved to the United States as a teenager. He lived with his older brother in Los Angeles, California, where he studied English at Fairfax High School. He made his New York stage debut in 1940 with a small role in Her Cardboard Lover, starring Tallulah Bankhead.
Montalban launched his film career in Mexico in the early 1940s. In 1947, he landed his first major Hollywood film with Esther Williams. The pair played the twin siblings in the musical Fiesta. Montalban had a very memorable dance number in the film with Cyd Charisse. The dark, handsome actor with the romantic Spanish accent would go on to play numerous Latin lover-type roles. He reteamed with Williams for two more films, including the musical water extravaganza On an Island With You (1948).
In 1949, Montalban broke from his mold to play a border agent in the suspense drama Border Incident. He followed with another dramatic role in Battleground that same year. More dramatic roles followed, including starring opposite Shelley Winters in 1952's My Man and I as a Mexican immigrant. Returning to type, Montalban starred opposite Lana Turner in 1953's Latin Lovers.
Despite his strong Spanish accent, Montalban was often chosen to play other ethnicities. He played Native-American characters in several westerns, including 1951's Across the Wide Missouri with Clark Gable. During the making of this film, Montalban suffered a back injury, from which he never fully recovered. He later played a Japanese actor in Sayonara (1957), starring Marlon Brando.
As his film career ebbed, Montalban explored other opportunities on stage and on television. He received a Tony Award nomination for his work in the 1958 Caribbean musical Jamaica. Montalban also made numerous guest appearances on such shows as Dr. Kildare and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In 1967, he landed a guest spot on Star Trek as Khan Noonien Singh, a villain who clashes with William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk.
Montalban's TV career really took off in the late 1970s. He earned an Emmy for his portrayal of a Sioux chief in the TV miniseries How the West Was Won in 1978 and, that same year, landed the Fantasy Island role that would launch him into bona fide stardom. His turn as the mysterious Mr. Rourke brought him international fame. Fantasy Island's Mr. Rourke and his sidekick, Tattoo, played by Herve Villechaize, both became popular culture icons. The show, created by Aaron Spelling, ran from 1977 to '84.
In 1982, Montalban revived a character from his television past. He reprised his role of Khan, Captain Kirk's nemesis, in a movie entitled The Wrath of Khan. Montalban earned raves for his performance. Throughout the late 1980s and '90s, Montalban's career slowed, though he appeared periodically on television and in feature films. He also became noted as pitchman for Chrysler Cordoba, with his lilting praise for the car's "rich Corinthian leather." His autobiography, Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds, was published in 1980.
Death and Legacy
In his later years, Montalban worked on few projects. He appeared in Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002) and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003). He also lent his rich, distinctive voice to such animated projects as Dora the Explorer and The Ant Bully.
Ricardo Montalban died on January 14, 2009, at the age of 88, at his home in Los Angeles. He was survived by four children from his marriage to model and actress Georgiana Young, the younger sister of Loretta Young. He and Georgiana, both devoted Roman Catholics, enjoyed one of Hollywood's longest-lasting marriages. They were together from 1944 until Young's death in 2007.
In addition to acting, Montalban was an activist who sought to improve the portrayal of Latinos in film and on TV. In 1970, he helped found Nosotros, a Latino arts advocacy organization. Luis Reyes, author of Hispanics in Hollywood, described part of Montalban's legacy to the Los Angeles Times: "He paved the way for being outspoken about the images and roles that Latinos were playing in movies."
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