Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban


Born in Mexico City to Spanish parents, Montalban defied great odds and greater prejudice to become one of the most recognizable actors in the country. As a teen-ager, he immigrated to Los Angeles to attend high school, where he decided to become an actor. He moved to New York and appeared in a few musical film shorts, but became frustrated with the business when he lost the part of a Mexican to white guy John Garfield. He returned to his home country, and within four years, became a star. He was discovered by Hollywood when the Esther Williams film Fiesta came to Mexico for location shooting. Improbably, he was cast as Williams's twin brother. The movie brought him back to Los Angeles, where he became a contract player for MGM. In 1949, he was again paired with Williams and introduced "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which went on to win the Oscar as best song. It is now a perennial holiday favorite. When Montalban's contract was not picked up, he turned to television, which provided him with his most lasting fame. Everyone remembers his starring role as the mysterious, charismatic Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, and he also appeared on the Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys. He played a simian-friendly circus owner in two movies in the Planet of the Apes franchise, but is better recalled as one of the more flamboyant villains in the Star Trek universe. The role was Khan, a genetically enhanced alien with a superiority complex and great pectorals. In 1967's episode Space Seed, he was abandoned on a deserted planet by Kirk and the gang. After the first Star Trek film failed to generate much critical enthusiasm, Montalban was tagged to play the role again, this time on the big screen. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a financial and critical success; it rescued the film franchise, and assured Montalban a place in sci-fi lore as the only Star Trek villain to appear in the original series and in a Trek feature film.

For many years, Montalban was a commercial spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba. His suave description of the car's interior upholstery became a national catchphrase; there seems little doubt that his coffin will be lined with Rich Corinthian Leather.

Montalban won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in 1978, for his performance as a Sioux Indian in the mini-series How The West Was Won, and was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He died today at the age of 88.