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Happy Birthday, Ricardo Montalbán, “Fantasy Island’s” Mr. Roarke

November 25, 2009
by Caleb March
For years, Mexican-born actor Ricardo Montalbán played Latin lovers, shady villains and a host of ethnic bit parts. But everything changed when he was cast as for his roles as Mr. Roarke on the television series Fantasy Island and his film role as Captain Kirk’s nemesis in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Ricardo Montalbán's Early Days

Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino was born in Mexico City, Mexico, on November 25, 1920. Montalbán was the youngest of four children. He moved with his father to Torreon, where Montalbán considered a career in bullfighting, but ultimately decided to pursue acting as a career path. When he was still a teenager, Montalbán moved to the United States at the invitation of his older brother, actor Carlos Montalbán. Montalbán studied hard to improve his English, and then began taking drama classes at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.

Montalbán's Notable Accomplishments

By the late 1930s, Montalbán had gotten several bit parts in Broadway productions. In the early 1940s, he returned to Mexico where he starred in many feature films. He went back to Hollywood in 1947 to star in the romantic musical “Fiesta.” In 1948, Montalbán appeared as the lead in “On an Island With You.” The next year, Montalbán stepped out of his customary “Latin lover” persona for “Border Incident,” in which he played a murderous border agent, and “Battleground,” a WWII action movie. Montalbán’s dark complexion meant that he was cast in a variety of ethnic roles, including Native American, Mexican and most famously, as a Japanese in the 1957 film “Sayonara.”

In the 1970s, Montalbán was hired as the spokesperson for the Chrysler Cordoba, starring in a long-running series of commercials. Although he had appeared on TV through the 1950s and ’60s, his small-screen career did not truly win him fame until 1976, when he won an Emmy Award for his role as a Sioux chief in the miniseries “How the West Was Won.” In 1978, Montalbán was cast in the role that would later come to define him, Mr. Roarke of the TV series “Fantasy Island.” Four years later, Montalbán appeared in his second iconic role, appearing as the vengeful Khan Noonien Singh in the film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” a reprise of a part he had played in the original “Star Trek” TV series. Montalbán spent the mid-80s on primetime soap “The Colbys,” and then starred in the film “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad” (1988)

The Rest of the Story

During the filming of 1951’s “Across the Wide Missouri,” a pony threw Montalbán, damaging a nerve in his back. The injury continued to trouble him throughout the years, and in 1993, Montalbán became confined to a wheelchair. Despite his disability, Montalbán continues to make film and television appearances; he played the grandfather in the films “Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams” (2002) and “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over “(2003).He has also provided voices for several animated TV shows and films, including “The Ant Bully,” “Kim Possible” and “Family Guy.”

In 1970, Montalbán founded Nosotros, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving roles for Latino actors. The Ricardo Montalbán Foundation purchased and continues to sponsor the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre of Los Angeles, which provides training and support for young artists; it also hosts the Nosotros American Latino Film Festival.

Montalbán died in January of 2009 from complications of old age. He was 88 at the time of his death.

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