“…only what he does is mysterious.”
There’s probably never been an unkind word said of Ricardo Montalbán by show-business people; if there was, it must have been instantly squelched by everyone else. He was the sort of person whom everyone liked, because at all times he was graceful, dignified, professional and warm. You might be jealous of a guy like that, but you couldn’t possibly hate him.
Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino was born in Mexico City on November 25, 1920, the youngest by far of the four children of Don Jenaro Montalbán and his wife, Ricarda Merino. Ricarda’s brother Pedro, a priest, had settled in the Mexican capital; their mother wanted to see him, so Jenaro took her and Ricarda to visit from their home in Soria, Spain. While they were there, they had their first child, son Carlos (born Jésus, he assumed the name Carlos upon moving to the US as a young man), on June 5, 1904. The Montalbáns took their small son back to Spain, during which time second son Pedro was born in 1906. Returning to Mexico, this time to live, they produced their only daughter, Carmen, in 1912 and continued to try for more children, even though Sr. and Sra. Montalbán had to deal with the so-called Rh blood factor, which at the time was unknown. Still, they finally succeeded with Ricardo’s birth; by then, his brothers were 16 and 14, and his sister was 8 years old.
Around 1926, when young Ricardo was 5 years old, his family moved from the capital to the northern Mexico city of Torreón, where Ricardo grew up. For a while, he thought he wanted to be a bullfighter, till he discovered he didn’t have the enormous courage it takes to get in the ring; then, to his parents’ relief, he changed his mind. His father had high hopes that Ricardo would become an accountant, and accordingly sent him to school to learn the profession. But Ricardo was profoundly unhappy, and when his brother Carlos—by then living in the United States and working in sales for a Mexican beer company—suggested he join him there, Ricardo eagerly agreed and packed his bags.
Ostensibly, Ricardo was in the US to broaden his education. He attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles and rapidly improved his English, though he never eradicated his Castilian Spanish accent despite the efforts of at least two speech coaches. He appeared in several plays there, having been bitten by the acting bug after enrolling in a public-speaking class, taught by a woman who was also the school’s drama teacher. A talent scout for MGM caught sight of him and was impressed, offering a screen test; but, like their father, Carlos was a sensible man and advised that Ricardo needed to finish school. Ricardo pleaded for the chance to try his wings on the stage; at last, Carlos relented and took him to New York City, where Ricardo made the rounds of the theater circuit. (Ironically, Carlos himself had started out in the movie business, doing some production and small parts in films; later he appeared in two Woody Allen pictures, Bananas and The Out-of-Towners, and was best known for his role as El Exigente in commercials for Savarin coffee. Carlos died on March 28, 1991.)
Eventually, Ricardo was picked for the lead in a sort of jukebox short film—perhaps an early forerunner of today’s music videos—playing the title character to a song called The Latin From Staten Island. Not long thereafter, he was chosen to replace a bit-part actor in a play entitled Her Cardboard Lover, starring Tallulah Bankhead. After a personal interview with Miss Bankhead—during which he found himself enduring the attentions of her pet lion, who took a particular liking to Ricardo’s new shoes—she hired him.
After that, he appeared in several other shows, and once more, an MGM talent scout spotted him and offered him a role in a film called Tortilla Flat, which they had meant to make with all-Mexican cast. At that point, though word came from Mexico that his mother was ill, and he returned to Torreón till she came through her operation there with flying colors. Following this, he went to Mexico City and got involved in the film business there, working his way up to his first co-starring role in a film entitled Santa (1943), directed by Norman Foster.
Foster was married to Sally Blane, an actress with three sisters—the most famous of whom was Loretta Young. The youngest of the four girls was Georgiana, actually their half-sister, born Georgiana Belzer on September 30, 1923. Ricardo had first seen her as a 16-year-old in Torreón, in her last movie, Alexander Graham Bell (she stopped acting after this role). The Fosters introduced Ricardo to Georgiana, and for him, it was just the culmination of a years-long crush. They dated for just two weeks before marrying in a civil ceremony in Tijuana on October 26, 1944.
Following this, Ricardo filmed Fantasia Ranchera (1944); then he and Georgiana were finally wed in a church ceremony, which they had been unable to do before because of his commitment in Fantasia Ranchera. The church wedding took place in June 1945; two months later, on August 12, their first child, daughter Laura, was born. Ricardo arrived at the hospital just after completing Pepita Jiménez (1945), during which time he had been spotted by MGM producer Jack Cummings, who was in the process of casting a film. After Laura’s birth, Ricardo’s agent contacted him, and he was ultimately cast as Mario Morales, the twin brother to Esther Williams’ Maria, in Fiesta (1947), his American film debut. MGM signed him to an 8-year contract, and the movies came in a string, one after another: On an Island With You (1948); The Kissing Bandit (1948), in which his only appearance was in a dance with Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller; Neptune’s Daughter (1949), his third role opposite Esther Williams, in which he, Williams, Red Skelton, and Betty Garrett sang Baby, It’s Cold Outside—the origin of what has become a Christmas classic; Battleground (1949); Border Incident (1949), in which Georgiana appeared in an uncredited bit role; Mystery Street (1950), set in Boston and Cape Cod, in which he was cast for one of the few times in his career in a role that did not call attention to his ethnicity; Right Cross (1950), with Marilyn Monroe in an early bit part; Two Weeks With Love (1950); and Across the Wide Missouri (1951), in a non-speaking role opposite Clark Gable.
It was early in the filming of this movie that the injury that gave Ricardo his limp occurred. In the process of getting acquainted with the pinto he was riding throughout the film, he took the horse on a run through the hills around Durango, Colorado. After some time, they stopped to rest; then a prop cannon on the movie set some distance away went off, scaring the horse. On the animal’s frantic rush down the mountainside, it stopped at a crucial moment, throwing Ricardo off its back so that he tumbled through the air and landed flat on his back atop a rock. Badly winded and immobilized by the fall, he couldn’t move, and had to be rescued by some of the film company. Though the doctors at the local hospital took x-rays, they initially could find nothing wrong, and diagnosed a muscle spasm. But it was more serious than that; from that day on, Ricardo Montalbán would never again move without pain, nor walk without a slight limp. (Years later, he was examined with updated machinery and told that the problem was caused by a pinprick hemorrhage in his spine; had it been any larger, he would have been paralyzed from the waist down.)
But he learned to live and work with the pain, and continued working, for he had a family to support. Son Mark was born on March 13, 1947; daughter Anita came along on March 21, 1949; and son Victor arrived on April 18, 1952, the same year My Man and I came out. The next year, Latin Lovers, his final film under contract to MGM, was released, and then Ricardo and many other actors were cut loose from the studio and left to hunt for film roles on their own. Almost immediately he began working in television, adding a new dimension to his long and varied career. He found roles in the odd film along the way: Saracen Blade (1954); Sombra Verde, called Untouched in the United States (1954); A Life in the Balance (1955); Queen (or Courtesan) of Babylon (1955); and Three For Jamie Dawn (1956).
In 1957, he found himself cast in one of the most unusual roles of his career: that of a Japanese kabuki actor in the Marlon Brando film Sayonara, based on James Michener’s book of that title. This required long and arduous training on his part so that he could pull off the kabuki performance that appears in the film. The focus of the movie, as it happened, was on Brando’s romance with Miiko Taka, as well as the marriage of Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki; and as a result, quite a few of Ricardo’s scenes wound up on the cutting room floor, so that his role in the movie was diminished almost to a bit part. But he remained busy: there were more television roles in all manner of theater anthologies that were popular on tv in those days, and he still appeared in films—Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960); Rage of the Buccaneers (1961); Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man and The Reluctant Saint (1962); Love is a Ball (1963); Cheyenne Autumn, his only film under director John Ford (1964); The Money Trap (1965); Madame X and The Singing Nun (1966); Sol Madrid and Blue (1968) and Sweet Charity (1969).
By this time, he had appeared on quite a few television series as well, including “General Electric Theater”, “Wagon Train”, “Playhouse 90”, “Death Valley Days”, “Bonanza”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, and his sister-in-law’s late-50s television series, “The Loretta Young Show”, in which he appeared as a frequent guest star. He also did guest shots in “Ben Casey”, “The Lieutenant”, “Burke’s Law”, “The Man From UNCLE”, and “The Wild Wild West”. In 1967, he appeared in “Star Trek” in a role that had been meant as a one-shot, as Khan Noonien Singh in the episode “Space Seed”. Little did he know what that would hold in store for him a decade and a half hence…
By now, just about everything he did was on television. He went on to appear in “Mission: Impossible”; “I Spy” with Bill Cosby; “The Defenders” with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed; “Ironside” with Raymond Burr; “Hawaii Five-O” in two episodes; and even a role on “Here’s Lucy” as Prince Philip Gregory Hennepin of Montalbania! He also completed guest shots on “The Carol Burnett Show”, “Laugh-In”, and Sonny and Cher’s variety show; and such game shows as “What’s My Line”, “I’ve Got a Secret”, and even “Hollywood Squares”. He was doing made-for-television movies as well, including The Longest Hundred Miles (1967), Black Water Gold (1970), The Aquarians (1970), and Face of Fear (1971). He made his first cinematic appearance in some time with his role as Armando in Escape From the Planet of the Apes in 1972, followed the next year by Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and The Train Robbers with John Wayne and Ann-Margret.
In 1970, he helped to found Nosotros (“we” in Spanish), an organization with the goal of helping actors and actresses of Hispanic extraction to get more and better roles and improve their showbiz image. Convincing Hollywood, entrenched in stereotype, wasn’t easy, and he suffered the backlash of his involvement with Nosotros. Misquoted in print interviews, he found himself all but blacklisted, and for several years, his roles were few and far between. However, Ricardo Montalbán was nothing if not tenacious, and he got parts in such productions as the television films Wonder Woman and The Mark of Zorro (1974), McNaughton’s Daughter (1976), and even Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, also 1976.
He appeared on stage in George Bernard Shaw’s play Don Juan in Hell; the Chrysler Corporation heard about this and helped him out tremendously during these lean years. In the mid-70s, they hired him to pitch the Cordoba, with its “soft Corinthian leather”, on tv, leading to countless good-natured impersonations and imitators for many years to come. And then, along came Aaron Spelling, offering him the starring role in his new television series, “Fantasy Island“.
The show began with a pilot film, which premiered January 14, 1977, and was so well-received that there was a second movie requested, “Return to Fantasy Island“. There had been minor snags and odd developments here and there. For example, originally Spelling and his co-producer, Leonard Goldberg, had hoped to cast Orson Welles in the role of Mr. Roarke. No one ever clarified whether Welles couldn’t do the role or simply refused; whatever the reason, Spelling promptly turned to his next choice—Ricardo Montalbán.
It was probably the closest thing to the “big break” he would ever receive in his long career; indeed, the series made him a household name. The second pilot film aired on January 20, 1978; on the 28th, the regular one-hour tv series made its debut and would go on to run for seven seasons, through the spring of 1984. During the first season the show was top 20; it didn’t do quite as well in subsequent seasons, but it was always popular enough to warrant renewal each fall. After doing the initial pilot film, Ricardo squeezed in a couple more tv movies in 1977–Captains Courageous and Mission to Glory—and appeared as Chief Santangkai in the miniseries How the West Was Won, for which he won an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Somewhere in all this, he found time to write: in 1980, his autobiography, Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds, co-written with Bob Thomas, was published by Doubleday.
Midway through his work on “Fantasy Island”, he was contacted by the producers of “Star Trek”, which had been triumphantly revived in a cinematic film in 1979. Despite universal panning by critics, the film had been a box-office success, and this encouraged Paramount Pictures to make a sequel. The director, Nicholas Meyer, had never seen the original television series before, and to familiarize himself with the characters, he sat down with videotapes of the episodes and watched all 79 of them. Intrigued by the closing lines of “Space Seed”, in which Spock observed to Kirk that it would be interesting to find out what had become of Khan and his followers (or their descendants) in a hundred years, he chose that episode to build the next movie upon. When Ricardo was contacted and asked to reprise his role, he agreed, and because he enjoyed the role so much, made the movie for only $100,000. Between The Wrath of Khan and “Fantasy Island”, he had probably the biggest and widest exposure of his entire career.
After the cancellation of “Fantasy Island” in 1984, Ricardo went directly into other work: he appeared at the beginning and the end of Cannonball Run II, as the sheikh who provides the cash prize for the winner of the film’s car race; more Spelling series, namely “Dynasty”, “The Colbys”, and the short-lived “Heaven Help Us”, in the latter two shows as a regular; the Leslie Nielsen film The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988), as a villain with intentions of assassinating Queen Elizabeth II; and another liberal sprinkling of guest roles on such tv shows as “B.L. Stryker”; “Murder, She Wrote”; “Dream On”; “The Golden Palace”; “Chicago Hope”, and “Love Boat: The Next Wave”, the brief revival of the popular tv series that had once preceded his own show on Saturday nights 15 years before.
In 1993, Ricardo underwent an operation on his spine in the hope of improving his mobility; unfortunately, instead he had a difficult recovery and was forced to rely on walkers and wheelchairs to get around. Yet he went right on working; during the dozen or so episodes that “Heaven Help Us” lasted, he flew to Texas each week to do his scenes, all of which were filmed with him simply sitting in one spot. He even appeared at a few Star Trek conventions, where he was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by fans.
When he could no longer walk even with the help of a walker and was permanently confined to a wheelchair, he began doing voiceovers in cartoons. He had speaking roles in “Dora the Explorer”, “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command”, and a recurring role in Disney’s “Kim Possible” as Señor Senior, Sr. His last live-action role was in Robert Rodriguez’ Spy Kids trilogy; he appeared as Carmen and Juni Cortez’ grandfather, Valentin Avellan, in Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. In 2006 he provided the voice of the ant Head of Council in the CGI film The Ant Bully; and his final role was in an episode of the popular animated tv series “Family Guy” in 2008, providing the voice of a cow!
His health, though, was gradually failing, and was probably exacerbated to some extent by the passing of his wife Georgiana on November 13, 2007. After a long and illustrious career that had spanned more than 65 years, Ricardo Montalbán died peacefully at his Los Angeles home, early in the morning of January 14, 2009. He was survived by his four children and six grandchildren, and is sorely missed by his many fans across the country and around the world.
An extensive list of his appearances can be found at the Internet Movie Database website. Biographical information primarily came from his book, “Reflections”, and lesserly from the article about him at Wikipedia.