I’m in the middle of a big deadline, so this will be brief, but I just wanted to send a nod skyward to Ricardo Montalban who died on Wednesday. By all accounts, Montalban was a class act. The Mexican-born star probably spent half his life being confused with Argentinean-born actor Fernando Lamas even though Lamas died over 25 years ago. Besides being THE Latin hunks of the 50s, both starred in several movies with Esther Williams. Of course it was Lamas who married her. She was one of his four wives whereas Ricardo Montalban was married to the same woman for 63 years. He married Georgiana Young, Loretta Young’s sister, in 1944 and they stayed happily married until her death in 2007. That feat alone in this town deserves an honorary Oscar.
Richardo Montalban was a star in Mexican films before he was spotted by MGM talent scouts and cast in the ridiculous but fun Esther Williams vehicle called “Fiesta” that was part of the craze for Latin-themed films in the late 1940s. Before becoming a dramatic film star in Mexico, Montalban had been living in Los Angeles for years. He attended Fairfax High and was encouraged by his teachers there to act in plays as a way to improve his English. As a 1947 article about Montalban’s re-entry into the American scene stated:
Although he could have made it in 20 minutes of fast driving, it took Ricardo Montalban eight years to get from Fairfax High School to the M.G.M. studio. And even at that he had to detour via the eastern seabord and his native Mexico. I asked him if this didn’t strike him as ironic.
“Well,” Montalban admitted, “it does seem a roundabout way, but I check it all off to experience. I actually think it happened for the best, because I was really too young before and I have gained a lot of experience in the meantime. So perhaps it was just fate.”
In “Fiesta,” swimming star Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban are absurdly cast as twins, Maria and Mario Morales. Never mind that Esther sounds like the purely American girl she is while Ricardo speaks with a thick Mexican accent! They are the children of a famous Mexican matador and everyone expects Montalban to follow in his father’s footsteps. But Ricardo dreams of being a composer while Esther is the one who is passionate about entering the bullring. Needless to say, hilarity ensues.
Cyd Charisse is brought on to play Montalban’s love interest, Conchita. Don’t ask me why MGM covered Cyd in the Latina makeup they must have had left over from trying to darken up Rita Moreno or lighten up Lena Horne but made no attempt to change Esther’s appearance. Cyd barely speaks in the film but MGM was so excited about her dance numbers with Montalban that they paired them together in four additional musicals, trying to turn them into the Hispanic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. No matter that Charisse was about as Hispanic as Dinah Shore! Here’s a glimpse of Ricardo and Cyd’s first number in the film, an excellent rendition of the dance that accompanies the song “La Bamba.” This traditional song used to be played during weddings in Mexico, with the bride and groom performing the dance. If you’ve only heard Ritchie Valens or Jose Feliciano sing “La Bamba,” take a look:
If you're interested, you can watch an even hotter dance number between Ricardo and Cyd here. Montalban was as surprised as anyone to suddenly find himself in musicals. “It is unbelievable to me,” he said at the time. “I know nothing about singing or dancing.” But he was damn good. “Fiesta” was shot largely in Mexico, an unusual extravagance back then. In her autobiography, Esther Williams talks about how her then-husband Ben Gage kept getting drunk during the shooting and had several run-ins with the Mexican police. At one point production of the film was halted while the authorities had him thrown out of the country. Oy, she was better off with Fernando Lamas!
In addition to his work with Cyd Charisse, who died last year, Ricardo Montalban also starred with another recently departed celebrity, Van Johnson, in the dramatic film “Battleground.” This 1949 film was pretty daring for its time. It told the story of the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, but it showed soldiers as real people with doubts and fears, not just one-dimensional heroes. Montalban was very moving in the part of Rodrigues, a Latino from Los Angeles who questions his role in the war. After playing the hot Latin lover in a bunch of insipid but colorful MGM musicals, Montalban enjoyed the chance to get back to his dramatic roots. But it was still very difficult for Mexican-American actors in Hollywood to get decent roles, so Montalban soon turned to television.
Ricardo famously appeared in the role of Khan on a 1967 episode of “Star Trek” called “Space Seed.” Whoever had the brilliant idea to revive this character for the second “Star Trek” movie, 1982’s “The Wrath of Khan” single-handedly saved the franchise. Montalban brought life back to the Starship Enterprise (the first “Star Trek” movie was an unholy bore) and made it possible for the four new TV series that followed. Montalban chewed up the scenery with abandon in the role and he was great. The Linda Evans wig was a little scary but Montalban swore that his buffed physique was all him, no prosthetics were used. It’s almost hard to believe since the actor was well into his 60s at the time, but the director of the film and Leonard Nimoy insist that it was true. Answering claims that it was a fake breastplate under Montalban’s low-cut tunic, Nimoy wrote in his autobiography, “I’m here to tell you: it most definitely wasn’t! Those were Montalban’s enviable pecs.”
I enjoyed Montalban in the “Planet of the Apes” films but, of course, he became most identified with the long-running “Fantasy Island” in the late 1970s and early 80s. Playing the mysterious, impeccably dressed, borderline creepy Mr. Roarke, Montalban welcomed a cavalcade of Hollywood guest stars to his island every week. Shows like “Fantasy Island,” “Love Boat,” and “Murder, She Wrote” provided steady employment for the stars of yesteryear, long after they were forgotten by film audiences. Where do old stars get work today?
In later years, Ricardo Montalban was a major force in promoting work for Latino actors. Comedians loved imitating the classy and distinctive Montalban, although it should be noted that Billy Crystal’s famous “You look maaahvelous!” character was a take-off on Fernando Lamas. My favorite Billy Crystal skit was when he pitted both of the Latin Lovers actors against each other in a duel called “Quien es mas macho, Fernando Lamas or Ricardo Montalban?” But it was Montalban who purred about the “soft Corinthian leather” in the Chrysler Cordoba, even though there’s no such thing, it was made up by the ad execs. I remember watching that commercial like it was yesterday. Here it is:
En paz descanse, Señor Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán.