Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino, KSG (//; Spanish pronunciation: [montalˈβan]; November 25, 1920 – January 14, 2009) was a Mexican radio, television, theatre, and film actor. He had a career spanning seven decades, and was known for many different roles. During the mid-1970s, Montalbán was a spokesman in automobile advertisements for Chrysler, including those in which he extolled the "soft Corinthian leather" used for the Cordoba's interior. From 1977 to 1984 he played Mr. Roarke, the host character in the television series Fantasy Island. He played Khan Noonien Singh in both the 1967 episode "Space Seed" of the original Star Trek series, and the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He won anEmmy Award in 1978 for his role in the miniseries How the West Was Won and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1993. In his 80s, he provided voices for animated films and commercials, and appeared in the Spy Kids films as "Grandfather Valentin".
Montalbán was born Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino in Mexico City, but grew up in the city of Torreón, the son of Spanishimmigrants Ricarda Merino and Jenaro Montalbán, a store manager. He was raised as Roman Catholic. He was born with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in his spine. Montalbán had a sister, Carmen, and two brothers, Pedro and Carlos Montalbán, an actor. As a teenager, Ricardo moved to Los Angeles to live with Carlos Montalbán. This duo moved to New York City in 1940, and Ricardo earned a minor role in the play,Her Cardboard Lover.
In 1941, he appeared in his first motion pictures, three-minute musicals produced for the Soundies film jukeboxes. Montalbán appeared in many of the New York–produced Soundies as an extra or as a member of a singing chorus (usually billed as Men and Maids of Melody). Ricardo Montalbán's first starring film was He's a Latin from Staten Island (1941), in which the young Latin (billed simply as "Ricardo") played the title role of a guitar-strumming gigolo, accompanied by an offscreen vocal by Gus Van.
Late in 1941, Montalbán learned that his mother was dying, so he returned to Mexico. There, he acted in a dozen Spanish-language films and became a star in his homeland.
Montalbán recalled that when he arrived in Hollywood in 1943, studios wanted to change his name to Ricky Martin. He frequently portrayed Asian characters – mostly of Japanese background, as in Sayonara and the Hawaii Five-O episode "Samurai". His first leading role was in the 1949 filmBorder Incident with actor George Murphy. He was the first Hispanic actor to appear on the front cover of Life magazine on November 21, 1949. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of only a handful of actively working Hispanic actors in Hollywood.
Many of his early roles were in Westerns in which he played character parts, usually as an "Indian" or as a "Latin Lover". In 1950, he was cast against type, playing a Cape Cod police officer in the film Mystery Street. In 1957, he played Nakamura in the Oscar-winning film Sayonara.
From 1957 to 1959, he starred in the Broadway musical Jamaica, singing several light-hearted calypso numbers opposite Lena Horne.
Montalbán starred in radio, such as the internationally syndicated program "Lobo del Mar" (Seawolf), in which he was cast as the captain of a vessel which became part of some adventure at each port it visited. This 30-minute weekly show aired in many Spanish-speaking countries until the early 1970s. In 1972, Montalbán co-founded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee with actors Carmen Zapata, Henry Darrow and Edith Diaz.
In 1975, he was chosen as the television spokesman for the new Chrysler Cordoba. The car became a successful model, and over the following several years, was heavily advertised; his mellifluous delivery of a line praising the "soft Corinthian leather" upholstery of the car's interior, often misquoted as "fine" or "rich Corinthian leather", became famous and was much parodied, and Montalbán subsequently became a favorite subject of impersonators. Eugene Levy, for example, frequently impersonated him on SCTV. (In deference to American habits, he deliberately misstressed the car's name on the second syllable.) In 1986, he was featured in a magazine advertisement for the new Chrysler New Yorker.
Montalbán's best-known television role was that of Mr. Roarke in the television series Fantasy Island, which he played from 1978 until 1984. For a while, the series was one of the most popular on television, and his character as well as that of his sidekick, Tattoo (played by Hervé Villechaize), became pop icons.
Another of his well-known roles was that of Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which he reprised a role that he had originated in the 1967 episode of Star Trek titled "Space Seed". There were some questions initially as to whether Montalbán had had prosthetic muscles applied to his chest during filming of Star Trek II to make him appear more muscular; director Nicholas Meyer replied that even in his sixties Montalbán had a vigorous training regimen, was "one strong cookie" and that his real chest was seen on film; Khan's costume was specifically designed to display Montalbán's physique. Critic Christopher Null called Khan the "greatest role of Montalbán's career".
New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said Montalbán's performance as Khan "was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen." Montalbán agreed to take the role for a significant pay cut, since by his own admission, he relished reprising the role, and his only regret was that he and William Shatner never interacted – the characters never meet face to face, except through video communication – as their scenes were filmed several months apart in order to accommodate Montalbán's schedule for Fantasy Island. When Montalbán guest-starred in the Family Guy episode "McStroke" as a genetically engineered cow, his character made several references to his role as Khan, and similar references were made in his role as Guitierrez in the cartoon series Freakazoid.
Montalbán appeared in many diverse films including The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! as well as two films from both the Planet of the Apes and Spy Kids series. In addition, he appeared in various musicals, such as 1966's The Singing Nun, also starring Debbie Reynolds. Over the course of his long career, he played lead roles or guest-starred in dozens of television series. Montalbán also narrated several historical documentaries including the Spanish version of the National Park Service's history of Pecos Pueblo for Pecos National Historical Park
Prior to his death in January 2009, Montalbán recorded the voice for a guest character in an episode of the animated TV series American Dad!, in which main character Roger becomes the dictator of a South American country. According to executive producer Mike Barker, it was his last role.
During the filming of the 1951 film, Across the Wide Missouri, Montalbán was thrown from his horse, knocked unconscious, and trampled by another horse which aggravated his AVM and resulted in a traumatic back injury that never healed. The pain increased as he aged, and in 1993, Montalbán underwent 9½ hours of spinal surgery which left him paralysed below the waist and using a wheelchair. Despite constant pain, the actor persevered; he performed and provided voices for animated films and supported his Nosotros foundation. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez created the role "Grandfather" specifically for Montalbán in his Spy Kids film series, including a jet-propelled wheelchair.
He married Georgiana Young (née Georgiana Paula Belzer; September 10, 1924–November 13, 2007), who had a brief acting and modeling career, in 1944; they had four children: Laura, Mark, Anita and Victor. Georgiana was the half-sister of the actresses Sally Blane, Polly Ann Young, and movie and television star Loretta Young, who nicknamed her "Georgie". After sixty-three years of marriage, she died at the age of 83, on November 13, 2007, from undisclosed causes, predeceasing her husband by fourteen months.
Montalbán was a practicing Roman Catholic and once had said that his religion was the "most important thing" in his life. He was a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California. In 1998, Pope John Paul II made him a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great (KSG), the highest honor a Roman Catholic lay person can receive from the Church. He recorded a Public Service Announcement, celebrating America's generosity and hospitality to him as a foreign-born actor, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Although he spent most of his life in the United States, he remained a citizen of Mexico and never applied for American citizenship. However, in an archive interview from 2002, Montalban stated "I am honored to be an American". Montalbán's autobiography, Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds, was published in January 1980 by Doubleday.
The way he was asked to portray Mexicans disturbed him, so Montalbán, along with Richard Hernandez, Val de Vargas, Rodolfo Hoyos Jr., Carlos Rivas, Tony de Marco, and Henry Darrowestablished the Nosotros ("We") Foundation in 1970 to advocate for Latinos in the movie and television industry. He served as its first president and was quoted as saying:
The foundation created the Golden Eagle Awards, an annual awards show that highlights Latino actors. The awards are presented in conjunction with the Nosotros American Latino Film Festival (NALFF), held at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood.
Ricardo Montalbán Theatre
Ricardo Montalbán Hollywood Walk of Fame Star shortly after his death.
The Nosotros Foundation and the Ricardo Montalbán Foundation agreed to purchase the Doolittle Theatre in 1999 from UCLA. The theater was owned by Howard Hughes in the early 1930s then later renamed the Huntington Hartford Theater when purchased in 1954 by philanthropist Huntington Hartford, the Doolittle Theater and then the Ricardo Montalban Theater. The process from agreement to opening took over four years. The facility in Hollywood was officially renamed the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in a May 11, 2004 ceremony. The event was attended by numerous celebrities, including Ed Begley, Jr., representing the Screen Actors Guild (SAG); Valerie Harper, Loni Anderson, Hector Elizondo and Robert Goulet.
When Montalbán rolled onto the stage in his wheelchair, he repeated "the five stages of the actor" that he famously stated in several interviews and public speeches:
- Who is Ricardo Montalbán?
- Get me Ricardo Montalbán.
- Get me a Ricardo Montalbán type.
- Get me a young Ricardo Montalbán.
- Who is Ricardo Montalbán?
He then jokingly added two more stages:
- "Wait a minute—isn't that What's-his-name?", referring to his role in the Spy Kids movies
- "Who the hell is that?", believing that to be the reaction of people seeing his name on the theater marquee. Contrary to his assertions, a young generation is somewhat familiar with him through his voice as Señor Senior, Sr. in five Kim Possible television episodes from 2002–2007 and as the grandfather in the movies Spy Kids 2 and Spy Kids 3.
Montalbán then spoke about the goal of the Nosotros organization:
Montalbán died on January 14, 2009 at his home in the Greater Los Angeles Area, at age 88. According to his son-in-law Gilbert Smith, Montalbán died of "complications from advancing age". His cause of death was later revealed to be congestive heart failure. He is buried next to his wife in Culver City's Holy Cross Cemetery.