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A Review of the work of Ricardo Montalban

Updated on March 18, 2009

If you want to know just how much of an impact Ricardo Montalban made in Hollywood, just consider that, when he first arrived in Tinseltown, the studios wanted him to change his name to Ricky Martin, fearing that his “Mexican sounding” name would tip moviegoers off when they tried to pass him off as a dark skinned white guy.

Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino ( November 25, 1920 – January 14, 2009 )

Of course, in his early work, he was largely shoehorned into playing characters like “Savage Indian Number 3” and “The Seductive Latin Lover”. It was with Sayonara that Montalban proved himself as a capable, versatile actor with some real selling power.

In Sayonara, Montalban plays a small but important supporting role as Nakamura, a Cape Cod police officer. While being largely a romantic drama, the film sets itself apart from many other romantic dramas of the time by dealing directly and bravely with issues of racism and prejudice.

For the next two years, Montalban would go on to star in the Broadway musical Jamaica, opposite Lena Horne, as well as getting some work in radio programs such as Lobo del Mar, a Spanish adventure series that aired well into the early 1970’s.

In 1975, Montalban was hired as the spokesman for Chrysler’s new Cordoba model, which would go on to enjoy a lot of success, and provide Montalban with plenty more work, as the model was being heavily advertised well into the next few years. It was probably this commercial, more than any of his prior work, that made Montalban not only a respected actor, but a high profile celebrity. His distinctive pronunciation of “soft Corinthian leather” became as favourite a catchphrase as “Where’s the beef?” and Montalban found himself a favourite of celebrity impersonators, including Eugene Levy, who would play him on SCTV.

Cordoba Ad by Ricardo Montalban

He rode this fame onto Fantasy Island, where he played Mr. Roarke from 1978 to 1984. If you’re not familiar with the show, you will at least be familiar with the catchphrase of Montalban’s sidekick, Tattoo: “De plane, boss, de plane!” Fantasy Island enjoyed a few seasons as the most popular show on television.

Fantasy Island starred Ricardo Montalban

A few years later, Montalban took on what would probably be his most iconic role as Khan Noonien Singh, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Already in his sixties, Montalban attacked his role with energy and enthusiasm. His costume showed his physique prominently, prompting speculation that his bulging chest was actually a form of prosthetic makeup. Director Nicholas Meyer, when questioned on this, actually informs us that Ricardo Montalban actually was staying in shape, and the rippling pecs were 100% Montalban.

Ricardo Montalban as Khan (Star Trek)

Another great sci-fi role Montalban took on was that of Armando, a circus owner in the Planet of the Apes series. While his role in the series is, of course, not as high profile as Charlton “You blew it all up!” Heston’s, his character provides a vital piece of the puzzle.

In the fourth Planet of the Apes DVD, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, set just before the ape revolution, Armando’s cares for a young ape child named Caesar. As the world’s governments hunt down and kill any and all ape children, Armando manages to keep Caesar’s identity under wraps by disguising him as a pet, keeping him on a leash when in public, and… well, we won’t spoil the ending for you, but what happens next really elevates Conquest to more than just another sequel or prequel, and many fans of the series consider it to be one of the Planet of the Apes DVD’s most worth owning. Don’t write it off as just another sequel, though, it’s one of the most unique and offbeat films in Montalban’s career.

Ricardo Montalban in Planet Of The Apes (The Lousy Human B***ards line)

Interestingly, while Montalban was in high demand for quite awhile, Hollywood still had some catching up to do. In 1970, Montalban and several of his colleagues formed the Nosotros Foundation. This foundation was intended to encourage young Latino actors to be very careful about the roles they take, as many of the roles offered to Montalban and other Mexican actors would have done very little but reinforce negative stereotypes. As Montalban himself said “I lost a lot of jobs”. Sadly, “Don’t rock the boat” was the motto of the Hollywood film industry at the time, and Nosotros earned Montalban a reputation as a rabble rouser.

In 1999, Nosotros and the Ricardo Montalban Foundation purchased the Doolittle Theater from UCLA. The grand opening ceremony for the Ricardo Montalban Theater had Montalban himself, now in a wheelchair, suffering from the long term effects of a 1951 injury, roll onstage and reminisce on the stages of his own career, where he summed it up quite simply...

  1. Who’s Ricardo Montalban?
  2. Get me Ricardo Montalban!
  3. Get me a Ricardo Montalban type!
  4. Get me a young Ricardo Montalban!
  5. Who’s Ricardo Montalban?
  6. Wait a minute, isn’t that what’s-his-name? (referring to his role in SpyKids)
  7. Who the hell is Ricardo Montalban? (referring to having a theatre named after himself)

Of course, in recent years, Montalban has been rediscovered by a younger generation thanks in part to Quentin Tarantino declaring The Wrath of Khan “The best revenge flick ever” and even making a direct reference to the film at the beginning of his own Kill Bill Volume One, and with Tarantino’s colleague, Robert Rodriguez, casting Montalban as the action hero grandfather of the titular characters in the Spy Kids films.

William Shatner Remembers Ricardo Montalban

Montalban passed away on January 14th, 2009 at the age of 88. The exact cause of death has yet to be identified, though the family has announced it to simply be the complications of advancing age.

What Montalban has left us with is an impressive legacy. His work spans every genre, and no matter who he was playing, be it the hero, the sidekick, the baddie, or just a minor supporting role, he would give it a unique spin and create a character you just couldn’t take your eyes off of.

His final role, oddly enough, was voicing a genetically engineered cow in a 2008 episode of Family Guy. The voice is unmistakable, and while it may seem a bit silly, Montalban would have appreciated the humour in going out on such a surreal note.

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Thanks for answering the request; sorry I missed it before! He was always a favorite of mine.

    • profile image

      Iphigenia 8 years ago

      This was a great read for me because when I saw the title of the Hub I thought "who?" - but as soon as I saw his photo I knew that I 'knew' him whilst at the same time I couldn't have name him if you had just shown me a photograph. he is one of those hundreds of actors/esses who have contributed so much, who have entered our collective subconsciousnesses and who have consistently produced impeccable performances but who largely go unsung.

      We need more biographies of people like this and not just the super-celebs.

      I enjoyed the vids - especially the Fantasy island clip. Thanks.