Ricardo Montalban died on Wednesday at age 88, and we got the news from a local politician who made the announcement at a Los Angeles city council meeting. To those who only knew the Mexican-born actor as the mysterious Mr Roarke of TV's Fantasy Island or may only remember his purring praise for "soft Corinthian leather" in those old Chrysler commercials, it was just as well.
But to those who recognise that the Emmy-winning icon was a talented but underused actor who persevered through decades of Hollywood bigotry and typecasting with elegance and grace, a trailblazer who jeopardised his own career by advocating for younger generations of Latino actors, it was a meagre send-off.
What we've lost, simply put, is one of the last remaining Hispanics who first busted through Hollywood's doors and then struggled not to pay for their audacity with their dignity and cultural identity. "My career has been the constancy of doing the best I could with the role I had," Montalban once said. "I persevered. That's the only quality that I recognise in myself."
Already a Latin American star when he hit Hollywood in the mid 1940s, Montalban could act, dance and sing and showed it off in his first American film, the Mexico-set musical Fiesta. Montalban, born in Mexico of Spanish parents, had style and phenomenal presence. Hollywood, however, was a topsy-turvy world where Latinos – particularly Mexicans – were often portrayed onscreen as "bandits, gigolos, hot señoritas and indolent peons," as Montalban once put it. Lead Latino characters, such as they were, were often played by white actors. Latino actors were mostly relegated to playing stereotypical ethnic bit roles – everything from filthy Mexican peasants to Japanese soldiers – even if they had the chops to do more. It's as if they were paying a never-ending string of dues for a reward that rarely came.
Hispanics who succeeded in old Hollywood did so by either passing as Anglos, as in the case of Rita Hayworth – a flamenco-dancer-turned-actress who became a leading lady only after dying her dark hair red and dropping her Spanish father's last name of Cansino – or by sheer will and the willingness to risk obscurity, as in the case of Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno. By the time Moreno won a best supporting actress Oscar in 1962 for West Side Story, the actress had endured several demeaning Latin sex-pot roles and, she once told me in an interview, the scorn of racist directors who ignored her on set. After her win, Moreno refused to make a film for seven years. Despite the award, she continued to be offered infuriatingly one-dimensional roles.
Moreno's gamble paid off as she went on to earn a Tony, Grammy and two Emmys, but Montalban chose another path.
After a phenomenal start working alongside stars including Clark Gable, Lana Turner and Cyd Charisse, Montalban played small roles as Latin lovers and, bizarrely, as a Japanese Kabuki actor (Sayonara) and an Indian chief (TV's How the West Was Won, for which he won the Emmy). Part of the reason was money, he said in a fabulously revealing 2002 video interview with the Archive of American Television – he was a married father of four. The other reason was he simply wanted to act. "I never had the luxury of getting 10, five or even two scripts at a time," Montalban says in the interview. "As a Mexican actor, you got one, take it or leave it. I always tried to play people of different nationalities with the dignity that I wished Americans would show when they play Mexicans."
Montalban said he challenged studio executives on their portrayals of Latinos and later took the issue public by co-founding the non-profit Nosotros ("we" in Spanish), which pushes studios to give Latino actors more opportunities and present a more balanced portrayal of Latinos onscreen. That got the actor virtually blacklisted, and he was forced for years to make a living by hitting the road with a theatre troupe.
But two roles brought him acclaim and pop culture status late in his career: One was as the villain Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the other was as Mr Roarke on Fantasy Island. It's deliciously ironic that with Roarke, Montalban, so long at the mercy of the whims of studios, got to play someone who wields the power to make wishes come true. And watching his visceral portrayal of Khan, a superhuman banished to the far reaches of the universe by Captain Kirk who comes back seeking revenge, you can't help but wonder how much of the rage is real. Reality-based or not, the performance was ballsy and grand. Said legendary film critic Pauline Kael: "It was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen."
What's changed in Hollywood since Montalban's time? Not much – and a lot. While Latinos are still called on to play maids, sluts, criminals and random cops on TV and in films, Montalban – and actors like Moreno – helped make the careers of current luminaries possible: Edward James Olmos, Oscar-winners Javier Bardem and Benicio del Toro, Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek and America Ferrera.
"He was one of the true giants of arts and culture," Olmos told the Los Angeles Times. "He was a stellar artist and a consummate person and performer with a tremendous understanding of culture ... and the ability to express it in his work."
Here's hoping Olmos is not the only one who remembers.
Rest In Peace.
“If discrimination based on race is constitutionally permissible when those who hold the reins can come up with "compelling" reasons to justify it, then constitutional guarantees acquire an accordionlike quality.” - William Orville Douglas