The story of Ricardo Montalbán, One of the First Latinos to Conquer Hollywood
"Welcome to the Island of Fantasy" was the opening phrase of a successful television program from the '80s, which brought Ricardo Montalban's career to audiences he had not conquered yet with his fame as a Latino actor in a successful and solid career in Hollywood.
Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino was born in Mexico City in 1920, being the youngest of the four children of a couple formed by Spanish immigrants who settled in Mexico in 1906.
He moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to live with his older brother Carlos, also an actor. The brothers moved to New York making their acting debut in 1940 with a small role in "Her Cardboard Lover," with Tallulah Bankhead.
He made his debut in Mexican cinema in the movie "El Verdugo de Sevilla" where he participated in more than a dozen films becoming a star. He had returned to Mexico because of the imminent death of his mother.
He married in 1944 with Georgiana Belzer, half-sister of the actress Loretta Young. The couple returned to Los Angeles to raise their four children: Mark, Victor, Laura, and Anita. They lived a happy marriage until Georgiana passed away in 2007.
Mr. Montalban made his Hollywood debut in 1947 in the film "Fiesta," with Esther Williams doing the unlikely role of his twin sister. A year later he signed with the MGM doing mostly Latin lover roles.
Some of the actresses he co-starred with include Cyd Charisse ("Mark of the Renegade"), Shelley Winters ("My Man and I") and Pier Angeli ("Sombrero") and Lana Turner ("Latin Lovers") among others.
With his Latin type, with black hair and tanned skin, in addition to an exotic accent, Mr. Montalban was a sort of wild actor, which allowed him to participate in a variety of roles in different films.
In cowboy films he played the role of Native American, on another occasion he participated as a Babylonian elder, like a kabuki actor in a Japanese-themed film, he even appears in a film with the role of an African-American.
His interpretation was fluid and convincing. He had the ease of moving from comedy to drama, something that kept him busy working in the film industry when his appeal as a Latin lover actor began to decline.
He was able to move from film to television when the roles began to be scarce, becoming a familiar presence in the homes each week with the series "Island of Fantasy" between 1978 and 1984.
His effort to create opportunities for other Latino actors in the Hollywood world is acknowledged. He received a Grammy Award for his performance as Chief Satangkai in the television miniseries "How the West Was Won."
After his work on "Island of Fantasy," he played what would be his best role in modern cinema as Khan Noonien Singh in the 1982 film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Like Khan, Mr. Montalban was delightfully exaggerated, promising revenge on Starfleet Admiral James T. Kirk.
Having been typecast in roles because of his Latin origin, without a doubt, has hindered Montalban's career as much as it has helped him. Once he was urged to Anglicize his name but he said: “Let my accent and my name be what they are, that sets me apart.”
At the end of the 60s, Mr. Montalban bravely risked his career by founding Nosotros, an organization that fought to improve the stereotyped image of Latino actors as "renegades, lovers or bandits".
In 1993, an old back injury required a nine-hour operation that left him in constant pain and confined to a wheelchair. However, he continued to work, making appearances and lending his voice in children's films such as "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over", "Dora the Explorer" and "The Ant Bully."
He died at his home in Los Angeles on January 14, 2009, at age 88 due to complications typical of aging. He is survived by two daughters, Laura Montalban, and Anita Smith; two sons, Mark Montalban and Victor Montalban; and six grandchildren.