They brought him up from Mexico and made him a star.
He was the virile leading man who defined Latin sophistication yet broke the mold of Latino actors being typecast. Ricardo Montalban was an enormously versatile performer who could sing, dance, swim and act.
In the 1950s, he was Mexico’s answer to Cary Grant. Although he would achieve his greatest fame in 1977 as ‘Mr. Roarke’ on the Fantasy Island tv series, in the 50s he was a movie star.
Montalban’s career moved in a diverse direction. As a graduate of ‘MGM University’ he did it all. Although immensely proud of his heritage, Montalban resisted being stereotyped.
Born in Mexico City in 1920, (his parents had recently emigrated from Spain. His older siblings had been born there. Ricardo was the first and only Montalban born in Mexico.) He moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, to live with his brother Carlos, an actor. The two then moved to New York. ( Carlos in later life became famous in TV commercials as Juan Valdez, the grower of Colombian coffee).
Ricardo had done some “B” films in New York, then returned to Mexico. There he became a star and worked for director Norman Foster who was married to Sally Blaine, sister of Loretta Young.
Montalban followed Foster and Blaine back to Hollywood where he promptly fell in love with another Young sister, Georgianna. They soon married. Then he came to the attention of MGM, which at the time was always on the lookout for potential Latin lover talent.
His first studio title, 1947’s Fiesta, put the actor — still sporting a heavy accent — in some swift gringo company including Esther Williams (playing a toreador, of all things), John Carroll, Mary Astor and one of our favorite character actors, Akim Tamiroff.
In her 1999 autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams recalled that the movie’s foul-tempered director Richard Thorpe hated Mexico (the picture’s location), hated bullfighting, and above all hated Ricardo Montalban, who was at least as cheerful as I was.
Although this was his first English language film, Ricardo was already revealing the congenial disposition that later characterized…his debonair ‘Fantasy Island’ persona, recalled Williams. Every morning he’d come on the set with an energetic, heartfelt, ‘Good morning! God is smiling on us. How is everyone today?’ Thorpe really hated that.
No question that Montalban was an amiable guy, but that didn’t prevent him playing some gritty parts while at MGM. By all means check him out in Border Incident, director Anthony Mann’s 1947 film noir gem.
Ricardo convincingly portrays an undercover agent threatened by a couple of genuine meanies (Howard DeSilva and our man Charles McGraw). Watch Montablan’s expression as he helplessly witnesses fellow undercover agent (George Murphy) being shredded by the blades of a farm reaper in an “accident” arranged by the two bad guys. Grisly, tough stuff.
This same actor, however, could so successfully shift gears onscreen that he became virtually a regular in Williams’ various films, giving life to such roles as the Million Dollar Mermaid’s twin brother or as her fiance or as her wealthy polo player lover.
In 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter, Montalban even teams with Williams in a winning vocal duet of Frank Loesser’s Oscar-winning song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
Montalban always projected just-from-the-gym athleticism along with a sunny personality. As mentioned, he was highly versatile, and after his studio days he appeared in most of the best-rated prime-time TV shows decades before Fantasy Island was even conceived.
His roles in the TV version of ‘Star Trek’ led to his casting in 1982’s big-budget feature, Star Trek II: The World of Khan. His comedy chops are appealingly on display in 1988’s The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad, which costarred Leslie Nielsen and an actor by the name of O.J. Simpson.
Montalban was also one of Hollywood’s most distinctive actors in that, as a devoutly religious Roman Catholic, he remained married Georgianna for 63 years. The couple had four children. She died in 2007.
Montalban worked right up to the end two years later.