BREAKING NEWS: And now Ricardo Montalban has died (1920-2009)

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…and now, in some crazy and sad coincidence, Ricardo Montalban has died on the same day as Patrick MacGoohan. According to legend, Aaron Spelling was watching repeats of “The Prisoner” on PBS in the mid-seventies, and while he didn’t care for the show itself, he liked a lot of aspects of it. “Fantasy Island,” then, started out as his attempt to build a show around bits he liked from the SF/Spy drama: The mysterious and always-classy #2 became Roark, the midget that was always following #2 around became Tattoo, “The Village” and its environs became Fantasy Island itself. The show started out vaguely SF-lite: Mentions were made of the extra players in the various fantasies were, in fact, androids; Roark himself started out as a much more nebulous character, as likely to do something that kills or injures a guest as he is to give them their life-long dream of a top-40 album. This didn’t last long, however, and though it started out as a somewhat addlepated and almost-unrecognizable homage (or ripoff?) of a great show, it quickly went in its own direction and became its own thing. And now both the source and the imitation are gone on the same day. How sad and weird is that?

Best known as the genetically engineered super-tyrant “Khan Noonian Singh,” Montalban created the role in 1966, and reprised it in 1982 when he was a startellingly-buff 61-year-old. His 80s version of Khan was an instant-icon, a scenery-chewing Melvile-quoting space pirate, played with such relish as to become the defining aspect of the film. That film, of course, went on to become the defining aspect of 80s Trek, saving the franchise from its 70s doldrums and (finally) starting it on it’s way to becoming the mass-media cultural phenomenon that we all find so tiresome now. But it’s important to realize that it was new and exciting then, and a very large part for the success of that film lies with Montalban. It’s a toss-up as to which he’s better known for: Kahn or Mister Roark from “Fantasy Island.” (Though I’ve always been oddly partial to his one-off performance as a time-traveling Confederate Officer in an episode of The Wild Wild West.)

More recently, he appeared in two of the “Spy Kids” movies, and had a recurring role in Disney’s Kim Possible as one of the better recurring villains on that show. In fact, he was a very accomplished actor in voiceover roles as well as actual physical performances; much better at that sort of thing than many actors of his era. Also not commonly known is that he was nearly crippled when a horse fell on him while he was shooting a western in 1951. He was in considerable pain from that for the rest of his very long life. In 1993 he had an operation to try and fix damage from that accident, which unfortunately went horribly wrong and he was confined to a wheelchair for the next sixteen years.

Already a very successful actor in Mexico, he came to the US in 1945 and starred in a number of splashy MGM musicals, and played an inordinate number of American Indian roles (Hollywood didn’t like to cast actual Indians as Indians in those days, they preferred to use “Swarthy types” like Montalban, and Michael Ansara [Syrian]) For some reason they didn’t feel they were realistic enough. I don’t pretend to understand that either) Though he didn’t have a lot of roles in the SF Genre, he was a perennial on TV and movies all through his unbelievably long career. IMDB shows an unbelievable one hundred and sixty-seven film roles for him, and appearances on at least forty-six different shows.
Like MacGoohan, he was a devoted family man, loving husband and father, and a good catholic boy his whole life; another one of those increasingly rare people who manage to live life to high standards without coming across as preachy or sanctimonious. He was someone who managed to have a long and very successful career without selling himself out, or screwing over the people around him. No mean feat, considering that the media wasn’t exactly friendly to ethnic minorities when he was starting out. He was a good man who led a good life on pretty much his own terms, and one can’t ask for much more than that.

While never one of my heroes, he was always someone I inherently liked, even when he was playing bad-guy roles. Whenever he turned up in something I was watching, I always considered it a bonus – “oh, that guy! This just got better!” – and though I can’t remember ever actually seeking him out in anything, I always looked forward to him popping up in unexpected places – a movie, a TV show, a special, a cartoon, what have you – like an old friend turning up again. I never met him, but I always liked knowing he was out there, somewhere, doing stuff.

And with his passing, this already-crappy day gets even worse, and the media seems a little bit less magical and a little more crass.

Goodbye, Mister Montalban. Our prayers to you and your family, and thank you!