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'Fantasy Island' star Ricardo Montalban dies at 88
By BOB THOMAS – 49 minutes ago
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ricardo Montalban, the Mexican-born actor who became a star in splashy MGM musicals and later as the wish-fulfilling Mr. Roarke in TV's "Fantasy Island," died Wednesday morning at his home, a city councilman said. He was 88. Montalban's death was announced at a city council meeting by president Eric Garcetti, who represents the district where the actor lived. Garcetti did not give a cause of death.
"What you saw on the screen and on television and on talk shows, this very courtly, modest, dignified individual, that's exactly who he was," said Montalban's longtime friend and publicist David Brokaw.
Montalban had been a star in Mexican movies when MGM brought him to Hollywood in 1946. He was cast in the leading role opposite Esther Williams in "Fiesta," and starred again with the swimming beauty in "On an Island with You" and "Neptune's Daughter."
But Montalban was best known as the faintly mysterious, white-suited Mr. Roarke, who presided over a tropical island resort where visitors were able to fulfill their lifelong dreams — usually at the unexpected expense of a difficult life lesson. Following a floatplane landing and lei ceremony, he greeted each guest with the line: "I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island."
The show ran from 1978 to 1984.
More recently, he appeared as villains in two hits of the 1980s: "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" and the farcical "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad."
Between movie and TV roles, Montalban was active in the theater. He starred on Broadway in the 1957 musical "Jamaica" opposite Lena Horne, picking up a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical.
He toured in Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell," playing Don Juan, a performance critic John Simon later recalled as "irresistible." In 1965 he appeared on tour in the Yul Brynner role in "The King and I."
"The Ricardo Montalban Theatre in my Council District — where the next generations of performers participate in plays, musicals, and concerts — stands as a fitting tribute to this consummate performer," Garcetti said later in a written statement.
"Fantasy Island" received high ratings for most of its run on ABC, and still appears in reruns. Mr. Roarke and his sidekick, Tattoo, played by the 3-foot, 11-inch Herve Villechaize, reached the state of TV icons. Villechaize died in 1993.
In a 1978 interview, Montalban analyzed the series's success:
"What is appealing is the idea of attaining the unattainable and learning from it. Once you obtain a fantasy, it becomes a reality, and that reality is not as exciting as your fantasy. Through the fantasies you learn to appreciate your own realities."
As for Mr. Roarke: "Was he a magician? A hypnotist? Did he use hallucinogenic drugs? I finally came across a character that works for me. He has the essence of mystery, but I need a point of view so that my performance is consistent. I now play him 95 percent believable and 5 percent mystery. He doesn't have to behave mysteriously; only what he does is mysterious."
In 1970, Montalban organized fellow Latino actors into an organization called Nosotros ("We"), and he became the first president. Their aim: to improve the image of Spanish-speaking Americans on the screen; to assure that Latin-American actors were not discriminated against; to stimulate Latino actors to study their profession.
Montalban commented in a 1970 interview:
"The Spanish-speaking American boy sees Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wipe out a regiment of Bolivian soldiers. He sees `The Wild Bunch' annihilate the Mexican army. It's only natural for him to say, `Gee, I wish I were an Anglo.'"
Montalban was no stranger to prejudice. He was born Nov. 25, 1920, in Mexico City, the son of parents who had emigrated from Spain. The boy was brought up to speak the Castilian Spanish of his forebears. To Mexican ears that sounded strange and effeminate, and young Ricardo was jeered by his schoolmates.
His mother also dressed him with old-country formality, and he wore lace collars and short pants "long after my legs had grown long and hairy," he wrote in his 1980 autobiography, "Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds."
"It is not easy to grow up in a country that has different customs from your own family's."
While driving through Texas with his brother, Montalban recalled seeing a sign on a diner: "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed." In Los Angeles, where he attended Fairfax High School, he and a friend were refused entrance to a dance hall because they were Mexicans.
Rather than seek a career in Hollywood, Montalban played summer stock in New York. He returned to Mexico City and played leading roles in movies from 1941 to 1945. That led to an MGM contract.
Besides the Williams spectacles, the handsome actor appeared in "Sombrero" (opposite Pier Angeli), "Two Weeks With Love" (Jane Powell) and "Latin Lovers" (Lana Turner).
He also appeared in dramatic roles in such films as "Border Incident," "Battleground," "Mystery Street" and "Right Cross."
"Movies were never kind to me; I had to fight for every inch of film," he reflected in 1970. "Usually my best scenes would end up on the cutting-room floor."
Montalban had better luck after leaving MGM in 1953, though he was usually cast in ethnic roles. He appeared as a Japanese kabuki actor in "Sayonara" and an Indian in "Cheyenne Autumn." His other films included: "Madame X," "The Singing Nun," "Sweet Charity," "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" and "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes."
Montalban was sometimes said to be the source of Billy Crystal's "you look MAHvelous" character on "Saturday Night Live," though the inspiration was really Argentinian-born actor Fernando Lamas.
In 1944, Montalban married Georgiana Young, actress and model and younger sister of actress Loretta Young. Both Roman Catholics, they remained one of Hollywood's most devoted couples. She died in 2007. They had four children: Laura, Mark, Anita and Victor.
Montalban suffered a spinal injury in a horse fall while making a 1951 Clark Gable Western, "Across the Wide Missouri," and thereafter walked with a limp he managed to mask during his performances.
In 1993, Montalban lost the feeling in his leg, and exhaustive tests showed that he had suffered a small hemorrhage in his neck, similar to the injury decades earlier. He underwent 9 1/2 hours of spinal surgery at UCLA Medical Center.
Despite the constant pain, the actor was able to take a role in an Aaron Spelling TV series, "Heaven Help Us." Twice a month in 1994, he flew to San Antonio for two or three days of filming as an angel who watched over a young couple.
In an interview at the time, Montalban remarked: "I've never given up hope. But I have to be realistic. I gave my tennis rackets to my son, figuring I'll never play again. But my doctor said, `Don't say that. Strange things happen. You never know.'"
AP entertainment writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this story.