by Linda Holmes
Did you see what I did? I did it to him right in the headline. I made Ricardo Montalbán, who died yesterday, all about Fantasy Island, even though his career as a movie and television actor adds up to 167 listings in his Internet Movie Database entry, and that doesn't count his work in theater.
But to me, and to a broad swath of people who were young when Fantasy Island bowed in 1978, he is the white-suited Mr. Roarke, who welcomed guests to his private island, where he had the ability to...well, make fantasies come true. Kind of. Often ironically. You can see full episodes online -- here, for instance, is one where the two stories are a man who wants to find the perfect woman and a woman who wants to learn about the criminal mind.
"Khaaaaaaan!", after the jump...
Of course, while he's Mr. Roarke, he's also Khan from Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan, often hailed as one of the best, if not the best, of the Star Trek movies. He appears about halfway through this clip, and while he's buried under a getup that wouldn't be out of place on The Golden Girls, you can see how he brings his limitlessly suave, Montalbán-ian unflappability to the whole thing. (I apologize for being the one thousandth person in the last 24 hours to refer to Montalbán as "suave," but you can't help it: if asked to define the word "suave," your best shorthand would be, "Like Ricardo Montalbán.")
This is what makes not only an actor but a pop-culture icon, I think: being able to do wildly divergent things while remaining recognizably and fundamentally yourself. Clint Eastwood is always Clint Eastwood; certainly, if we remain in the Star Trek universe, Shatner is always Shatner. And whenever Ricardo Montalbán showed up on television or in the movies, you could count on that divinely controlled, insanely charming, vaguely diabolical delivery that he knew how to use in straight drama, or in campy drama, or in parodies like The Naked Gun.
I cannot possibly wrap up my thoughts about Montalbán without mentioning, incidentally, the classic Saturday Night Live sketch in which Bill Murray famously wondered, "Quien es mas macho? Ricardo Montalbán o Fernando Lamas? Señor Lamas? O...Montalb&an?" There's no question that Montalbán was, in a sense, trapped with Lamas in the Land Of Old Spanish-Speaking Movie Actors -- a fact that was played for laughs on SNL, but was also the genesis of his founding of Nosotros, a group that works for the advancement of Latino actors.
So whether you see Mr. Roarke, or Khan, or the guy who said "soft Corinthian leather" in car commercials, you're seeing the unmistakable mark of Ricardo Montalbán, which will be missed.