Ricardo Montalban died today and the world lost a veneer of badly needed class.
I never met the man, but I sure admired him.
His memoir, Reflections, A Life in Two Worlds published in 1980 is only 163 brief pages. I’ve had it in my library for years. No matter the length, Montalban’s book bespeaks a class human being who was first and foremost a gentleman, a term that has all but vanished from our public lexicon.
Ricardo Montalban radiated confidence without arrogance, lightness without frivolity and gravitas with sincerity.
When he first came to this country in the 1940’s, Montalban stopped at a roadside diner in Texas that had a sign out front: “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed”.He swallowed his outrage and continued on the road to Hollywood. He married his wife, Georgiana Young (Loretta’s sister) soon after. She was the one and only love of his entire life.
M*G*M signed him and although there were some good pictures (Border Incident, Battleground, Mystery Street ) there was also the Latin Lover stereotype in a lot of tripe.
In 1950, Montalban was making the most of his best opportunity at Metro, Across the Wide Missouri, helmed by William Wellman. Ricardo was starring opposite Clark Gable. On location in Colorado, his pinto threw him and he landed spine-first on a boulder.
Even though there was no fracture or spinal damage, the actor was temporarily paralyzed, then remaining in agony with a useless left leg. With production on the verge of being shut down, Montalban willed himself back to location from a hospital bed and gutted out the rest of his scenes.
For over two decades, the doctors found no damage to his spine, but as Montalban put it, “…pain has been my constant companion since that clear Colorado day in 1950.”He never sought relief via booze or pain pills.
After finally being advised that surgery was dangerous and would probably not improve his condition, he reflected that the pain had been instrumental in shaping his life in that he accepted the inevitable. An actor to the bone, Montalban added, “There are some magic words that are the best painkiller available… ‘Curtain going up’ and ‘Camera! Action!”
He didn’t explain, didn’t complain and continued his acting career after Metro dropped his option. After struggling to remain viable, there was “…soft Corinthian leather” for Chrysler- he had the entire nation trying imitate his beautifully rolling accent.
He followed with his enigmatic Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island which made him a pop culture icon. Many others remember him as Khan from the original Star Trek series and much later in the second Trek movie. He also founded Nosotros and worked tirelessly to change some of stereotypical perceptions of his countrymen that were reinforced by Hollywood.
Ricardo Montalban talked the talk and walked the walk…even with the pain.
I’d like to close with a personal story, but I can’t. Here are two remembrances of Ricardo Montalban that underscore the character of the man:
The first is via a link to Mark Evanier’s News From Me blog:
My friend and colleague Eddie Muller did a Q&A with Montalban at a screening of Mystery Street (1950) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood about eight years ago:
“Ricardo Montalban was my favorite guest ever at the Egyptian Theatre film noir festivals (don’t tell the women!). First off, he agreed to appear after a screening of Mystery Street despite incredible pain and he never so much as winced, let alone pull the patented Hollywood prima donna routine. He was the most gracious, thoughtful, and eloquent person I’ve ever interviewed. I was moved, and inspired, by his recollections about being cast as the “all-purpose Latin” in his early movies. I’ll never forget it: “They cast me as a Puerto Rican. They cast me as a Cuban. They cast me as a Venezuelan. They cast me as everything but what I am — a Mexican! As though it was wrong to be a Mexican! I am a Mexican and I am proud of it! Viva la Mexico!” It was a great moment.
And later, when I teased him about probably being most well-known for “fine Corinthian leather,” he responded with great pride: “I was the first Mexican to sell an American car. What greater symbol is there of America than the automobile? And they asked me to represent it. I thought it was quite special. “
What impressed me most about Mr. Montalban was that he possessed something you rarely experience anymore, especially in actors — nobility. People can say whatever they want about him as an actor. After spending some time with him, I felt he was one of the most impressive men I’d ever met.
My most fervent cinema wish? That Montalban had been cast in Touch of Evil instead of Charlton Heston. Can you imagine? Mike Vargas … a Mexican! Viva la Montalban!”