Ricardo Montalban, the actor best known as the white-suited “boss” Mr. Roarke of “Fantasy Island,” died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 88.
Montalban became a household name in the late 1970s through his starring role on the long-running Aaron Spelling/ABC anthology series. But during a long career in showbiz, Montalban appeared in dozens of features, commercials, on Broadway and in numerous other TV series.
He also became a pop culture icon for his TV ads for the Chrysler Cordoba, describing the car’s “soft Corinthian leather” in his deep, accented voice.
Montalban, who was injured in a horseback accident while making 1951’s “Across the Wide Missouri,” had a spinal operation in 1993 and had been mostly confined to a wheelchair ever since, although he continued to work until recently, mostly providing voices for animated films and TV shows.
Montalban won an Emmy for his role in the James Arness series “How the West Was Won” in 1978, the same year “Fantasy Island” began its long run on ABC’s Saturday night lineup. As host of the anthology series along with Herve Villechaize, Montalban was recognized throughout the world. After the series ended in 1984, he appeared as a regular on “The Colbys” from 1985 to 1987. He also played Khan Noonien Singh on the “Star Trek” series and in the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
Born in Mexico City, the actor was also an outspoken proponent for the fair representation of Latinos in entertainment and in 1970 founded Nosotros, an organization devoted to that cause.
When his older brother Carlos (the actor best known as El Exigente in television coffee commercials) emigrated to the U.S., Montalban followed and attended Fairfax High School. A talent scout from MGM spotted him and offered him a screen test. But Montalban chose instead to move to New York to work in the theater. He co-starred on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead in “Her Cardboard Lover,” and worked onstage in New York before returning to Mexico to tend to his ailing mother.
He appeared in several Mexican films before returning to Hollywood, where MGM put him under contract. He made his debut opposite Esther Williams and Cyd Charisse in “Fiesta” in 1947, which led to a string of similar roles in such films as “The Kissing Bandit,” “Neptune’s Daughter,” “Battleground” “The Black Pirate,” “Sombrero” and “Latin Lover.”
His contract with MGM expired in 1955 and Montalban freelanced in several movies such as “A Life in the Balance,” and “Saracen Blade.” He also began appearing regularly on television in such programs as “Climax,” “Island in the City,” “Playhouse 90,” “Wagon Train,” “Schlitz Playhouse” and “The Loretta Young Show,” hosted by his sister-in-law.
In 1956 and later, in the early 70s, Montalban toured in George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell” in the title role. It led to an offer to star in what turned out to be a flop Broadway musical based on the film “Seventh Heaven.”
Thereafter, he shuttled between various mediums, taking on a role as a Asian man in “Sayonara,” in 1957, jumping into the Lena Horne hit musical “Jamaica” and such films as “Love is a Ball,” “Let No Man Write My Epitaph,” “Cheyenne Autumn,” “Madame X,” “The Reluctant Saint,” “Adventures of a Young Man,” “The Singing Nun” and the Bob Fosse adaptation of “Sweet Charity” in 1969.
He later appeared in the “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” in the early 1970s and 1988’s feature version of the short lived TV series “The Naked Gun.”
He continued to voice roles for animated series and films until recently, with roles in “Family Guy,” “Kim Possible,” “Dora the Explorer” and “The Ant Bully.”
In 1980 he published his autobiography, “Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds.”
Hollywood’s Doolittle Theater was renamed the Ricardo Montalban Theater for the actor, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1993.
Montalban’s wife Georgiana Young, sister of actresses Loretta Young and Sally Blane, died in 2003. They had two daughters and two sons.