LOS ANGELES – Ricardo Montalban, the suave leading man who was one of the first Mexican-born actors to make it big in Hollywood and who was best known for his role as Mr. Roarke on TV’s “Fantasy Island,” has died. He was 88.
Montalban died Wednesday morning at his Los Angeles home of complications related to old age, said his son-in-law, Gilbert Smith.
Within the entertainment industry, Montalban was widely respected for his efforts to create opportunities for Hispanics, although he and others believed that his activism hurt his career. In 1970, he founded the nonprofit Nosotros Foundation to improve the image and increase employment of Hispanics in Hollywood.
“He paved the way for being outspoken about the images and roles that Latinos were playing in movies,” said Luis Reyes, co-author of “Hispanics in Hollywood.”
Montalban already was a star of Mexican movies in the 1940s when MGM cast him as a bullfighter opposite Esther Williams in “Fiesta” and put him under contract. He would go on to appear alongside such movie greats as Clark Gable and Lana Turner.
When major film roles dried up for him in the 1970s, he turned to stage and eventually TV, where he was familiar to millions as the mysterious host whose signature line, “Welcome to Fantasy Island,” opened the hit ABC show that aired from 1978 to 1984.
While “Fantasy Island” was renewing Montalban’s career and giving him financial stability, he also won an Emmy for his performance as Chief Satangkai in the 1978 ABC miniseries “How the West Was Won.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Montalban was also familiar to TV viewers as a commercial spokesman for Chrysler. He was later widely spoofed for his silky allusion to the “soft Corinthian leather” of the Chrysler Cordoba, although no such leather actually existed.
While making “Fantasy Island,” Montalban also gave one of his best movie performances – as Khan Noonien Singh in the “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), a follow-up to a beloved 1967 “Star Trek” television episode that also featured Montalban.
New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael said Montalban’s performance as Khan “was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen.”