Only a day after I wrote a post about the late Patrick McGoohan, I now find myself writing about another cherished actor who has sadly passed away. Like most unrepentant fanboys, I’ll always remember Ricardo Montalbán for his portrayal of my favourite screen villain, Khan Noonien Singh. However disillusioned I might have become with the franchise over time, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan remains one of my favourite guilty pleasure movies, and that is due in no small part to Montalbán’s incendiary performance.
Montalbán played Khan on two occasions, in the 1982 movie and in the ‘Space Seed’ episode of the original Star Trek series (which, ironically enough, I watched over Christmas for the first time in years as Clare had bought me a Season 1 DVD boxset). In non-Star Trek circles he was probably best known for playing the white-suited Mr Roarke in the 70s series Fantasy Island.
Like McGoohan, he had a long life and career – his first film role was in 1943 and his last was in 2006s CG animated flick, The Ant Bully. However, despite the fact he was multi-talented, had an amazing screen presence and exuded ridiculous amounts of natural charisma, as a young man he never got the leading roles he seemed almost genetically predisposed to play. Of course, this was the 1940s and 50s, and back then racial equality wasn’t exactly high on Hollywood’s agenda.
At the time, Montalbán was one of only a handful of Hispanic actors working in Tinsel Town, and on those rare occasions when a movie featured a Latin American protagonist, a North American A-lister would normally get the role. As much as I love the film, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) is a good example of this: we can only wonder how different the film would have been if the Mexican cop protagonist was played by a Latino actor like Montalbán instead of Charlton Heston.
To say that Montalbán delivered the greatest performance ever to grace a Star Trek movie may sound like I’m damning him with faint praise. Far from it. Any actor who could convincingly portray a genetically advanced, physically intimidating superman at the age of 61 (without, I might add, any prosthetic enhancements), was a talent to be reckoned with. The New Yorker’s legendary film critic Pauline Kael – who never suffered fools gladly and could hardly have been described as a convention-going Trekkie – had this to say about Montalbán’s Wrath of Khan performance:
“Montalban is unquestionably a star in ‘The Wrath of Khan’ (and his grand manner seems to send a little electric charge through Shatner). As a graying superman who, when foiled, cries out to Kirk, ‘From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!,’ Montalban may be the most romantic smoothie of sci-fi villains. Khan’s penchant for quoting Melville and Milton (which goes back to ‘Space Seed’) doesn’t hurt. And that great chest of Montalban’s is reassuring. He looks like an Inca priest. He’s still champing at the bit, eager to act: he plays his villainy to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty. Montalban’s performance doesn’t show a trace of ‘Fantasy Island.’ It’s all panache; if he isn’t wearing feathers in his hair you see them there anyway. You know how you always want to laugh at the flourishes that puncuate the end of the flamenco dance and the dancers won’t let you? Montalban does.”
Ricardo Montalbán – 25th November, 1920 – 14th January, 2009.
God, I hate it when my blog turns into a bloody obituary column.