01/20/2009 07:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Khan Baby, Gone: Ricardo Montalban, 1920-2009

There are three things most people think of when hearing the name Ricardo Montalban: "Fine Corinthian leather," Khan and, "Smiles, everyone, smiles." Though all three signature moments made him iconic, and all were excellent in their own way, there was much more to this dapper, groundbreaking actor and proud Mexican-American.

Born in Mexico City, Montalban wore many suits in his life, and all were not white, Mr. Roarke attire. He was a star in Mexico, a Broadway actor (he acted onstage opposite Tallulah Bankhead in Her Cardboard Lover), and an MGM contract player making pictures like Fiesta (with Esther Williams and Cyd Charisse -- lucky), The Kissing Bandit, Battleground, Latin Lovers and Sombrero, a movie I hold dear as it hangs in six sheets across my apartment's entry room hallway. Nothing like walking out of the sometimes grungy, depressing Hollywood streets to be greeted by the sultry glamour of Charisse, Yvonne De Carlo and Mr. Montalban, midclench.

Though Hollywood didn't offer him enough roles and mixed his ethnicity around various parts (something that annoyed the proud Mexican), he tirelessly fought for the rights of Latinos in Hollywood, serving as president of Nosotros, an organization he founded for the advancement of Hispanics in the entertainment industry and one he ran for 20 years. In spite of the limitations placed on him, he did show great range. He could sing, he could dance, he could play the heavy, the leading man, the odd bon vivant, and he could talk. Boy could he talk. His debonair, perfectly pitched, richly smooth voice was unmistakable, something that surely helped after a bad spinal injury from the early 1950s worsened as he aged.

One of my favorite Montalban roles is as a tough, soulful federal agent from Mexico, working with U.S. agent George Murphy in Anthony Mann's tight, hard-hitting, beautifully shot 1949 noir Border Incident. He's also terrific in John Sturges' Mystery Street, William Wellman's My Man and I (opposite Shelley Winters), John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn, and Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity. (Look at that list of directors...)

And then there's Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the superior Star Trek movie, and one that was elevated by his presence alone. His titular character, the genetically engineered supervillain Khan, hell bent on vengeance, confronted Captain Kirk (William Shatner, need I remind you) with delicious grandiloquence. As director Nicholas Meyer said, Montalban's Khan was "Ahab, Lear, and Lucifer all rolled into one."

He was also, of course, legendary in the role of Mr. Roarke on TV's Fantasy Island, surely one of the strangest (and, in my opinion, greatest) shows that Aaron Spelling ever created. Kitschy, even in its own time, and with revolving stars like Sonny Bono, David Cassidy and Charo, Montalban was still impressive, creating such a mysterious character in Roarke's puppet master/island god that you were always just slightly disturbed by his actions. What was he up to? And why did these people have to go through such extreme lengths to learn their valuable lesson: Be careful what you wish for? I always wondered what Mr. Roarke was up to (bedding babes, or pulling strings - or both). There were episodes that played more like David Fincher's The Game than escapist weekend drama. And then there was Montalban, ever cool, ever gracious, ever smiling, ever sly, a bit hammy and yet, never fake. That cannot be easy to do. 

In 1993, with his injury increasing, he worked mostly from a wheelchair, but, always the professional, always the class act, did not quit acting or giving wonderful interviews. My friend and colleague Eddie Muller, the ultimate film noir historian and mystery writer, recalled a Noir Festival interview with Montalban as one of his favorites: "Ricardo Montalban with Mystery Street, declaring how angry it made him that Hollywood called him 'Latin, Hispanic, Cuban, Venezuelan -- everything but what I am! A Mexican! I am a Mexican! And proud of it!' [He had] great nobility. He really impressed me."

Eighty-eight years makes for a long life, and Montalban had an eventful, artistic, important one, but he will be missed. Thank goodness I can look at him every day when I open the door, take off my coat and turn on the light before retreating to my sanctuary: "Smiles, everyone, smiles."

Montalban with the magnificent Cyd Charisse. Gorgeous... 

From my MSN column Hollywood Hitlist.

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.