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Ricardo Montalban

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Ricardo Montalban

Some know actor Ricardo Montalban as the grandfather from the Spy Kids movies, Mr. Roarke from TV's Fantasy Island or the villainous Khan in Star Trek. An older crowd remembers him as an MGM contract player who danced alongside Cyd Charisse, romanced Lana Turner, and improbably played Esther Williams' twin brother.

Perhaps less known: Montalban, who died in 2009 at 88, overcame numerous obstacles to become one of Hollywood's first Mexican-born stars. He rejected industry directives to change his name and not speak Spanish at home, "always accepting the challenges and finding a way to portray himself and his heritage in a positive manner," his son-in-law, Gilbert Smith, told Legacy.com.

Montalban later jeopardized his own career to help other Hispanic actors get quality roles, urging studios "to stop stereotyping Latin actors by casting them only as prostitutes, maids, gang-bangers and bandidos," his Los Angeles Times obituary noted.

Montalban had already made a dozen movies in Mexico when he moved to California as a teenager to find fame stateside. He made his Hollywood debut in 1947's Fiesta; other parts soon followed. Montalban "specialized in Latin-lover roles, perfecting if not defining the stereotype," according to his New York Times obituary. "Like other minority actors of the time, Mr. Montalban, with his dark good looks and his Spanish accent, seemed to be a kind of racial utility player."

As a performer, Montalban could do comedy or drama, romances or Westerns. He was handsome, a fine dancer and singer. Off-camera he was known as a gentleman, kind, caring and genuine.

New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael once observed that Montalban seemed to have it all, including "warmth and great charm. Maybe the charm was a drawback –– it may have made him seem too likable," she said.

In 1951, Montalban suffered a serious back injury on the set of Across the Wide Missouri. Left with a limp he tried to hide and unable to dance, Montalban was dropped by MGM.

He spent a few years onstage, most notably starring in Jamaica on Broadway with Lena Horne. The role earned Montalban a Tony nomination and some controversy, Smith said, as he and Horne played an interracial couple and kissed onstage.

In the 1960s Montalban started Nosotros, an organization that advocated for Latinos in Hollywood. "He was threatened by phone and letter if he went forward with creating the group," Smith said. Montalban did it anyway.

“I put my career aside and dedicated my heart and soul for over a year and a half to this new organization, going to radio and television to talk about it, talking to directors, producers, writers," he said, according to his New York Times obituary. "I received tremendous support, but there were also some negative repercussions. I was accused of being a militant and as a result I lost jobs."

In 1999, the Ricardo Montalban Foundation was formed to purchase a 1,000-seat theater near Vine Street and Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Montalban hoped to create a home for aspiring Hispanic actors, writers and directors. Now called the Montalban Theater, its most recent show was the first Spanish-language adaptation of Menopause the Musical.

Smith, who is president of the foundation, said his father-in-law had a great sense of humor. In his later years, according to Wikipedia, he would repeat the "five stages of the actor" when he took the stage.

1. Who is Ricardo Montalban?
2. Get me Ricardo Montalban.
3. Get me a Ricardo Montalban type.
4. Get me a young Ricardo Montalban.
5. Who is Ricardo Montalban?

But Montalban might be surprised to know that he continues to inspire a new generation. Maria Jose and John Tenuto, husband and wife sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Illinois, have developed a presentation on Montalban's life that they share with their students and other audiences.

"There isn't a student who sees me where I don't either draw on some lesson from his life or recommend they find his autobiography and read it," John Tenuto said. "It's not a typical autobiography. It's somebody examining their life and giving good advice."

The Tenutos had always admired Montalban as an actor –– they came of age during his Mr. Roarke years and love Star Trek –– but reading his 1980 autobiography Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds made them fans of Montalban as a person. They admired his strong religious faith and devotion to his wife – to whom he was married for more than 60 years and with whom he had four children – and were inspired by his attitude toward life. "He believed love was the answer to nearly every problem," Maria Jose Tenuto said.

To prepare their presentation, the Tenutos asked Hollywood stars for their impressions of Montalban. Everyone from Florence Henderson to Edward James Olmos responded with stories. "There isn't a single negative word written about him anywhere," John Tenuto said. "He was truly a gentlemen. People don't know this about him. They leave as admirers, and that's what we'd hoped."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."