Saturday, January 17, 2009

Smiles, Everyone, Smiles!

Lost in the news events of last week was the passing of legendary actor Ricardo Montalban. As a kid growing up in the 70's, I first got to know Montalban in his portrayal as the strange but compelling Mr. Roarke on the hit show "Fantasy Island" every week. One of the strangest shows ever put on television, when you think about it, Montalban, in his pressed white suits, shmoozed and ooozed a strange charisma each week that kept viewers coming back for more.

And then there were those infamous car commercials.

His entire reputation, both as smooth Latin seducer and parodist of a smooth Latin seducer, was capsulized in a television advertisement from the mid-1970s in which he served as pitchman for the Cordoba, a luxury car being introduced by Chrysler. He purred over the automobile’s assets, including the seats, upholstered, he said, in “soft, Corinthian leather,” a phrase that became a campy giggle-inducer, especially after it became known that there is no such thing as Corinthian leather, from Corinth or anywhere else: the description was just a marketing invention.
In fact, it was Montalban, according to Robert Nedelkoff in his appreciation, who "supposedly improvised the phrase during the filming of that famed Chrysler commercial."

Sociologically speaking, Montalban was also important for his work advocating for Latino actors. As the many obituaries are noting, he was one of the first actors to speak out against the stereotypes of Latino men, and his career even suffered because of his advocacy.
In 1971, troubled by the way he was asked to portray Mexicans, he helped to found Nosotros, an advocacy group for Latinos working in the movie and television industry. As president of the organization, he later said: “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. 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.”
But for those of us sci-fi geeks out there, Montalban will always be vividly remembered for his role as Khan, the Star Trek villain, and his hair-raising performance in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" in the 80's.

Or as Kirk put it: "Khaaaaaaaaaaan!"

RIP, a great man and a great actor.

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