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Overview for Karla Montana
Karla Montana

Karla Montana


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Handsome, erudite and blessed with an exceptionally rich, sonorous voice, Ricardo Montalbán made the transition from supporting character actor to lead player with a pair of iconic roles, as diverse as they were memorable. Working within the studio system of the 1940s and '50s, the Latino actor was initially cast as whatever ethnicity was needed for a role, most often as a Latin Lover in films like "Fiesta" (1947), but also as a Native-American in "Across the Wide Missouri" (1951) or an Asian, as in "Sayonara" (1957). A Tony-nominated turn on Broadway opposite Lena Horne in the 1957 production of "Jamaica" earned him the respect of his peers, although not the leading roles he sought. Montalbán kept busy with dozens of guest turns throughout the 1960s on such programs as "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1964-68), "The Wild, Wild West" (CBS, 1965-69) and most memorably, in an episode of "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69). At last, the veteran actor became a household name as the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, host of "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1977-1984), then eclipsed that fame with his reprisal of Captain Kirk's titular nemesis in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982). He continued to work ceaselessly on various TV shows and films, even performing from a wheelchair in "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams" (2002), after being paralyzed from the waist down. Remembered as a man of integrity and perseverance, Montalbán earned the loyalty of his contemporaries, as well as generations of fans.

Montalbán was born on Nov. 20, 1920 in Mexico City, Mexico. As a teenager he moved to the United States at the behest of his elder brother Carlos Montalbán, where his poor English skills threatened to keep him out of Los Angeles high schools. Studying English for hours each day at downtown L.A.'s Belmont High School, he had improved enough to be accepted to the more esteemed Fairfax High School, where he started trying out for and winning parts in plays. It was at Fairfax where a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive first caught him on stage during a performance of "Tovarich." The exec was impressed enough to signing Montalbán to a contract with the then largest and most prestigious studio in town.

The young actor cut his teeth on a number of Spanish language films initially, but also began landing parts in MGM musicals set in exotic Latin locales before scoring his first starring role as Pablo Rodriguez in "Border Incident" in 1949. The studio - not sure what to do with the handsome, but obviously Hispanic-looking actor in those white-washed days - went on to appear in countless Westerns in the 1940s and 50s, playing everything from a bandito to a Native American. Along with fellow Latin lovers like Fernando Lamas, Montalbán filled in whatever ethnic niche he could in those limited days. Unfortunately, while working on one of his more prestigious pictures (starring the studio's biggest star, Clark Gable) "Across the Wide Missouri" (1951), the athletic actor suffered an injury to his spinal chord which, despite surgery to repair it, would go on to plague him even decades later.

After years of paying his onscreen eye-candy dues opposite such stars as Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse and Lana Turner in mindless films like "Neptune's Daughter" (1949), "Sombrero" (1953) and "Latin Lovers" (1953), Montalbán finally earned the industry's respect when he nabbed a Tony Award for his performance in the musical "Jamaica" in 1958. In the 1960s, like most former matinee idols pushing 40, Montalbán made dozens of guest star appearances on shows such as "The Untouchables" (CBS, 1959-1963), "Ben Casey" (ABC, 1961-66) and "The Lieutenant" (NBC, 1963-65). He played several characters on "Letter to Loretta" (NBC, 1953-1961) and held a recurring role as Damon West on the very popular medical drama, "Dr. Kildare" (NBC, 1961-66). Among these guest spots was a part which would secure him a place in film and sci-fi history - the evil Khan, on "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69). In the season one episode, entitled "Space Seed," Montalbán played a charismatic but dangerous genetic super-man from the 20th century, revived from suspended animation. With this brief TV appearance on a show few held out much hope for succeeding, the world would not see the last of Khan. Though no foreword-thinking executive - let alone Montalbán, himself - realized this at the time.

Montalbán continued with guest spots on "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-75), "Marcus Welby" (ABC, 1969-1976), "The Virginian," (NBC, 1962-1971) "Hawaii-Five-O" (CBS, 1968-1980) and even "Here's Lucy" (CBS, 1968-1974). He returned to the sci-fi fold with what would have been another villainous leading role in an alternate "Wonder Woman" (ABC, 1974) TV movie, starring Cathy Lee Crosby. But thankfully for Lynda Carter fans, the pilot did not take off. He also played the leading role of David Valerio in the short-lived corporate drama, "Executive Suite" (CBS, 1976-77).

Following such extensive TV exposure, Montalbán was tapped by producer Aaron Spelling in 1977 to play the enigmatic Mr. Roarke on the producer's latest flight of fancy, "Fantasy Island." Clad in an immaculate white suit, with his sidekick Tattoo (Hervé "De Plane!" Villechaize), at his side each week, Montalbán introduced each episode's guests as they disembarked from the sea plane, hinting at their fantasy and what it might mean for their individual destinies. At first a 1977 television movie, the show took off like gangbusters, providing a perfect fantastical bookend to the show's Saturday night lead-in, Spelling's other big hit, "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986). In the midst of the fluffy "Fantasy Island" era, Montalbán was recognized with an Emmy Award for his performance as Satangkai in the epic miniseries, "How the West Was Won" in 1978.

In an unexpected move, Montalbán was approached by Paramount to reprise his mostly forgotten role of Khan from the "Star Trek" pilot for the much-anticipated feature film sequel, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." Through his robust, red-blooded performance, Montalbán and his chiseled chest was introduced to a new generation of young sci-fi fans, who thrilled to the strategic maneuvering between Khan and William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk. Others simply enjoyed watching both actors shamelessly chew the scenery. With his profile higher than ever, Montalbán went on to star on the "Dynasty" spin-off, "The Colbys" (ABC, 1985-87), where he played powerful patriarch Zach Powers. Showing a flair for comic timing, he went on to play the villain in the classic cop spoof, "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad," (1988) opposite Leslie Nielsen. At the same time, he had been the commercial spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba, appearing in a long-running ad campaign hailing back to the 1970s, in which his smooth Latin accent added a romantic touch to his descriptions of "soft Corinthian leather" - commercials which had been widely parodied through the years. He left such an impression with his suggestive selling technique, that even 30 years later, Montalbán was still being sought for extensive voice over and commercial work.

In 1993, Montalbán was plagued by his long-time spinal cord injury, and was confined to a wheelchair much of the time. Aside from some guest shots on "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 1994-2000) and "Love Boat: The Next Wave" (UPN, 1998), he remained mostly active with voice work, providing voices for "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command," (The Disney Channel, 2000), "Kim Possible" (ABC/The Disney Channel, 2002- ) and the 2006 feature film, "The Ant Bully." He also appeared as the grandfather in the hugely successful live action kiddie film franchise, "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" (2002) and "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" (2003). The good humored Montalbán continued to be a favorite at conventions and fan screenings, often garnering a standing ovation for his role as the malevolent mullet-wearing Khan, a role he often described as "Even when I'm not in the scene, they're talking about me." On Jan. 14, 2009, the 88-year-old actor passed away at his home in Los Angeles, with his daughter at his side.

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