Monday, 26 January 2009 03:38

Ricardo Montalbán overcame obstacles with class

World class TV and film actor Ricardo Montalban is gone but he will never be forgotten.

He was inspirational and often unforgettable as our correspondent Ramon Hernandez writes in this retrospective.

By Ramón Hernández

By now, the January 14th passing of Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino is no longer news, but history. However, little is known of the many obstacles he overcame through persistence in what makes him the ultimate role model for all Mexican Americans. Another little known fact is that there were some Alamo City and Texas ties in his life.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Montalbán’s parents emigrated there from the Mother Country. Therefore pure Spanish blood flowed through his veins. What brought him to the United States was his yearn to become an actor. So in 1938, a teenage Montalbán and his brother Carlos packed up their car and drove from the Mexican capital to Los Angeles. And it was while driving through Texas that he witnessed the first signs of discrimination.

“Literally,” the radio, television, theatre and film actor said during an interview at KMEX, Channel 34, in Los Angeles in 1986.

“It was a sign on the window of a restaurant that read ‘No Dogs or Mexican Allowed.’ ”

Either he did not recall the name of the city, or as was his personality, he chose to be diplomatic and not disclose the town’s name.
The second instance occurred when he was 18 and a senior at Fairfax High School. This time he and a friend were refused admission to a dance hall because they were Mexican.
By 1942 he had only landed one part and it was as an extra in “Five Were Chosen.” Disgruntled by studios urging him to change his name to Ricky Martín and lack of better parts, he and his brother moved to the Big Apple where Ricardo landed a small part in a Broadway play. However, he had to put his aspiring career on hold when he learned that his mother was dying.

Back in Mexico City, he had better luck quickly amassing 11 film credits. Now armed with an impressive resume under his belt, it was Hollywood that courted him to star in “Fiesta” opposite acrobatic swimming queen Esther Williams and Amarillo, Texas-native Cyd Charisse.

This film, which also included Xavier Cugat, showcased Montalbán’s slickness on the dance floor as he and Charisse dance to the music of a mariachi group playing “La Bamba.” He was also seen strutting his stuff in “Bailando con Celos” and “Plaza del Sol” in the same movie. That film’s musical score garnered an Oscar nomination for its soundtrack. Videos of all those dance numbers can be viewed on

“On An Island with You” and “Neptune’s Daughter,” also with Williams, followed. It was in the latter flick that Montalbán made his singing debut with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a duet with Williams. This recording also gave him the distinction of becoming the first Latino to sell over one million records in the American Market. It was such a great tune it went on to be covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Ray Charles with Betty Carter, Tom Jones, most recently by Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton plus countless other duos.

To top it off, the tune also won an Academy Award as “Best Song of 1949.”
That same year, he and Charisse were cast in “The Kissing Bandit,” where Montalbán, Charisse and Ann Miller did a strange ménage-a-tois dance.

In 1950, the singer/dancer was in Colorado filming his 12th U.S. film, “Across the Wide Missouri,” playing the part of Ironshirt, a Blackfoot war chief, when a prop cannon exploded, the pinto he was riding was startled, it ran off, he was thrown off, knocked out and walked on by another horse, leaving him with a spinal injury that troubled him for the rest of his life. After that he walked with a limp.

This was before filming “Sombrero” by which time camera angles helped him manage to mask his physical ailment from movie audiences by enduring extreme pain for minutes at a time as he walked across the screen with great confidence.

The next film, “Latin Lovers” was appropriately titled because by now he had stereotyped. Tired of being type casted as a Latin lover, he went back to New York where he starred in “Jamaica” warbling lighthearted calypso tunes opposite Lena Horne from 1957 to 1959. The most popular tune from that Tony nominated Broadway musical was “The Monkey in the Mango Tree.”

In 1991, Montalbán hosted the 11th Tejano Music Awards. This was the show when Joe López, Jimmy González and Mazz walked off with seven awards, Emilio Navaira won one and Selena won Female Vocalist and Female Entertainer. And each time Montalbán came on stage, he stood erect behind the podium eloquently delivering his lines with great finesse.

Two years later, his career almost came to an end when he lost the feeling in his left leg. Exhaustive tests revealed he had suffered a small hemorrhage in his neck and he underwent 9 ½ hour of surgery at the UCLA Medical Center. However, his condition grew more painful as he aged, but he continued to work, usually delivering his lines from a wheelchair.

Despite the pain, in 1994 he returned to San Antonio on an average of twice a month to film his part in “Heaven Help Us,” an Aaron Spelling TV series in which he played the part of Mr. Shepherd, an angel who watched over a young couple.

By 2001, he was practically permanently relegated to a wheelchair, but this trooper did not stop enjoying what he loved best, acting. The difference is that he found a new career behind the camera providing his unmistakable voice to the characters of Vartkes in “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command,” El Encantador in “Dora the Explorer,” Señor Senior Sr. in “Kim Possible” and as the cow in “Family Guy” as recent as last year.

Perhaps the reason the distinguished actor succeeded laid in the statement he made that his religion was the “most important thing” in his life.

A Roman Catholic since birth, each Saturday afternoon he drove the one and a half miles from his Oriole Drive home to St. Victor’s on Holloway Drive in West Hollywood. It was there, I would often see him and Christopher Hewett (“Mr. Belvedere”) helping out the church as ushers.

And each time I saw him at the Nosotros’ Golden Eagle Awards, I was astonished to see him walk the red carpet using a walker. Later, he was wheeled to the stage. This was a star-studded function and he held his head up high with pride electing not to shun his fans or the press stopping to pose for pictures with great dignity. He was the epitome of class. What a role model.

As for his body of work, everyone knows that as has been written in countless articles, the sexagenarian was a chameleon when embodying many different ethnic roles.

In closing and summarizing Montalbán’s highlights, his movie career spanned 65 years, 167 films and a marriage, which lasted 63 years. His wife, Georgiana (nee) Belzer, died in November 2007 at the age of 84. The perennial suave, debonair actor is survived by two sons Mark and Víctor plus two daughters Laura and Anita.

It is at this point, this writer wishes to advise readers that the pictures that accompany this article are rare photographs donated to the Hispanic Entertainment Archives by Montalbán during our first meeting.