88-year-old actor Ricardo Montalban died at his Hollywood Hills home today. Montalban's first screen roles were in films in his native Mexico. Then, says KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, he crossed over and never looked back.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: A generation of television audiences knows Montalban as Mr. Rourke – the tall, handsome man in the white suit who welcomed visitors to Fantasy Island.
Ricardo Montalban (as Mr. Rourke): Our guests are arriving on time, to the second.
Guzman-Lopez: Montalban had decades of Hollywood experience by the time he played this role. Around the time of World War II, when he was in his early twenties, he arrived in a film capital that didn't quite know what to do with him.
Montalban: When I first came to Hollywood, they wanted to change my name. They said, "Nobody can say Ricardo Montalban, Montalban, Mendelbaum, what is it?" They wanted change my name to Ricky Martin.
Guzman-Lopez: He played plenty of bandits and shady characters, but he also lobbied hard for starring roles. He headlined in musicals opposite acrobatic swimming queen Esther Williams and dancer Cyd Charisse. In 1957 he played a Kabuki actor alongside Marlon Brando in the Oscar-winning film "Sayonara."
[Audio from the film "Sayonara"]
Guzman-Lopez: Actor Tony Plana, who plays the father in the TV show "Ugly Betty," remembered seeing that film as a young actor.
Tony Plana: I was stunned to see a Latino playing a Japanese, and playing him so well. So effectively. This is a real actor.
Guzman-Lopez: Plana said Ricardo Montalban's Nosotros organization nurtured him when he was new to Hollywood. The group offers support and presents awards to Latino actors.
Plana and others say that in recent years Montalban was in great pain and used a wheelchair after an accident. Montalban's wife of 63 years died almost two years ago. The couple had four children.