If you know him only as Star Trek‘s Khan Noonien Singh, Fantasy Island‘s Mr. Roarke, or the gentleman with the accent who waxed poetic over “rich Corinthian leather” in Chrysler car ads, you’re missing the film talent and charisma of young Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino, a.k.a. Ricardo Montalbán.
After acting in a number of pictures in his homeland of Mexico, Montalbán headed for Hollywood. Though he was typecast in Indian or Latin Lover parts, he also starred in several pictures, including noir films. His first lead came in Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949), and that year he became the first Hispanic actor to be featured on the cover of Life Magazine. He also appeared against type in Mystery Street (1950) as a Cape Cod policeman.
After additional Westerns and war pictures, Montalbán starred in A Life in the Balance (1955), a thriller about impoverished Mexican widower and musician Antonio Gómez, whose son Paco (José Pérez) sees a murder on the night of a festival and ends up on the run. Before he knows his son is in danger, Gómez meets Maria Ibinia, played with subtle charm by Anne Bancroft. While hope for love sparks in both on this magical night, the unnamed serial killer discovers Paco is following him and kidnaps him. Driven by a paranoid zealotry in which his murders are done against sin in God’s name, Lee Marvin does what he can with this strange villain role as the police close in and just maybe all will end well.
One of my favorite facets of this low-budget thriller is that it is filmed in Mexico and features Mexican actors in the supporting roles. It also features sets designed by Mexican artist, director, and screenwriter Gunther Gerszo. Montalbán was a champion of Hispanic presence in the media, and proud of his heritage. Though grateful for his life in America, he kept his Mexican citizenship all his life.
As film gave way to television, Montalbán found many opportunities to play diverse characters as a guest star. Some were the usual stereotypes, but others were more interesting. He appeared in shows ranging from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I Spy to Wonder Woman and Columbo, along with his famous portrayal of Khan on the original Star Trek and his six-year stint on Fantasy Island.
Because A Life in the Balance runs only 74 minutes, we’ll extend the evening by watching Montalbán play a hard-boiled gangster on The Untouchables. In the second-season episode “Stranglehold” (1961), Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) sets out to bring down Montalbán’s Frank Makouris, who controls New York’s Fulton Fish Market by intimidation and murder and who is responsible for the price of fish going up nearly 50%! The episode also stars Philip Pine and Kevin Hagen as a pair of hitmen almost as close as the infamous Fante and Mingo.
Tempted? If so, hope you’ll join the #BNoirDetour live tweet this Sunday, February 21, for our noir night with Ricardo Montalbán.
A LIFE IN THE BALANCE begins at 9pm et:
THE UNTOUCHABLES, “STRANGLEHOLD” begins at 10:30pm et: