The Wrath Of Khan A Problem For Ricardo Montalbán

Dashing, magnetic superstar Ricardo Montalbán got his start in the 1940s, appearing in numerous notable hit films in his native Mexico, playing a variety of roles in romantic dramas, historical comedies, and other swashbuckling adventures. His natural dazzle and ineffable “it” qualities caught the eye of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1947, and he shot the English-language film “Fiesta” with Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, and Mary Astor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Montalbán became incredibly busy, starring in romances, dramas, and an enormous amount of American TV, including one-shot TV movies and multiple notable hit shows. He was in “Dr. Kildare,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Gunsmoke,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and, of course, “Star Trek,” playing the charismatic tyrant Khan Noonien Singh. 

A new generation of Montalbán fans was born with the debut of “Fantasy Island” in 1978. On “Fantasy Island,” Montalbán played the mysterious Mr. Roarke, the manager of Devil’s Island, a remote, hard-to-get-to tropical paradise off the coast of French Guiana. With his assistant, Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize), Mr. Roarke would entertain a wealthy clientele, using his seemingly infinite resources to make their fantasies come true. Later in the series, it would be implied that Mr. Roarke was immortal, having had a romance with a woman who died 300 years ago. It was a silly, dramatic, strange TV show. “Fantasy Island” ran for seven seasons, ending its initial tenure in 1984. 

During that run, in 1982, Montalbán was called to Paramount to reprise his role as Khan for Nicholas Meyer’s feature film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” As the actor revealed in a 1982 interview with ET, however, letting go of playing Mr. Roarke and getting back into character as Khan was more difficult than expected. He needed to watch “Star Trek” again to prepare.

‘I couldn’t get away from him’

Montalbán admitted that playing Mr. Roarke regularly for several years at a stretch made him a little complacent as an actor. He was so comfortable playing a suave and mysterious character, he found it jarring to think about a darker, vengeful character like Khan. In “Wrath,” Khan escapes an inhospitable planet — where Kirk (William Shatner) left him years before — to seek bloody vengeance. It was quite a turn from the white-suit-clad Roarke. Montalbán said:

“When you play the same character for so many years, I get to know him so well that it becomes a little bit of a part of you, as you become a part of it. […] And when I first started to articulate the dialogue of Khan, and I was alone at home in my room and study, and the first time I say the words out loud I heard Mr. Rourke. And I couldn’t get away from him and I didn’t know what to do.”

To get back into character as Khan, Montalbán asked “Trek” producer Harve Bennet to send over a copy of “Space Seed,” his 1967 Trek episode, just so he could remind himself what he had done back in 1967. It’s also possible Montalbán didn’t remember Khan terribly well, having played literally dozens of characters since. It was hard to break out of playing Mr. Roarke, but it was likely just as difficult to recall what gig he worked in between that one episode of “I Spy” and that one episode of “Mission: Impossible.” From “Space Seed” to “Wrath of Khan,” Montalbán appeared in 21 additional TV episodes and 14 feature films. That’s a lot to keep track of.

Eradicating Mr. Roarke

Montalbán continued:

“I asked Bennett … to send me a tape of the original show I had done … [Khan] may be older and more bitter, but nevertheless, I have to discover his fingerprints. […] And so I saw the show. I ran it several times. And about the fourth or fifth time I began to remember what I did then. The thoughts came back to me. And it was really quite remarkable … Then, I picked up the script and all of a sudden there was Khan. And I think I eradicated Mr. Rourke.” 

In 2020, SyFy Wire interviewed Mark A. Altman, the co-editor of the notable oral history book “The Fifty-Year Mission,” and Altman recalled hearing a few stories from the makers of “Wrath of Khan” regarding the difficulties Montalbán had adjusting. Because Montalbán was a showbiz veteran, director Nicholas Meyer at first wanted to stay back and watch him cook. It turns out, however, that even a superstar like Montalbán needed some direction. When asked about the alleged difficulties the actor had, Altman said: 

“Well, that’s true, that he was sort of playing it like Mr. Roarke in space, and giving a very broad performance. And it was Nic Meyer who basically pulled him aside and gave him some adjustments. And Ricardo very famously said, ‘Ah, you’re going to direct me! I need direction, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And obviously, between Ricardo and Nic, they did something pretty amazing.” 

After shooting wrapped on “Khan,” Montalbán went right back to playing Mr. Roarke. It is a testament to the legend’s talents that he was able to play both roles so capably.

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