Ricardo Montalbán was one of the most well-known Mexican-born Hollywood actors of all time. He is remembered in several key roles: As mysterious Mr. Roarke of “Fantasy Island,” as epic tyrant Khan Noonien Singh of Star Trek, as the quintessential Latin Lover and for being the elegant three piece suit pitchman with charming Spanish cadences for the Chrysler Cordoba’s “soft Corinthian leather”.
But for his grandson Alex Montalbán, a senior at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and Arts, the perception of this iconic actor is much more complex and filled with nostalgia.
“I remember when I was 9 years old, we celebrated Christmas at his home in Hollywood. He told us the most amazing stories with his authoritative and captivating voice, while playing Flamenco,” he said.
The home on Oriole Street, one of the exclusive bird name streets of Hollywood, went recently to market for $20 million, “but it is very hard for the family to sell it,” said his grandson, who was one of the keynote speakers this week at a Tribute to Ricardo Montalbán. The tribute was organized by Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, professor in The Latino/a Program at U-M.
Montalbán and La Fountain-Stokes met last semester through La Fountain’s popular course “Latinos in the media.”
“Having Alex in our class has been very special, as he was able to talk to us about his personal experiences with his grandfather,” said La Fountain-Stokes. “We were all incredibly surprised the first day of school when he explained without having said his last name that he was taking the class because his grandfather was a Latino actor in Hollywood.”
La Fountain Stokes, who teaches the role of Montalbán as an advocate for Latino actors in Hollywood, says that when the actor died at 88 last January, “I immediately contacted Alex and expressed my great sorrow and condolences to him and his family.” Then he started to plan a tribute. The event was co-sponsored by the Program in American Culture, Department of Romance Languages and Literature and the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures.
“Many have heard about Ricardo Montalbán, or have seen him in a film or a TV program, but few know about the great importance he had in Hollywood as a person who defended the rights of Latinos,” Stokes said.
Alex Montalbán is the son of Mark the second of the actor’s four children, who worked more than 30 years as a critical care nurse. The grandson decided to study at U-M because he was “a huge U-M football fan all my life.”
In his unpretentious style, the young Montalbán, who plans to write scripts in Hollywood or be an actor, says that people react to his surname. “Especially when I pay with a credit card and they see my name, they ask: ‘You’re not related to the actor, are you?'”
For him, it “stings” that he did not share more time with his grandfather, especially more recently when he was studying at U-M.
“I have learned more about my grandfather here at the university than in all previous years” he said. He searches the Web for articles, photos, films or any more clues about his grandfather. “It has actually been pretty fulfilling. I have come across some amazing photos of my dad when he was younger. I look exactly like him”
For the tribute, he planned to wear a brown corduroy jacket belonging to his grandfather, one of his most sentimental objects. “After he died, I went to his closet and took his carefully folded shirts and some shoes” that he will carry back to Los Angeles at the end of his U-M journey.
When Ricardo Montalbán arrived in Hollywood in the 40s, he rejected the suggestion that he change his name to the more English-sounding Ricky Martin. Even though he married American model Georgina Young (sister of Loretta Young), he did not become a U.S. citizen.
The young Montalbán captures the nostalgic sentiment of immigrants to the U.S. in his creative writing. He hopes to carry on the legacy of his grandfather, whose image is included in the collective memory of popular culture of Latinos and Americans of many generations, as he launches his own career in Hollywood. “It is not easy,” he said.