Ricardo Montalban made his Hollywood film debut in the 1947 film, Fiesta. His career, highlighted in Turner Classic Movie’s Summer of Stars series and included in the 2017 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon this August, took off through the 1940s and 1950s, and Montalban excelled at playing the Latin Lover.
I first met Ricardo Montalban (like so many others) as Mr. Roarke, the charismatic master of ceremonies overseeing Fantasy Island. It was the late 1970s and what better follow-up to The Love Boat than a Fantasy Island? Each week, guests arrived to the island via water taxi plane with gracious smiles and apprehensive eyes as they each accepted flower leis and paper-umbrella tropical drinks. While this occurred, Mr. Roarke ‘introduced’ each arriving guest to his inestimable sidekick, Tattoo (Herve Villachaize).
What I remember most about Mr. Roarke was this: He was wise. Like Yoda wise.
Mr. Roarke was like that old uncle who knew just the right proverb or allegory to offer if you had troubles.
And everyone visiting Fantasy Island had troubles.
Looking back, I see now that Mr. Roarke’s role was really an overseer of an all-immersive therapy exposure spa. It’s not unlike Westworld today (though, with some key differences). Want to be queen for a day? Have regrets about a long-lost love? Could’ve been a contender? Unresolved mommy issues? Mr. Roarke met with you, inquired about your accommodation and set you loose on your journey. Ultimately, each guest confronted their obstacles and arrived at the crossroads of enlightenment. Mr. Roarke would show up to guide the guest from this crossroad and help them take the step forward in their new path. Week after week, no matter the situation, Mr. Roarke and his accent, had each guest’s back and shepherded their journey so that each guest could leave the island a fuller and fulfilled person. Like I said, Yoda wise.
Then, the summer of 1982 arrived. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan charted a course to my local Texas theater. And there was Mr. Roarke, but something was different. He was different. Mr. Roarke, the smooth and wise benign uncle had become Khan…and he had wrath. WRATH. And he was set for revenge on James T. Kirk.
While it may be hard to root against the U.S.S. Enterprise gang, Khan won this Brown Girl over. And here’s why:
Top 5 Reasons Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Proved to Be a Badass Villain for the Ages
- Khan calls out white male privilege. Khan is visibly shaken and incredulous when he learns Captain Kirk is no longer a captain, but has been promoted to Admiral. Khan’s eyes go huge and shocked as he whispers in disbelief, “Admiral? Admiral?” Khan can’t comprehend how Kirk would have been promoted knowing, as he does, first-hand Kirk’s reckless behavior and lack of consciousness about what might have happened to some of Kirk’s actions.
2. Khan embodied a Master Race as a dark-skinned human being. Science-fiction’s greatest gift is its inversion and critique of everyday, societal norms. Both the original Star Trek episode (“Space Seed”) that introduced the Khan character and the sequel that continued his story, depict a superior race created through eugenics that has resulted in a diverse group of humans who are led by a dark-haired and dark-skinned Montalban. And nobody thinks twice about this. The only threat perceived by the U.S.S. Enterprise crew is that this superior race of humans are volatile and given to whims of their outsized ego and impatience. Interesting to note that the most recent Star Trek version of Khan in the 2013 Star Trek: Into Darkness cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Apparently, the leader of a superior race is now embodied by a fair, Anglo-Saxo man. How sci-fi! Not.
3. Khan makes Kirk lose his shit. The normally unflappable Kirk, goes full screech into his transponder when he understands that Khan has stolen the Genesis technology and has left Kirk and his travel team stranded on a dead planet. While that doesn’t all necessarily turn out to be as dire as we all think, the moment of Kirk’s pure rage and death scream gives Khan a lot of street cred as a formidable foe.
4. Khan and Mr. Roarke fuse for one glorious moment. Khan teaches us about revenge…and that it’s a dish best served cold.
5. Khan single handedly saved the Star Trek movie franchise. Khan’s character and movie gave the Star Trek movie franchise a much needed shot in the arm. In 1980, Star Trek: The Motion Picture launched Star Trek into movie theaters. And it’s a boring, indulgent, cerebral and over long movie that left audiences waiting for the next Star Wars movie. Until Khan cam along.
Ricardo Montalban’s Khan was fierce and Ricardo Montalban’s Mr. Roarke was wise. Both of these characters represented a Brown identity beyond Whiteness. Something I understood innately but not outright. And, for a brown kid in South Texas, Montalban’s characters offered another version of identity out there that was separate and alongside the dominant White world shown in movies and TV. And that was cool.