Saturday, February 07, 2009

In Memoriam: Ricardo Montalban, 1920-2009

A few weeks ago, with little fanfare to mark his passing, Ricardo Montalban died in his home at the age of 88. He was born the same year as my father. When I read the news article about his death, I felt a sense of regret, and I think a small sigh escaped me. I admired Montalban, in a rather quiet way, for many years.

I distinctly remember the moment when I first became a fan of this elegant, Mexico-born actor: it was in the early 1970s at my grandmother's house in Florida. I was on vacation there with my family, and in the middle of a summer afternoon I was watching the Merv Griffin Show. Montalban was a guest on the show, and in the course of the interview he related how an injury, sustained earlier in his acting career, caused him constant pain in one leg. In fact, he walked with a limp at all times--except when he was on camera or on stage. When he was working, he masked the limp and the pain that caused it. I deeply admired the courage required to pull this off.

Later in that interview, Montalban related a story from earlier in the year, when he had been working summer stock theater. He told about performing the same show, over and over again, for weeks at a time. And suddenly, he said, in the middle of a particular performance, his lines simply went out of his head. He "went up," as actors say.

I loved hearing this consummate professional make such an admission. It meant even more to me years later, when I got involved as an amateur actor in community theater. From time to time, I worried about forgetting my lines, despite assurances by more experienced actors that it probably would happen to me at some point, and I shouldn't worry about it. I remember thinking, "If Ricardo Montalban can forget his lines during a show he's performed a zillion times, then go back out the next night and do the show again, maybe I shouldn't worry so much." In a retrospective way, I found his candor comforting.

Those who were quoted in the piece written announcing his death lauded Ricardo Montalban's unassuming, gentlemanly nature, his genuinely gracious personality. They also noted his efforts on behalf of obtaining fair treatment for Hispanic actors and breaking down the movie stereotypes that chained them to limited and limiting roles. After all, when Montalban and his brother left Mexico in the 1940s, they encountered signs in Texas establishments stating that "No Dogs or Mexicans" were allowed inside. Montalban did his part to make Hollywood a more just and equitable place.

Toward the end of his life, the pain from his 1951 injury (caused by a fall from a horse during the filming of Across the Wide Missouri with Clark Gable) had worsened to the point that he was confined to a wheelchair. Still, when he was filming Spy Kids 2 and Spy Kids 3, he was capable of creating magic. Though he was visibly in pain while waiting for his scenes to start, director Robert Rodriguez noticed that whenever he said "Action" and the cameras started rolling, Montalban performed flawlessly, as though the pain were nonexistent. When asked about it, Montalban replied, "It is impossible for my mind to do two things at once."

I would love to be remembered for such simple-minded courage.