The memorable Montalban
by James S. Wood
On Jan. 14 we lost a Hollywood icon and true gentleman, Ricardo Montalban. Summer of 1950, I was a grunt printing out scripts in the MGM mimeograph department. A USC professor — I think his name was Strongheart — was hired as a tech consultant on Indian languages for Across the Wide Missouri, reputedly the first movie in which MGM bravely undertook to use real Indian languages. The studio didn’t have any Native American players under contract, still cast Mexicans, Filipinos, and Anglos as Indians, but now they would say something other than, “Hola, Geronimo, ¿Que pasó?” The aged professor was something of a prima donna, demanded a male secretary. No flaky women, please! They combed the entire MGM lot looking for a male who could type, evidently in those days harder to find than a Native American actor. Finally they found one: me. I was hired as professor Strongheart’s secretary.
In the outer office I typed and greeted the stars and lesser actors cast in Indian roles. Most of them looked upon me as they would a vase of wilting geraniums or a spittoon, essentially I wasn’t there. Finally, in came Ricardo Montalban, a young, really buff guy born in Mexico, graduate of Santa Monica High, and instead of standing at the door snootily waiting his turn in the professor’s inner sanctum, he pulled up a chair next to me and asked me all about myself, major at UCLA, future plans, etc., nary a word about himself. I could never watch any of his movies or Fantasy Island without thinking of that day.
In Star Trek II; The Wrath of Khan, there was a rumor he, in the title role, was wearing fake chest muscles. No sir! This guy could strip down and show the pecs of a bodybuilder. He, Jack Palance, and Cornell Wilde were the buff exceptions in those male-pansy days of movie history.
All the obits tell of his activism for Hispanics in the entertainment industry, also his suave presentation of the Chrysler Cordoba. But not a one repeated his own account of the latter association. First day on the job he said “COR-do-ba.” They “corrected” him, told him it was Cor-DO-ba. He protested, said Spanish was his first language, and they were mispronouncing it. The pooh-bahs said they didn’t care what the Spanish say, in this country it’s pronounced “Cor-DO-ba” goddammit. Gentleman that he was, and maybe needing a job at the time, he gave in, acknowledging that OK, foreign words are indeed pronounced differently in America.
A few years later he was hired in Mexico to do a toothpaste commercial. When he came to the name of the product in his script, he said “KOL-gate.” The Mexican pooh-bahs told him, “Sr. Montalban, we know that’s how they say it in America, but to the mass audiences in this country it sounds like a hoity-toity affectation, and we need to communicate with the common people, so please say “Kol-GAH-tey.” At that moment he had an epiphany, realizing that now he could fully agree with and understand the Chrysler people. Without the swear word.
Descanse en paz, Ricardo!
Jim Wood is a Eugene resident.