“To the last will I grapple with thee. From Hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!” – Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.
We really can’t blame a generation of Trekkies for perhaps not knowing that those words were not original. Khan, the intellectually and physically superior human (thanks to eugenics) was quoting Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, but Ricardo Montalban voiced the words as if he owned them; from that point on, they belonged to Khan, not to Ahab. It is a marvelous, grandiose moment of screen villainy, in which the antagonist achieves a stature that makes him, in an odd way, lovable – or at the very least you have to respect the man in spite of the darker aspects of his nature.
Montalban, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 88, was handsome and charismatic enough to be a leading man; in fact, he was one of the first Mexican actors to achieve this status in Hollywood, instead of being relegated to subsidiary roles. His career was too big and too broad for him to be typed as a sci-fi and/or fantasy star, but two famous roles made him forever memorable to genre fans: his benevolent if mysterious turn as Mr. Roarke, who presided over FANTASY ISLAND on a weekly basis, and his larger-than-life portrayal of Khan, first on the “Space Seed” episode of the original STAR TREK series and then in big screen STAR TREK II.
After the ambitious if ultimately pretentious STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, Paramount wanted to ensure that the sequel would better capture the flavor of the series, and preferably offer up more exciting action and dramatic conflict. What better way than to revive an old antagonist? Montalban recreated his old role admirably: he was dangerous and ruthless, but somehow the actor caught a hint of something noble inside him. He made Khan big – and that was the secret to TREK II’s success: in opposing Montalban’s Khan, William Shatner’s Captain Kirk achieved a stature he might not have otherwise.
Montalban’s genre credits include SPY KIDS 2 and 3, episodes of BUZZ LIGHTYEAR OF STAR COMMAND and THE WILD WILD WEST, a made-for-television WONDER WOMAN film, and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. He also had roles in COLUMBO, I SPY, and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., and he was great as Captain Esteban, opposing Frank Langella in a tele-version of THE MARK OF ZORRO.
Over at E.T.’s Popwatch, Marc Bernardin expresses the sentiments of a lot of fans in a post titled “Ricardo Montalban will always be Khan to me.”