The late Ricardo Montalban had a titanic career – spanning some 60-odd years – during which the Mexican actor kicked up his heels in MGM musicals and granted wishes on Fantasy Island, set the stage for ape rebellions and tangled with men from U.N.C.L.E, swung with nighttime soap stars and lent his voice to Family Guy. It doesn’t matter than he won an Emmy (for 1978’s How the West Was Won) or was nominated for a Tony (for 1958’s Jamaica)…to me, he will always be Khan.
He will always be Captain Kirk’s finest foe, the would-be conqueror who first tried to steal the Enterprise in the classic Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and then finally robbed Kirk of his best friend in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Montalban’s magnetic, robust presence; that voice that sounded like a ride over rolling hills – he made Khan Noonien Singh the worst kind of despot: the kind you’re pretty sure you’d die for. The product of a Eugenics program that rendered him stronger and smarter than the average bear, Khan was a tragic figure – the man who would not be denied, born into a world that did nothing buy deny him his birthright – and that tragedy is part of what lifts Star Trek II to an almost Shakespearean level.
Some may choose to remember Montalban as the benign Mr. Roarke, with his white suit and diminutive assistant, teaching life lessons on a mystical island resort, or as the suave movie star romancing Shirley Maclaine in Sweet Charity, helping teach her the ways of the world. Me? I will always remember him, teeth gritted, quoting Moby Dick as he hurls one final benediction toward Admiral Kirk: “To the last, I will grapple with thee…from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”
Not the warmest sentiment, I know, but fitting nevertheless.