Thursday, January 15, 2009

On the Passing of Giants...

The passing of two legendary figures is just starting to make the rounds this evening – actors who each possessed not one, but two career-defining roles between them. Roles that, in the resume of lesser actors, would have sunk any further career aspirations like a stone. Imagine coming off 4 seasons playing the white suited, vaguely mystical keeper of an island paradise fulfilling the fantasies of the well heeled jet set to play a megalomaniacal superhuman intent on hijacking a starship and slaughtering anyone who gets in his way? Ricardo Montalban had maintained a very respectable career in Hollywood stretching back to a time when most Hispanic actors were lucky to appear in crowd scenes. His real breakthrough came in 1949’s Border Incident playing a Mexican government agent deep undercover alongside George Murphy’s FBI agent to stop a gang involved in the smuggling and murder of migrant farm workers. Montalban strides through the late-cycle noir with the kind of leading man confidence that only comes along once in a long while. When film roles began to dry up in the 60s, he began a stream of steady television work that showed him guest starring on nearly every show imaginable; Burke’s Law, Dr. Kildare, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-0, and The Wild, Wild West to name a tiny fraction. It was 1967 that brought the busy actor to Desilu Studios for a quick one-shot role on a on a Sci-Fi show nearing the end of its first season. Almost immediately after airing, "Space Seed" became the perennial fan favorite episode of Star Trek and Khan Noonian Singh its greatest villain. Singh had been a product of “late 20th Century genetic engineering” possessing strength and intelligence far beyond normal levels, and Montalban is the perfect expression of masculinity, grabbing the jumpsuit-clad explorers of the future by the scruff and tossing them around like kindling (we still remember the “wow” moment when Khan crushes one of the Enterprise's desktop viewers under his fist).

Fantasy Island’s Mr. Rourke will, for better or worse, be the role for which he’s best remembered. Half devil, half angel, Rourke was all smiles when his guests deplaned and patiently explained the details of their fantasies to Tattoo (the rarely upstaged Herve Villechaize). It was usually after the second commercial break that the dark side of being the richest man in the world, or being irresistible to women, or finding your long lost parents began to show, and that’s where Montalban had some real fun. It was 1982 when he would once again take on the role of Khan for the second Star Trek feature film and jump right back into his skin as if 15 years were just the blink of an eye. His physicality (at age 62!) was stunning and he grabbed the role with a wild – yet at the same time controlled – abandon. Forget that the crew of the Botany Bay more closely resembled Billy Idol’s White Wedding backing band than anything else – nothing diminishes Montalban’s towering performance. He had been confined to a wheelchair since a 1993 operation to repair a decades-old injury but never stopped working, predominantly on voice-overs for animated shows, but also onscreen for Robert Rodriguez in the Spy Kids films. He was 88.

Patrick McGoohan was rather improbably born in Astoria, right here in New York, though he was raised in Ireland and the UK. His big break was as NATO agent John Drake in the series Danger Man, the initial permutation of which only lasted a single season. But after James Bond made the world a comfortable place for spies, the series was brought back for another run, this time with Drake clearly working for the British government, 60 minute episodes instead of 30, and most importantly - a stronger adherence to the star’s wishes that Drake use his brain over firearms and that there would be none of the amorous promiscuity of that other famous British agent, a role that McGoohan actually turned down during Danger Man’s hiatus for those same moral grounds. McGoohan left Danger Man to pursue another show with a spy milieu, about a British agent held prisoner on an island festooned with storybook Victorian flourishes where seemingly everyone works to draw out the state secrets held by the captive agent, known only as “Number 6”. We’ve nowhere the proper time to discuss the importance of The Prisoner to television history; a witty, cerebral show that was unlike anything made before or since. To this day it defines the best of what television has to offer, and nearly everything about it, from direction to script (occasionally under a pseudonym) sprung from McGoohan. Major roles followed throughout his career, including Ice Station Zebra, Scanners, a memorably droll turn as King Edward in Braveheart, and one final, animated trip to the Village. He was 80 years old.

McGoohan’s best post-Prisoner work was for friend Peter Falk in several Columbo episodes as both an actor and director. This is where we first noticed him, from the stiff-backed Col. Rumford, who kills to protect his beloved military academy from the wrecking ball in the 1974 episode "By Dawn’s Early Light" to mortician-to-the-stars Eric Prince who kills to keep a very dark secret in one of the very last episodes, 1998’s "Ashes to Ashes" which he also directed. Montalban, too, had his turn with the famous detective, in 1976’s "A Matter of Honor" where he played retired bullfighter Luis Montoya who murdered an old friend rather than have an act of cowardice exposed. It was a great part that played brilliantly off Montalban’s natural, elegant bearing. It’s somehow fitting that these two wonderful actors should be remembered together, even if their near-simultaneous passing seems too great a tragedy to bear, as a reminder of the quality of talent that the greatest detective show in history could attract.