Ricardo Montalban has received the Screen Actors Guild's 29th annual Achievement Award for "fostering the ideals of the acting profession," becoming the first Latino honored for his career and humanitarian contributions.

"I am very touched," said Montalban, 73, who helped found Nosotros, an organization launched in 1969 to portray Latino characters in a positive light. "It came at a time to lift my spirits."Montalban recently underwent a 91/2-hour operation to repair a hemorrhage in his spine, and he expects it will take him more than a year to recover. The tiny blood vessels in his spine first broke while he was making the 1951 film "Across the Wide Missouri" with Marlon Brando, leaving Montalban partially paralyzed.

"I fell off a horse and I thought that is what caused it," said Montalban, who spends two hours a day in physical therapy. "I have improved. I am walking with a walker. If someone holds my hand, I can walk with a cane. I am optimistic. I am ready for the long haul."

Montalban knows a lot about the long haul. He already had established a film career in his native Mexico when he arrived in Hollywood to appear in the 1947 movie "Fiesta."

"In those days, we (Latino performers) were put into a little niche," he said in a recent telephone interview. "We were Latin lovers, bandits or gigolos or the indolent peon. Hollywood had a low opinion of Mexico, so I was Brazilian and Argentine. Mexico had a connotation. It wasn't easy."

It was this type of characterization that prompted Montalban's efforts to portray Latinos in a more positive light and to become one of the founders of Nosotros.

"Pancho Villa was always a bandit - short and fat," he said. "I was at MGM from 1945 to 1953, and I would talk to writers and producers and urge them to portray our people in a way that would give hope to some of those little kids in Los Angeles rather than have them identify just with banditos.

"They would say, `A bandit is a colorful character.' But I said, `You don't understand what is being done. You don't balance the picture at all.' They wouldn't listen."

During his career, Montalban also played a Japanese character in "Sayonara." He won an Emmy Award in 1978 for portraying an American Indian in "How the West Was Won, Part 2."

Although Hollywood has become more conscious in its casting of minority actors, he said Latino performers still face roadblocks in getting parts.

"There are not too many roles available for Mexicans," he said. "Hollywood doesn't write them. This is why Luis Valdez and Eddie Olmos have taken it on themselves to write stories that might open the doors."

In addition to working against stereotypes, Montalban was honored by SAG for his humanitarian efforts.

Every president since John F. Kennedy has invited the actor to the White House to recognize his work with such charities as the American Lung and Heart Foundation, the American Cancer Society and the Breast Cancer Association. According to SAG, he was the first Latino celebrity to support the fight against AIDS.

Among the previous recipients of the annual SAG award are Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Brock Peters and Audrey Hepburn.

Montalban has appeared in more than 60 feature films, including "Sweet Charity," "Neptune's Daughter," "Battleground," "Cheyenne Autumn" and "The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad!" His favorite is "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

View Comments

He began his television career in the mid-'50s and often was seen on "The Loretta Young Show." He married Young's sister, Georgiana, more than 40 years ago. The couple have four children.

While working as a spokesman for Chrysler Corp. in the late '70s, he caught the eye of the producers of the TV series, "Fantasy Island." He was cast in the role of the mysterious island keeper, Mr. Roarke.

"I thought `Fantasy Island,' what a wonderful idea where every fantasy can be fulfilled," he said. "You could be Pancho Villa or an astronaut."

The series lasted nearly seven years and became the longest-running series starring a Latino actor.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.