January 14, 2009 / 9:44 PM / 11 years ago

"Fantasy Island" star Ricardo Montalban dies at 88

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Ricardo Montalban, best known as the debonair and mysterious Mr. Roarke on the popular television series “Fantasy Island,” died on Wednesday at the age of 88.

Actor Ricardo Montalban, star of the film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" poses at the film's DVD release party July 11 in Los Angeles in this undated file photo. REUTERS/File

Mexican-born Montalban had a long career in Hollywood but found broad fame as the star of ABC’s “Fantasy Island” in which he fulfilled the dreams of his guests with the help of his sidekick, Tattoo.

The Emmy-winning actor died at about 6:30 a.m. of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, surrounded by members of his family, a spokesman told Reuters.

Born Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban Merino in Mexico City on November 25, 1920, he got his start in show business in Mexican theater, television and film.

He broke into Hollywood in the 1940s, becoming one of the few Latino stars in the industry at the time with his leading role in 1949’s “Border Incident.”

While many of his early roles were character parts in westerns, in the late 1950s he starred alongside Lena Horne in the Broadway musical “Jamaica.”

In the 1970s, Montalban became the spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba, famously praising the luxury car’s “soft Corinthian leather” in his much-imitated rich baritone and elegant diction.

“Fantasy Island” debuted on ABC in 1978 and quickly became one of the most-watched dramas on U.S. television, featuring Montalban as the enigmatic owner of a tropical paradise who made the dreams of his guests come true, often in unexpected or fanciful ways.

Montalban and his co-star Herve Villechaize, who played the diminutive Tattoo, became unlikely pop culture icons during the show’s run, which ended in 1984.

French-born Villechaize, also well known for playing the evil Nick Nack in the 1974 James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun,” killed himself at his California home in 1993.

In 1982, Montalban starred as arch-villain Khan Noonien Singh in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,” reprising a role he had played on a single episode of the television show in 1967.

Montalban continued to work into his 80s, doing primarily voice-over work in recent years and starting the Ricardo Montalban Foundation, which built a theater in Hollywood named after him and sought to provide opportunities to young actors.

Montalban, whose wife of 63 years, Georgiana, died in 2007, is survived by his four children and by six grandchildren.

The family spokesman said funeral services would be private.

Editing by John O'Callaghan

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