Ricardo Montalban was many things: the star of Fantasy Island (1978-1984), an outspoken advocate for Latino actors — how fitting that he should have played the grandfather in the Spy Kids sequels (2002-2003)! — and a veteran actor who occasionally pitched products like the Chrysler Cordoba and the “soft Corinthian leather” of its seats.
But to guys like me, of course, he has always been, and will forever be, Khan Noonien Singh, the exiled, genetically-engineered Sikh tyrant with a penchant for quoting Milton and Melville, who became one of the few guest characters to appear in both the TV and movie versions of the Star Trek franchise. Khan, in fact, remains to this day the only character apart from Spock whose name is embedded in the title of a Star Trek movie — and the only reason Spock’s name got its own title is because Khan killed him in the previous movie.
The mortality of individual characters aside, it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that Montalban helped keep the Star Trek franchise alive.
The first movie, produced in 1979, did fairly well at the box office, but it was also one of the most expensive movies ever made at that time, so the profit margin was very low; worse, on an artistic level, it was widely perceived as a glum, cerebral disappointment. Paramount could have just let the franchise die right there, but instead, they took it out of Gene Roddenberry’s hands and handed it to a TV producer named Harve Bennett, asking him to make a second film for only a fraction of the cost of the first film.
Bennett agreed, and decided to do his research first, so he made a point of watching all 79 episodes of the original series. I don’t know whether he bothered with the animated series. I also don’t know whether Bennett began his research with the intention of making a sequel to any of those episodes, per se, but in the course of his viewing, he was struck by a 1967 episode called ‘Space Seed’.
That, of course, was the episode that introduced Montalban as Khan, a supervillain who ruled an empire in the late 20th century but then spent the next three centuries in suspended animation, adrift in space. (It feels funny to write such a plot synopsis now, in the 21st century, but what can I say: the 1990s must have sounded pretty futuristic at the time.)
The episode ends somewhat openly, and Bennett realized it might be a good idea to follow it up. What’s more, he recognized that Khan was the sort of villain who could bring some energy back to the franchise — energy that had been sorely lacking from the first film. It probably also didn’t hurt that Montalban had become a major celebrity by this point, thanks to his starring role on Fantasy Island; there was the potential, at least, that he might attract some non-fans to the Star Trek movie.
The rest, as they say, is history. And if you haven’t checked out the making-of documentary on the two-disc set for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), you should — the Montalban bits, anyway — if only to hear the dramatic and amusing way in which Montalban tells his behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Just listen to the way he talks about how he initially had reservations about the role, because he didn’t have that much screen time — but then he realized that, whenever he wasn’t on screen, all the other characters were talking about him.
Or listen to the way he describes the difficulty he had when shooting Khan’s conversations with Kirk. Because the two characters never set foot on the same stage at the same time, and because they mostly talk to each other through screens and speakers, the two actors filmed their halves of the conversations separately, and Montalban had great difficulty summoning the “passion” he needed to spit his vengeance at Kirk, because he was reacting not to his fellow actor but to an off-screen script girl.
Other people can give better-rounded appraisals of the man’s career as a whole. But for me, and I suspect for many others, he will always be Khan. And that is no small thing.