April 17, 1978 12:00 PM

The script hasn’t cropped up yet on his ABC hit, Fantasy Island, but Ricardo Montalban might someday imagine arriving himself at that bargain-basement Shangri-la with dreams of (1) happiness, (2) success and (3) meaty roles to play.

Well, two out of three isn’t so bad.

After 36 years depicting countless Latin Lotharios, suave South American diplomats and sympathetic Spanish priests, the courtly Montalban was mired, as even his own agent admits, as “a major name that never got a major role.” That is until this winter when, at 57, the Mexican-born actor washed up on ABC’s cookie-cutter Saturday night follow-up to Love Boat. As Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke, Ricardo swaps moralisms with 3’10” Hervé Villechaize while welcoming visitors whose fulfilled wishes usually turn out disastrously. So did some of the early scripts. “But I will never complain about the show,” says Ricardo gallantly. “There are 35,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild. Less than 15 percent are employed.”

Such effortless elegance has made Montalban one of Hollywood’s most admired actors. When his movie parts waned to monkeyshines like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, he became the aristocratic TV shill for the Chrysler Cordoba. That plus late shows makes him the most persuasive south-of-the-border presence since Savarin coffee’s El Exigente (who is played by Ricardo’s elder brother Carlos, 71). Says Fantasy Island producer Michael Fisher, newly elevated from Starsky & Hutch: “He has restored my faith in actors as human beings. He is the epitome of élan and style.”

Typecasting, to be sure, has hindered Montalban as much as helped. He was once urged to anglicize his name. “I said, ‘Let my accent and name be. It distinguishes me.’ ” In the late ’60s Montalban courageously risked his career founding Nosotros, an organization that fought to upgrade the stereotyped Latin movie image of “laggard, lover or bandit.” “I was forewarned by my friends, ‘You’ll be crucified.’ Only now am I recovering from it professionally.”

He was born Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban Merino, the youngest of four children of a Castilian family in Mexico City. His father, who ran a dry goods store, moved north to Torreón, where Ricardo briefly contemplated bullfighting: “I didn’t have the courage; with every pass you face death.” He then followed brother Carlos to the U.S. (“I owe him everything”) and took drama classes at L.A.’s Fairfax High. His engineering studies vanished with a summer stock role in Her Cardboard Lover with Tallulah Bankhead. After making 13 films in four years in Mexico, Montalban went on to 50-odd in Hollywood with everyone from Esther Williams to John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Marriage came after a movie-style grand passion. Enamored of Loretta Young from the age of 12 (“Her ladylike qualities appeal to Latin men—she is unattainable”), Ricardo transferred his affections to Loretta’s half sister Georgiana after seeing her in 1939’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. He carried Georgiana’s picture in his wallet and once trailed her in his car, “but lost her in traffic.” She now recalls a “good-looking kid” following her, “but in those days it wasn’t nice to pick someone up in cars.” They finally met on a blind date. Georgiana was skeptical. “I thought, ‘Oh boy, here comes another disaster.’ ” “I proposed that night,” says Ricardo. “She was a bit hesitant. It took a week to persuade her.”

Montalban attributes part of the success of his 33-year marriage to adopting the rhythm method of birth control after the arrival of their fourth child. “It’s one of the wisest policies the Catholic Church ever made,” he explains. “The 10 days of abstinence awakens passion.” Their daughter Laura, 32, is an assistant to designer Bill Blass; Mark, 30, is studying anesthesiology; Anita, 28, works in a YSL boutique, and Bill, 25, is a complaint manager for the phone company. A Catholic traditionalist (“The Gregorian chant is more beautiful than a boy and girl with a guitar”), Montalban explains of his marital vows, “I have an intellectual commitment. I play by the rules. Why say ‘until death do you part’ unless you plan to do it?”

Home is a Hollywood Hills hacienda where the Montalbans are closest to Don and Barbara Rickles and Bob and Ginny Newhart. Sister-in-law Loretta, now 64 and semiretired, is a weekly visitor. Ricardo doesn’t smoke and drinks only sparingly but is hooked on tennis: doubles with Johnny Carson, singles with Willie Shoemaker. He exercises to strengthen a nerve damaged in his back when a skittish pony threw him during the filming, with Clark Gable, of Across the Wide Missouri in 1949. Paralyzed for 12 hours, he still walks stiffly. “He is very stoic,” says Villechaize. “He never talks about it and refuses painkillers.”

Though Ricardo despairs about the “deterioration” of acting professionalism and moral standards (“When civilizations collapsed, pornography was rampant”), he has no doubts about his own future. “The best is yet to come,” he affirms. “My own fantasy is that Fantasy Island will last 15 years.”

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