The sad passing of Ricardo Montalban, an elegant actor and a courageous, early fighter for Latinos in show business, is a major loss for the entertainment world. Everything about him said class, though he probably never used the word in reference to himself. But the man also had a sense of humor, and probably got a yuck or two out of this incident, which I’ve always felt he knew about.
My wife, Marion, who’s still too humiliated to tell this story herself, was working as a TV and radio producer for J. Walter Thompson, the world’s largest ad agency at the time, 1978 or ’79. The client was Kodak, and, as Marion remembers it, the radio spot was to be a Spanish language commercial for something in the company’s Instamatic line.
When she first called the talent agency, Cunningham, Escott DiPene, to get a Spanish-language announcer, she was surprised to have the agent offer her Ricardo Montalban, at that time doing the TV-series mega-hit, Fantasy Island. At least that’s the way Marion heard it, and wife or no wife, Marion was a very buttoned-up producer, all spit ‘n polish, over-achiever, etc.
“Don’t mess with me,” she told the agent over the phone, “you know we can’t afford someone like that with the budget we’ve got. Jeez, it’s a one-cycle radio ad. Who else you got?”
“No, really,” said the agent. “We can get him for double scale.”
“You lie,” said Marion. “You can get Ricardo Montalban to do a radio commercial that won’t play for more than a cycle for $550?” Again, that’s the way Marion says it went down.
“Plus Pension and Welfare and agency commission, of course,” said the agent. “You wanna book him now, or keep him on availability?”
How can I go wrong? Marion said to herself. “Book ‘im,” she said out loud.
If radio had ever had a glitzy, happening age, it was gone long before this tale was told. TV had been nearly everyone’s entertainment drug of choice for decades before, and producing it, even for advertising, was right up there with being a rock star. If clients sent anyone to the recording session at all, it was a trainee or some other glorified gopher. But this was different.
As Marion remembers it, there were at least four folks from the client there, for sure a vice-president from Corporate and another one from the Instamatic account. This was in addition to JWT’s Associate Creative Director on the product line and several suits, including the Senior Account Director for all of Kodak’s advertising with JWT.
It’s not the least bit unusual for the talent to be a few minutes late to a session, especially someone as busy as Ricardo Montalban would have been. In fact, there’s a well-worn procedure to address it: if they’re going to be late, the booking agency calls and tells the producer they’re on their way, be there any minute, etc, etc. But it’s quarter past starting time and the talent’s still in absentia.
“Whaddya think?” says the engineer, casually sotto voce, to Marion, who is sitting in the producer’s seat right next to him. More like making conversation ‘til the talent gets there.
“I haven’t heard anything,” code for “No reason to think anything’s wrong,” says Marion with a tight smile.
At twenty minutes past the hour Marion calls Cunningham, the talent agency. “Nu?” she says into the phone, New York Jewish for “Anything I should know about?” Marion is not Jewish. I am, and she lives with me.
“I dunno,” says the phone receptionist, “I’ll double check with [agency owner] Angela.” She puts Marion on hold, comes back in thirty seconds with, “Angela says she hasn’t heard anything about his being late. She says he shoulda been there by now. Did you check the [studio’s] lounge?”
Marion sets the phone down, sidles by the gabbling client/
agency contingent sitting in chairs against the walls of the cramped control booth, down a short hall and out into the lounge. This is where everyone goes who isn’t actively recording a spot at that moment. There’s an engineer and the studio’s biller eating lunch together, an off-Broadway actress on one of the courtesy phones (this is before cell phones, remember), another guy on another phone, a voice-over coach, a guy who always seems to be around the studio reading a newspaper, a messenger on his way out, etc. The usual cast of recording studio characters.
“Nope, he’s not here,” she says, back in the studio into the phone. “Are you sure you got the right date and studio?”
“‘United Sound, one o’clock,’ it says in the book,” says the phone voice. “Are you sure he’s not there?”
Every good media producer knows to check the status of his or her situation, then double-check it. Marion again slides past the crowd in the control booth, who this time notices her, though they don’t stop socializing. Again she looks in the lounge. Still the same cast, minus the Off-B’way actress and the messenger and plus a little boy and a woman who is probably his mother.
Going back to the control booth, very quietly now, she tells the phone voice, “Uh uh, he’s not here. Let me talk to Angela.”
Angela DiPene is on the phone in seconds. “He’s there, Marion. He just called in. He’s waiting for you in the lounge. I told him to help himself to the free coffee and cake.”
“Angela, I…,” Marion says into the mouthpiece. “Wait a minute. I can’t believe…” She puts the phone down again, tries to move invisibly past the committee, but they’ve now stopped chatting and are looking at her. “I’ll just, um, be a minute, I want to…” she says as she slips past them and out the door.
In the lounge, now, she looks frantically around, sees absolutely no Ricardo Montalban. In desperation she says to no one particular, but everyone, in the room, “I’m sorry, but by any chance has anybody seen Ricardo Montalban around here? I mean, like, maybe…He’s supposed to be doing a session for us? For, you know, Kodak? and I was just wondering if-”
“Excuse me, miss,” says the man eating cake and drinking coffee, “don’t you mean Carlos Montalban? Ricardo is my brother.”
Marion always said that whatever would have been on her mind as some imaginary, flaming 18-wheeler she was in hurtled into the Grand Canyon couldn’t have been worse than what she began to feel then. And that was even before she started pre-living the moment of telling the observation party the news.
She actually doesn’t remember much about the rest of the day after that, which would have been no tragedy, since scripts in recording studios have a way of producing themselves. Everybody involved with them-engineer, talent, take-out delivery boy-wants the work to succeed, to be good, so that they themselves might live to record another day.
The spot came out fine, no reason why it shouldn’t have. Carlos Montalban, once the well-known “El Exigente,” TV spokesman for a major coffee grower, was a seasoned pro. And nobody would have known the difference if he wasn’t, since the spot was in Spanish, which no one else around that day spoke except for Carlos and the Puerto Rican kid who brought in the take-out, and, as it turned out, did recognize the elder Montalban.
The other starfuckers, the ones besides Marion, really didn’t have a choice of blaming her or not. It was their decision to come to an event they wouldn’t have graced in a million years if they hadn’t thought they were going to touch the hem of a made-in-Hollywood garment.
After all, no one besides Marion actually said the words, “Ricardo Montalban? Really?!” Which is why they were unable to say anything to Marion when she introduced them to “Carlos Montalban, who, believe it or not, is Ricardo’s brother!” and courageously mentioned he’d been on time, five minutes early, in fact.
To their credit, the observation team stayed on through the actual recording, leaving five minutes after Carlos did. No one ever mentioned a thing to Marion, and no one at the casting agency could be found to own up to sending in the wrong guy, no matter how much Marion pleaded with them for candor.
Somewhat later Marion would hear the incident played back to her, third or even fourth party, by someone who’d heard a producer from another agency tell a story about a green casting agent getting the Montalban brothers confused, what with all the aka’s, d/b/a’s, noms de screen, etc. one found in the Industry.
Marion, by then a seasoned pro herself, seemed to toss it off as no harm, no foul, “I almost don’t remember it.” But almost is the operative word here.
Remember before when I said good producers are always checking the status of their situations, then double-checking them before they blah, blah, blah? I lied, sort of. Really good producers, folks who have deep, black holes of paranoia in psyches and souls, really never stop checking their situations and themselves just because they know the one time they don’t… Marion feels she became a really good producer that day.
“Hey, it’s better than nothing.” Bob Hite, Canned Heat leader, to me about smoking aspirin in jail when the band was busted for pot.