Friday, January 16, 2009

God and Man: Deceased Artistes Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan

“Smiles, everyone, smiles…!”

Two TV legends died this week. Both men had their moments in the spotlight, but more importantly both starred in shows that are landmarks — one because it is the most pristine camp artifact you can find, the other because it is, simply put, a masterpiece.

In interviews, Ricardo Montalban, a proud Mexican, used to decry the images of Hispanics in the movies: bandits, lazy slackers, and Latin lovers. He was undoubtedly right, but he also must have realized that he carved out a career in Hollywood because he fit the third archetype. He was smooth, had a crisp accent, and seemed the very definition of a ladies man in his movie roles — although I do love his villainous turn as a nasty drug dealer in Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960), keeping Shelley Winters on the hard stuff to further complicate the life of her confused kid, James Darren, who doesn’t know whether to be a delinquent or a concert pianist (now there’s a campy plot for you). This week, upon his death, many fanboys referenced Shatner’s “KHAN!” shout in the original Trek (and of course, Ricardo’s return to the role in Nicholas Meyer’s terrific Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, 1982).

For me, the ultimate flourishing of Ricardo was his starring role in what is truly one of the most perfectly campy shows in history, Fantasy Island (1978-84). As Mr. Roarke, Ricardo started out as a sort of malevolent figure who granted his guests their wish but also taught them a nasty lesson in the process. As the series developed however, he became avuncular, friendlier, and even had affairs on the program. At its best, the show made Roarke into god: he dispensed pills that gave guests temporary sight or made them younger, opened windows and caused the rain to fall, and kicked Satan’s ass twice (and Roddy McDowall was the perfect adversary for him, clad in a pinstripe suit with teenytiny horns on his head).

Since Fantasy Island is a corporate property, it isn’t properly represented on YouTube. They do have this bit of much earlier Ricardo wonder, a single he released:

And we are allowed to watch the unforgettable credits for the show:

But mostly, there are just these ridiculously dumb five-minute “webisode” versions of the FI plotines. Fooey. Here’s one that features the great Sammy Davis (who appeared on the show twice, the second one being a weird foreshadowing of his own death by cancer):

The second gentleman who died this week was of course Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan is a curious figure in that he conceived of, co-wrote, and starred in one of the greatest series in the history of the medium, and yet spent the rest of his career being a talented yet distinctly-not-mind-blowing actor. He never scaled the heights of hammery (hammitude?) that Ricardo did, but he could be somewhat corny in some of his later roles, and what is most surprising is that his signature creation, The Prisoner, is so brilliant and yet stands alone in his filmography. He did direct a feature film — a rock version of Othello that I would love to see! — but the only other things he had a hand in directing were episodes of the wonderful Columbo series that were the most somber moments in that otherwise brisk and brilliant series (under his direction, Falk was a decidedly grimmer version of the character).

In any case, The Prisoner is a landmark in TV history, a show that might not seem as radical when seen today (since it has been so thoroughly ripped off by lesser fantasy fare), but was one of the seminal viewing experiences of my childhood. Watching the show as I got older, I understood more of its plot and McGoohan’s allegorical intentions, but it remains a mind-fuck no matter your age, one of the seminal TV series, something that for me (ultimate compliment here) ranks with the work of Ernie Kovacs, The Singing Detective, and Berlin Alexanderplatz as truly perfect television, something that fully demonstrates the kind of intelligence and barrier-breaking that is possible in the medium.

McGoohan had an interesting background: born in my old stamping grounds of Astoria, Queens; raised in Ireland, then England, he was a classically trained actor who did both theater and bad Disney movies early in his career, but broke through with Danger Man/Secret Agent. The latter is a good show, but rather a let-down when viewed after the perfection of The Prisoner (or even the eye-catching fun of The Avengers). An odd sort of progressive Puritan, McGoohan would only agree to star as John Drake, “the secret agent man,” if the scripts avoided the kind of sleazy sexuality and nasty violence that characterized the James Bond films.

McGoohan certainly achieved immortality as “Number Six” and deservedly so. The show presented the ultimate fusion of Kafka and Graham Greene, science fiction and the spy story, theater of the absurd and the Sixties youth revolution. Oh, and it was excellent TV storytelling.

Dig the theme (in the monochromatic version we all saw back then, even if you did have a color TV):

An ad for the show that includes one of the show’s key bits of dialogue (he would not be pushed, filed, stamped…):

One of the key scenes with the brilliant fucking Mr. Leo McKern, playing the best “Number Two”:

One eager poster put up a key part of the final episode. Promise me you will not watch this if you have not seen the series (and why haven’t you already seen it? Do yourself a favor and get it now – rent, purchase, whatever you do to obtain those silver discs):

And now, for the pure joy of the YouTube sharing experience: latter-day interviews with McGoohan, where he is willing to discuss the show (it is such a cult item that one assumes he never stopped being quizzed about it). Gold from someone’s VHS collection:

Another, super-rare lengthy discussion of the show by “Paddy Fitz” (one of his pseudonyms as a creator of The Prisoner). I love peoples’ VHS!:

This clip is definite “spoiler” time as he discusses the series’ finale. It’s the most embarrassing interview clip, though, as he’s asked to discuss the show for a scant few minutes in the context of what looks to be a tacky “nostalgia” special:

To further add fuel to the fire, as an older gent, McGoohan made this cryptic home-movie, apparently intended for use in a Prisoner TV documentary:

And why not end with a song? From the MTV era, “I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape”

Let’s say it all in unison to both God (Ricardo) and Man (Patrick): Be Seeing You!

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