KHAN AT 30: Ricardo Montalban on the Eugenics Superman

While rumors abound that Khan will be the villain of JJ Abrams' Star Trek sequel, The Wrath of Khan is celebrating its 30th anniversary and in the first of a series of retrospective articles, we feature Ricardo Montalban reflecting on the character.

The late Ricardo Montalban first portrayed Eugenics superman Khan Noonian Singh during Star Trek's first season in the episode "Space Seed." Some fifteen years later, producer Harve Bennett came up with the iea of resurrecting the character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, much to the delight of audiences and Montalban himself.

This interview with the late actor was conducted by CBM editor Ed Gross back in the 1990s.


"In those days, there wasn't the dearth of material that we have today on television. Some shows were quite special, and certainly Star Trek was one of them. I was quite familiar with it. As an actor, I thought it would be great fun to do it. Khan was not the run of the mill sort of portrayal. It had to have a different dimension. That attracted me very much. And when they sent me the script, I thought it was a fascinating character and I loved doing it.

"Khan was a character that was bigger than life. He had to be played that way. He was extremely powerful both mentally and physically, with an enormous amount of pride. but he was not totally villainous. He had some good qualities. I saw a nobility in the man that, unfortunately, was overriden by ambition and a thirst for power. I saw that in the character and played it accordingly. It was very well received at the time, and I was delighted.

"Then I forgot about it. You go on to the next thing, the next thing and the next. I did so many things and finally ended up on Fantasy island. There I was and, lo and behold, they called me again to play this character. I got the script and began reading the role. It was an interesting character again.

"At the time I was so immersed in the character of Fantasy Island, that when I started to articulate the words of Khan for myself, I didn't sound like the character to me. I sounded like Mr. Roarke [from Fantasy Island], and I was very concerned about it. Then I asked Harve Bennett to send me a tpae of the old sho that I did. I ran it two or three times. When I first saw it, I didn't even remember what I did. On the third viewing, a strange thing happened to me and I started reliving the moment, and the mental process that I had arrived at at the time began to work in me and I associated myself with that character more and more. Finally, I took the script, found one of the scenes and did it to myself, and I did feel then that Roarke had disappeared and that indeed I was into this character.

"Now this character presented a different problem. The original character was in total control of the situation. Guided simply by his overriding ambition. The new character, however, was no obsessed. He was a man obsessed with vengeance for the death of his wife, for which he blamed Kirk. if he was bigger than life before, I felt he really had to become bigger than life almost to the point of becoming ludicrous to be effective. If I didn't play it fully and totally obsessed with this, then I think the character would be little and insignificant and uninteresting. The danger was in going overboard. Very often, an actor will play things safely and it works. You can play safe, you can underact, put the lid on and it works beautifully. In this case, I thought if I did that it would be very dull. I had to be, if not deranged, then very close to it. I had to find a tone of really going right to the razor's edge before the character becomes a caricature.

"I don't think the lack of a face-to-face moment between Kirk and Khan was a drawback. Actually, that was an element that was interesting. It was difficult as an actor, but that separation of the two ships gave it a really poignant touch to the scenes. The fact that being so strong, there was so much pressure knowing that he can't get his hands on Kirk. I didn't mind that. I minded as an actor. I wish William Shatner and I had somehow been able to respond to each other at the time. The actual situation, though, I thought was a plug. I think we left the audience wanting them to get together, and we didn't.

"I'm delighted to have been part of this phenomenon."

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