Monday, April 16, 2018

Rita Moreno, Ricardo Montalban, MYSTERY STREET

She is Queen of All That Is Good in Show Business.  That's how I feel about WEST SIDE STORY Oscar winner, Rita Moreno.  She has triumphed in film, on Broadway and on TV.  (Don't get me started on the fact that she was NEVER an Emmy nominee for her extraordinary work as Sister Pete, the nun psychiatrist on the HBO prison series, OZ.)  On March 29th, I watched the live feed on Facebook of Rita Moreno being interviewed by a contributor for THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.  This was for the paper's "Ask LA Times" regular online feature.  Something Rita Moreno said in that interview reminded me of something Ricardo Montalban and I discussed when he was a great guest on my VH1 talk show in 1988.  Ms. Moreno mentioned Mr. Montalban in her comments, by the way.  The topic was diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry.  Rita Moreno can be seen currently on the excellent reboot of Norman Lear's sitcom, ONE DAY AT A TIME.  The family is now Latino, modern-day social issues are dealt with and Moreno steals every scene she has.
Early in her film career, she talked to Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban about equal opportunities for Latinos.  He said that the door is "ajar."  It needed to be opened wider.
In 1988, Ricardo Montalban visited my show to promote his work in a new follow-up to THE NAKED GUN, the nutty detective movies starring Leslie Nielsen.  I was extremely lucky to have that show.  For me, a classic film advocate, the opportunity to interviews stars from Hollywood's golden age was a dream come true.  Also, when those stars realized that I knew their work, studied it and had a serious interest in it, they were very giving in their interviews.  My floor crew, mostly young, loved Montalban from FANTASY ISLAND and the movie STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN.  I had seen Montalban's movies from his MGM years and beyond.  On TV, I'd watched his movies in which he danced with Cyd Charisse and Esther Williams in musical comedies. I also watched his impressive acting in war movies, action features, crime thrillers, love stories, westerns, historical epics -- Montalban did it all before having a TV hit with FANTASY ISLAND.

In the interview on-air and in between our on-camera segments, what was the main thing that we two men of color from different generations talked about?  Diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry.  Mr. Montalban was one of those veteran performers who gave me a huge compliment.  He said that he was proud of me for having that show...because he knew what the odds were against me having a show like that.  Montalban said his community needed to take tips from our black community and get more vocal about the lack of equal show biz opportunities.  This was in 1988.

Rita Moreno expressed that same exact sentiment in her L.A. TIMES interview last month.

Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were, I'm grateful to say, were part of my everyday life growing up in L.A.  My hometown was rich and ripe Mexican-American talent and stories.  But the only TV show about a lead character who was Mexican was CHICO AND THE MAN (1974).  The next that I can recall was the George Lopez sitcom in 2002.  I noticed and was bothered by that lack of representation on network television.

So, what does this all have to do with a 1950 crime story called MYSTERY STREET?  Before forensics became popular to solve crimes on TV like in the CSI franchise on CBS and, years earlier, on QUINCY, M.E., the hit NBC series starring Jack Klugman from 1976 to 1983, there was the movie MYSTERY STREET starring Ricardo Montalban.  Montalban played the cop who uses forensics to solve a murder mystery in Boston.  It's not a famous MGM movie but a movie that's been one of my Ricardo Montalban favorites for years.  He plays a Hispanic detective in it.  He's Lt. Pete Morales.
I once read a newspaper article than had an item about popular veteran actor Gilbert Roland.  Like Montalban, he was also Mexican and also worked not to be boxed into Hollywood's "Latin Lover" image.  Roland was awesome.  He went from starring in 1920s silent films to later Hollywood movies such as SHE DONE HIM WRONG with Mae West, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL with Kirk Douglas, THE FURIES with Barbara Stanwyck and the widescreen 1956 Best Picture Oscar winner, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

In the 1950s or early 60s, film actor Gilbert Roland was frustrated by Hollywood when he pitched a detective series for TV in which he'd have a lead role as a Mexican-American detective.  The diversity and inclusion door was not even "ajar" then. Only white guys like Robert Taylor were the stars on a TV detective series.

MGM's TOPPER, THE THIN MAN and DR. KILDARE lead characters were adapted into TV series form.  I still feel that MYSTERY STREET could've been spun off into a solid TV series in the 1950s,  60s or 70s.  Det. Peter Morales could've used forensics to help him solve crimes every week on TV.  What great representation that would've been for Hispanic/Latino viewers.  Here's a clip featuring Ricardo Montalban in MYSTERY STREET.

MYSTERY STREET airs occasionally on TCM.  I bet you can find it on Amazon.

2 comments:

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