Being Ricardo Montalban

Photo credit: Jack McGregor
Photo credit: Jack McGregor

A funny thing about our personal identity is that although we work so hard and long to find it, we often delight in hiding or abandoning it. Who hasn’t had fun wearing a costume, assuming a persona, or acting a role in a play or skit?

For 20 years I’ve attended a writers’ workshop that requires everyone to wear a nametag at all times. This is indisputably a wise policy, and I’ve always followed it. Actually, I’ve always followed the letter of this law, but there was one year that I may have skirted its spirit. That particular year some devil-possessed troublemaker, some Loki-like bringer of chaos, suggested an exchange of nametags. Two people traded tags, then two others, and it snowballed until about half the writers were wearing nametags not their own. During the next few days I saw 5 or 6 different Bill Spencers, including women, go by. At some meals I sat across the table from Bill Spencer. Once I remember hearing a lot of laughing at another table and looked over to see that Bill Spencer was having a lot more fun than I was.

When a frustrated newcomer complained to the workshop director, she responded, “They’re writers. What do you expect?” We were wearing nametags at all times, and since the trades were freely made, the tags were technically “our” nametags even if they didn’t have our names on them. You may be wondering who started this trouble, and I wish I could tell you—but this was years ago, and he of course was wearing someone else’s nametag.

So when I instigated this experiment in identity fluidity, it was all because I envied one of the most admired teachers at the workshop. I’ll call him Luke Whisnant. (Because that’s his name.) I proposed a tag exchange with this faculty star and was stunned when he agreed. I was thrilled. I had definitely traded up. I was a lowly non-writing spouse, and he was a supremely talented creative writer, a masterful teacher, an amazing musician, and a legend with the ladies. Who WOULDN’T want to be Luke Whisnant?

As it turned out, I wouldn’t. . . . I happily, even giddily, wore Luke’s nametag for more than 2 days—but on the third day (and I’m as surprised as you are that I’m saying this) I began to want my own nametag back—my own nametag with my own name.

Though I don’t fully understand why this was, I believe my dubious acting “career” has given me at least some insight into my longing. The fourth year that I attended this same workshop, the director—a woman you do not say no to—came to my room and asked, “Do you think you could do Ricardo Montalban?” When I asked for a little more context, she said she’d written a skit for an end-of-the-week show, a parody of Fantasy Island, and she was considering casting me as Mr. Roarke. I told her I’d try my best to “do” Ricardo. This led to my performing Mr. Roarke no fewer than 10 times over the next 15 years. I do confess I liked being Ricardo. I wore a white dinner jacket, slicked back my hair, said my lines with a Spanish accent, and walked and stood with a limp. (Yes, I did say “stood with a limp.”) Often after these performances I would be asked to again say, “Tattoo” or “Cordoba,” and more than a few people advised me to always wear my hair slicked back. It was made pretty clear to me that as Ricardo Montalban I was more interesting, better-looking, and certainly more sexually attractive than Bill Spencer ever was.

However, despite this compelling incentive, I could never manage to stay in Ricardo’s character more than about an hour. Sure, he was suave, intriguing, and alluring—but he cost me way too much effort. I had to keep my chest painfully puffed out, had to maintain impeccable posture, and had to be debonair at all times. You know what? Being someone other than ourselves is damn hard.

My acting brought home to me that we are who we are because that’s who we’re most comfortable being.

Being anyone else is just too tiring.

(My thanks to Wildacres Retreat, where this piece was written.)

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12 thoughts on “Being Ricardo Montalban”

  1. I’ve seen this before and it doesn’t end well. It begins with a simple exchange of name tags and before you know it, progresses to outright anagrams. You can label it, what you will but what if Luke Whisnant traded name tags with someone else and wasn’t, in fact, Luke Whisnant?

    1. I see your point. If we don’t label ourselves accurately and consistently stick with those labels, what ensues is anarchy, utter chaos, maybe even to the point of—dare I say it—democracy.

    1. I love your comment, Luke. And even if it is too hard BEING you, I do still greatly admire and envy you—just like everybody else.

  2. Of course, the full truth, if revealed, would undoubtedly prove that everyone, male and female, even Luke Whisnant, would love to be Bill Spencer – at least for an hour. And especially on Gong Show night.

    1. Thank you, Elaine, for avoiding even the slightest hint of hyperbole. (Your check is in the mail.)

      And thank you for your beautiful presence at Wildacres this year.

    1. I felt I HAD to go to those lengths. The whole essay, really, is about protecting identity.

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