By now I am sure you have heard that Ricardo Mantalban and Patrick McGoohan have died.
Mantalban is being remembered primarily for playing Khan in Star Trek and Mr. Rourke in the godawful-but-strangely-watchable Fantasy Island. For me, though, his best role was as a murdering bullfighter in a memorable episode of Columbo.
Be warned: some minor spoilers ahead.
Columbo, vacationing with his wife in Mexico, gets into some low-grade trouble with the police. The local inspector offers to clear things up for him if he will help with an investigation. The bookkeeper to the legendary bullfighter Luis Montoya (Montalban) has been found dead in the ring, you see, gored by a bull. Previously this bull had injured Montoya, and it appears that his bookkeeper got drunk and foolishly tried to get revenge on the bull. The inspector is completely satisfied, but Columbo, seizing on a few anomalies in the set-up (surprise!), believes that Montoya committed murder, using the bull as the murder weapon.
This episode is somewhat formula-breaking in that, while the viewer knows that Montoya is the killer, his motive remains a mystery until the end. Ultimately Columbo realizes that during the incident in which the bull injured Montoya, the bookkeeper had seen that Montoya was scared to the point of being frozen. Montoya could not live with the shame, and felt he could maintain his dignity only by killing the one man who knew. Columbo exposes him by contriving a situation in which Montoya will be trapped in the ring with the bull (which seems a bit unethical). Sure enough, Montoya freezes again, and the motive for the killing becomes clear.
Montalban was perfectly cast as the aging bullfighter. The episode has several moments of genuinely good acting, most notably the final scene between him and Columbo. The look Montalban gives him, simultaneously horrified that his shame has been exposed, angry at Columbo for exposing him, yet also resigned to his fate is the main thing I will remember about him.
Patrick McGoohan also starred in several memorable episodes of Columbo, the best being his turn as the arrogant leader of a high school military academy. The writing is unusually good in this one (with the proviso that the way Columbo finally nails him at the end is even more preposterous than usual. McGoohan, horrified that the school’s owner is planning to make the school co-ed, contrives to kill him. He knows the owner of the school will insist on presiding over the Founder’s Day festivities, which culminate in the firing of a ceremonial cannon. McGoohan replaces the blank charge in the cannon with a more powerful explosive, then stuffs a cleaning rag down the cannon’s barrel to cause it to backfire. The idea is to make it look like the irresponsible student in charge of cleaning the cannon carelessly left the rag in the barrel, thereby causing it to explode. Suffice it to say, the plan doesn’t work.
The scenes between Columbo and McGoohan are very well-done, both the writing and the acting.
McGoohan, of course, is best remembered for the short-lived (17 episodes) television series The Prisoner. I must say that this has always left me flat. The first episode is amazing and brilliant, and it’s always nice to see anything daring and original on television, but things just got a little too weird and surreal for my taste. At some point you just have to tell a coherent story. Perhaps I’m too literal-minded, but I would have at least liked a clear answer to the question of whether or not the Prisoner eventually escapes. (My theory: he did not. The point of the jaw-dropping WTF! final episode was that he had finally been driven insane by the incessant interrogations and mind-games.)
They will both be missed.