Yesterday, a man left us who, for most Americans and many around the world, will always conjure up a host of treasured images – black-clad and dancing sensually with Cyd Charisse; slyly warbling “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Esther Williams; expansively telling us of the virtues of “rich Corinthian leather” (a nonexistent item that he supposedly improvised during the filming of that famed Chrysler commercial); barechested, with a silver mullet hairdo, and roaring imprecations at William Shatner; and, of course, stepping toward a seaplane in an immaculate white suit, his trusted diminutive aide alongside him, and intoning: “Smiles, everyone, smiles….” as he offered a toast.
But there were other, more serious sides to Ricardo Montalban. On May 24, 1973, in what is still the largest dinner ever held on the grounds of the White House, America’s Vietnam prisoners of war gathered in a vast tent on the grounds of the White House, the guests of President and Mrs. Nixon, for a memorable dinner which included entertainment from one of the most diverse and talented lineups of stars ever assembled anywhere.

The evening, emceed by Bob Hope, included John Wayne; Jimmy Stewart; Edgar Bergen; Roy Acuff; Vic Damone; the New Christy Minstrels; Sammy Davis Jr; Connie Francis; Phyllis Diller; and Joey Heatherton, all giving their utmost. It concluded with the 85-year-old Irving Berlin, emerging from seclusion for the first time in years to serenade the POWs with the song he had written over a half-century before, “God Bless America.” Though he would live for another 16 years, it was his final public appearance.

And among those on stage that evening was Ricardo Montalban. Some time back I saw a tape of the network TV broadcast of the event (none of which seems to have been excerpted on Youtube so far) and was struck by his brief and heartfelt words to the audience. He mentioned that one of his own sons had served in the war, and had come safely home. And he thanked those assembled for their service and sacrifice with the grace and gentle sincerity that he shared with the world for so long before and so long after.

Mark Evanier, the TV writer and entertainment scholar, tells an anecdote about Montalban in his blog that illustrates to what a remarkable degree the actor’s principles and personal dignity were combined with his innate sense of courtesy. It’s well worth a look as we mourn a man who was truly one of entertainment’s class acts.