The actor explained to ET in 1982 how he got into shape to face off against Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew.
Among Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s enduring legacy, which already boasts the introduction of the Kobayashi Maru, as well as Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) powerful goodbye scene, is Ricardo Montalbán’s iconic performance as Khan Noonien Singh.
To celebrate the movie’s 40th anniversary, ET is looking back at Montalbán’s in-depth interview leading up to The Wrath of Khan’s premiere on June 4, 1982.
One question on everyone’s mind at the time was a bit superficial, but nevertheless imperative following Montalbán's appearance in the movie’s trailer and posters. Are those your real muscles? And if so: how did you get in shape?
“Before I did Khan, I started to do a lot of push ups,” Montalbán said with a laugh, confirming those pectorals on the big screen were the real deal. “Because, after all, [Khan] was supposed to be a physically strong man.”
Montalbán had the unique distinction of reprising the character over 15 years after he guest starred on the original series. In the season one episode, “Space Seed,” Kirk and crew encounter Khan, a genetically engineered human who’s been in suspended animation following a world war on Earth nearly 200 years ago. With enhanced strength and intellect, Khan seeks to take over the Enterprise and revive more of his superhuman peers. But his attempt is foiled. Instead, Kirk sends Khan and company to an uninhabited planet where they could fulfill their destructive ambitions, without bringing harm and chaos to the Federation in the process.
“I venture to say I received more fan mail from that episode than anything I've ever done in my life,” Montalbán shared.
By the time producer Harve Bennett came calling about literally reviving Khan for Star Trek’s second film, Montalbán had become a household name from his role as Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island. Already many seasons into the hit TV series, Montalbán felt confident and comfortable as the show’s lead character. And when the moment came to step back into Gene Roddenberry’s universe, he discovered maybe he had become a little too comfortable.
“When you play the same character for so many years, I get to know him so well that it becomes a little bit of a part of you, as you become a part of it,” Montalbán explained. “And when I first started to articulate the dialogue of Khan, and I was alone at home in my room and study, and the first time I say the words out loud I heard Mr. Rourke. And I couldn't get away from him and I didn't know what to do.”
“I asked Bennett, the producer of [The Wrath of Khan], to send me a tape of the original show I had done… He may be older and more bitter, but nevertheless, I have to discover his fingerprints,” he continued. “And so I saw the show. I ran it several times. And about the fourth or fifth time I began to remember what I did then. The thoughts came back to me. And it was really quite remarkable… Then, I picked up the script and all of a sudden there was Khan. And I think I eradicated Mr. Rourke.”
Following the mixed reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, producers went back to basics for the next installment in terms of story, tone and antagonist. As Kirk endures the woes of a midlife crisis, Khan reenters the fold and is dead set on revenge. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock later warns his Kelvin timeline counterpart (Zachary Quinto) that "Khan Noonien Singh is the most dangerous adversary the Enterprise ever faced."
“A saint doesn't know that he's a saint. He does saintly things. And people around him say he's a saint,” Montalbán said, adding that likewise, “An evil man or a villain, I don't think he thinks of himself as being evil.”
Khan’s multifaceted nature and rich backstory is still paying off dividends. On Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, the character's DNA literally runs high. The Enterprise's chief of security, La'an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong), is a descendent of Khan. Over on Star Trek: Picard, the season 2 finale hinted Dr. Adam Soong (Brent Spiner) aided Khan's creation as a young scientist.
Alongside the Borg Queen and Gul Dukat, Khan continues to be heralded as one of Star Trek's best villains, which is a legacy that can be attributed to Montalbán's thoughtful approach to creating a three-dimensional antagonist.
“When I played Khan… I had to give him some human qualities. Something of goodness,” Montalbán explained. “And I imbued Khan with a very sincere and a very beautiful love of his wife, who died. And that great love now turned into great hate for Admiral Kirk, who he blames for the death of his wife… Because if you play everything good-good, and everything bad-bad, then it's a caricature. There's no such thing. We all have a balance.”
Still, there was the age-old acting dilemma of finding the right tone. Even for an established film actor, having previously starred alongside movie icons like Clark Gable (Across the Wide Missouri) and Lana Turner (Madame X), Montalbán felt challenged by translating Khan for the cinema.
“Playing this character presented great difficulty. If I played him safely… I'm afraid the character would have been not a worthy antagonist to Admiral Kirk,” Montalbán said. “The only way I could do it then was to play it not safely but daringly. And really play it as fully as I could, because after all, [Star Trek] is a fantasy thing.”
Maximum warp to 2021, Jerry O'Connell told ET at Paramount+'s 2nd Annual "Star Trek Day" Celebration that he wants to follow in Benedict Cumberbatch's footsteps by playing the infamous tyrant one day (even though he's already in the family as the voice of Ransom on Lower Decks).
The actor revealed, "Huge props to Ricardo Montalbán, who did amazing work not only in the original series but in [Star Trek II] as well, [but] I want a shot to play Khan at some point."
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan streams on Paramount+.