Question: Why did Tattoo leave Fantasy Island? It seemed like a good setup. Phoebe N., St. Augustine, Fla.
Televisionary: It was, but late actor Herve Villechaize wanted to make it a better paying one and asked for a raise when the series, which launched as a big hit for ABC in January 1978, had already begun to fade in the ratings. So he was voted off the island and replaced by the considerably taller (6-foot-2) Lawrence, a British butler played by Christopher Hewett, who joined the cast in 1983 and stayed until the series left the air in August 1984.
Even before that episode, however, producers were casting about for a replacement for the diminutive (3-foot-11) Villechaize. A couple of years earlier, the actor asked for a cut in hours for medical reasons (he had breathing problems) and then made a fuss when his request was granted and a new character, a goddaughter (Wendy Schaal) for Fantasy Island head honcho Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) was added to take up some of the slack. "What can I say? As a person, she's a nice girl; I like her," he told TV Guide in 1981. "As an actress, that's something else.... The audience will have to decide."
That kind of public complaining came as a surprise to supervising producer Arthur Rowe and to Montalban, both of whom thought Villechaize had simply gotten what he'd asked for. "What did he expect?" Rowe asked. "If he wanted to do only half the shows, Roarke obviously couldn't carry on a soliloquy with himself the rest of the time." Montalban, too, was shocked. "The impression I had was that it was to accommodate some personal and business needs of his," he said. "I thought we were doing something to make his work easier."
Nope. And several weeks later, Villechaize was making others' work harder. He was reluctant to pose for publicity shots with Schaal and Montalban. ("I'm doing this because you are twisting my arm," he told a publicist at the time.") Afterward, he told a reporter he felt his character was being phased out of the show. "Suddenly, I find myself doing, 'Eh, boss, what's his fantasy?' and 'Goodbye' and that's it. I used to refuse to take jobs like this. I felt they were making me a glorified extra.... I worked a long time to be well known as Tattoo. I'm the one who represents Fantasy Island all this time. Why should I do publicity for her to wipe myself out...? I'm a fighter. They think that if you are small you won't open your mouth. But I will fight for my rights."
It wasn't the first time, according to Villechaize, that he had to do so. He proudly told of the time, earlier in his career, when he went toe to toe with actor Troy Donahue because he felt the former '60s star had cheated him out of rights to a script Villechaize wrote. "I just went berserk," Villechaize said, noting that he broke a window in Donahue's apartment and began smashing dishes until Donahue threw him out. Furthermore, he said, Donahue settled financially with him and dropped all charges. (Donahue, for his part, said the whole thing never happened.)
But Villechaize took pride in his feistiness, which stood in marked contrast to the always professional, gentlemanly Montalban, who'd struggled through the ups and downs of the acting life before landing Fantasy Island, as he put it in 1979, "at this late stage of my career." No one ever had a bad word to say about him and the only public complaining he did was some very mild griping about how hot it was in his trademark white suit (it was constructed of heavily lined nylon so it would never wrinkle).
By the time the series came along, Montalban had gained instant stardom in Hollywood's 1945-50 golden age, been dropped by MGM, fought to make ends meet doing flop plays and bad movies in Italy for years and then come back in the mid-'70s with an acclaimed stage role in Don Juan in Hell. That part didn't get him any film or TV work directly, but it did land him a gig as pitchman for the Chrysler Cordoba. So when Island creator Aaron Spelling's first choice for the Roarke role, Orson Welles, didn't work out, he was able to sell Montalban to ABC execs who knew him from his memorable selling of the Cordoba's Corinthian leather.
Unlike Villechaize, Montalban knew when he had it good. And though he allowed himself to wonder in front of a reporter how much easier his career might've gone had he changed his name, ignored his Mexican heritage and dropped his accent, he didn't let his unmet aspirations drag him down for too long.
Asked what his own fantasy might be if he were allowed to visit the island as a guest, Montalban replied it would've been "for someone to offer me a really great picture like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and let me play a great part like Randle McMurphy because I'm an American with some talent, not just a hyphenated-American limited to certain roles."
But then the veteran got real. "I'm a pro at disappointments, so if the great one doesn't come along, it won't matter," he said. "My dreams have been broken so many times that by now I'm an expert at it. So let's just say I'm happy and grateful to be doing this."
Which was more than you could say for his costar.