Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island

1977 - United States

"Smiles, everyone! Smiles!" With these words, Mr. Roarke (played by the suave Ricardo Montalbán) welcomed guests to Fantasy Island, a tropical paradise where wishes came true. From 1977 to 1984, this beloved American television series transported viewers to a magical realm where the boundaries of reality blurred, and the human heart’s deepest desires took centre stage.

Created by Gene Levitt, Fantasy Island was introduced to viewers in 1977 and 1978 through two made-for-television films (Pilot and Return to Fantasy Island). The premise was simple yet captivating: wealthy guests arrived on a mysterious island, somewhere near Devil's Island, French Guiana in the Atlantic Ocean, each with a specific fantasy or longing. Mr. Roarke, the enigmatic host, orchestrated their experiences, weaving intricate narratives that challenged their perceptions and touched their souls. His loyal assistant, Tattoo (played by Hervé Villechaize), announced the arrival of new guests by ringing the Island’s iconic bell and exclaiming "The Plane! The Plane!"

Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island was a playground for guest stars—celebrities, ordinary people, and even historical figures. From star-crossed lovers to aspiring artists, each character faced dilemmas that transcended wealth and status. The show’s allure lay in its ability to explore universal themes: love, redemption, regret, and the pursuit of happiness. Each episode is essentially a self-contained story, featuring two or three different guests and their unique fantasies. The show adeptly blended various genres, from romance and adventure to mystery and horror. This anthology format kept it fresh and engaging, as viewers were introduced to new characters and stories each week.

The island’s magic was both a blessing and a curse. It granted wishes but often revealed hidden truths. A man seeking eternal youth discovered the price of vanity. A woman yearning for lost love confronted her past. The island’s power was unpredictable, and its lessons were profound.

Despite its success, Fantasy Island was not without its criticisms. Some viewers and critics found the show’s formula predictable, with the resolution of guests' fantasies often following a similar pattern. Additionally, the portrayal of certain characters and scenarios sometimes reflected the cultural stereotypes and limitations of its time.

Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán’s portrayal of Mr. Roarke, known for his white suit and cultured demeanour, was masterful. He exuded an air of sophistication, wisdom, and an underlying hint of supernatural power. Montalbán's charismatic presence and versatility anchored the series, providing a sense of continuity and depth. Having gained fame as the suave Mr. Roarke and as the iconic villain Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Montalbán’s career spanned seven decades, featuring roles in film, television, and theatre. He was celebrated for his advocacy for Latino representation in Hollywood, co-founding the Nosotros Foundation to support Latin actors.

Fantasy Island

His co-star was far more controversial.

Hervé Villechaize, had a complex and often tumultuous behind-the-scenes reputation. While he was charming and beloved by many for his enthusiastic performance, there were notable issues regarding his behaviour. Villechaize was known for his unpredictable and sometimes problematic conduct on set. He reportedly struggled with personal and professional challenges, including health issues related to his dwarfism, which often led to mood swings and difficulties interacting with the cast and crew. Despite these challenges, some colleagues remembered him fondly for his wit and charm. Several female stars who worked with Villechaize on Fantasy Island accused him of making unwanted advances and engaging in sexually inappropriate conduct. This naturally led to tensions on set and contributed to a problematic work environment for some of his co-stars. These issues, along with a contract dispute where he demanded equal pay with Montalbán, ultimately led to his dismissal from the show after the 1982-1983 season. Despite these controversies, he is remembered for his contributions to Fantasy Island and the unique charisma he brought to his roles.

Fantasy Island

The island also played host to a veritable who's who of international and American stars as well as some of Hollywood's finest, often appearing in more than one story. Among their many numbers these included Stuart Whitman, David Hedison, John Saxon, Peter Graves, Ron Ely, Roddy McDowall, Hugh O'Brian, Sonny Bono, Britt Ekland, Juliet Mills, Gene Barry, Leslie Nielsen, Yvonne De Carlo, Samantha Eggar, David Cassidy, Lynn Regrave and Sammy Davis Jr.

In later seasons, the underlying hint of supernatural power in Mr. Roarke was given more prominence. His age was never disclosed but in the episode Elizabeth, a woman from Roarke's past appears, and it is revealed that she died over 300 years ago. Other episodes suggest that he was friends with Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. He also faces the devil (played by Roddy McDowall) who has come to the island to challenge him for a guest's immortal soul. Montalbán revealed years later that his motivation for the role was to imagine Roarke as a fallen angel whose sin was pride and that Fantasy Island was Purgatory.

Fantasy Island

The series came to an end in 1984 but a remake aired on ABC (1998-1999) starred Malcolm McDowell as the enigmatic Mr. Roarke. The series attempted to update the original's formula with a darker and more psychological tone. It introduced new elements and characters, but it struggled to capture the charm of the original and was cancelled after one season.

Blumhouse Productions reimagined Fantasy Island as a horror movie, released in February 2020. Directed by Jeff Wadlow, the film starred Michael Peña as Mr. Roarke and featured a more sinister twist on the original concept. The island's fantasies turned into nightmares, aligning with Blumhouse's signature horror style. The film received mixed to negative reviews but was notable for its different take on the classic series.

Fox premiered a new television reboot in August 2021, starring Roselyn Sánchez as Elena Roarke, a descendant of Mr. Roarke. This series stays closer to the original's format, focusing on guest fantasies and their moral lessons. It was better received than the 1998 remake, benefiting from modern production values while honouring the spirit of the original series. However, it was cancelled after two seasons. The original version remains the definitive.

Fantasy Island

As the sun set on Fantasy Island, guests departed with newfound wisdom. The island’s magic lingered, leaving viewers with a sense of wonder. Perhaps, in our own lives, we can learn from Mr. Roarke’s parting words: “Fulfill your fantasies, but remember, the most important fantasy is the one you create for yourself.”

Published on June 4th, 2024. Written by Rex Brady for Television Heaven.

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