HOLLYWOOD -- Fine Corinthian leather, of which Ricardo Montalban has been enamored over the years, smacks of Moorish mystery, desert sands and sparkling white minarets.
Until Montalban sang the praises of Corinthian cowhide in the upholstery of Chrysler Corporation automobiles, most notably for the Cordoba model, one associated 'Corinthian' with the ancient Greek city or the capitals atop columns supporting Corinth's temples.
For parochial residents of upper New York state Corinth is simply the name of a local village. For the religious, Corinthians is two books of the New Testament.
The leather seats in the Cordobas, unfortunately, were not close to these exotic representations of the name. At this late date, Montalban, ever the gentleman, admits Corinthian simply signified the trade name of a domestic manufacturer of leather.
Montalban knows whereof he speaks. He is celebrating his 12th anniversary as spokesman for Chrysler, which he believes is a record for celebrity TV car salesmen.
The job has been a career highlight for the Mexican-born actor on several levels.
First and foremost it has been a most profitable association. Secondly, it has given a Latin an opportunity to be a visible part of a giant corporation catering to that most traditional of all American icons, the automobile.
And finally, it has made Montalban a winner. Both he and Chrysler had seen better days when he first agreed to pitch the cars on the tube. Employment for Montalban was meager, a far cry from his contract days as a movie star at MGM, and the auto manufacturer was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Since turning pitchman, Ricardo prospered mightly for six years as the star of 'Fantasy Island,' which will allow him to live comfortably to the end of his days. And Chrysler got off the mat with a mighty fiscal comeback.
'Yes,' Montalban mused the other day, 'the whole thing has worked out very well for all concerned.
'The most important thing to me is I became a spokesman for a very American product which didn't want anyone with an accent before. It's a sign that America is truly a melting pot.
'Maybe I have opened the door for other Latins to be spokesmen for other American products.'
Montalban has averaged three commercials a year for the company and has outlasted the Cordoba, which went out of production years ago. Now he is pitching other Chrysler models.
He learned a great deal about modesty very quickly in his career as a salesman.
Lesson One: The car is the star. The salesman is a supporting player.
'I've stayed with the company for a dozen years because I became aware on my first day on the set who is the star of a commercial. I watched as they spent four hours lighting the car.
'I was treated nicely and respectfully. They gave me a lovely dressing room, cool drinks and something to eat. But I stood by while they prepared the automobile for the shot.
'A cameraman on a boom said, 'Get that speck of dust off the hood.' A little while later he said, 'Tone down the flare on the chrome bumper.' Later still, 'turn the wheels two inches for a different angle.'
'Finally all was in readiness. They called me in and without making a single adjustment of the lights, they shot the commercial.
'I asked myself, will my pride allow me to do this? After all, I was a known actor and in the old MGM days good actors simply didn't do commercials. But it works for me and is something I can live with very happily.
'It's easy for me to be sincere because I really believe in the product. I've seen some great actors sell products they didn't believe in. I couldn't do that.'
Montalban survived Lee Iacocca's Chrysler takeover and a change in advertising agencies.
'My agent said I might not survive those changes,' he said. 'I'd done sevenyears and I thought that was a good run. But I was soon signed for another year and we've been doing the commercials ever since.'
He attributes his longevity to the fact that he has created a persona for the company. People see Montalban and connect him with the product.
Naturally, Montalban is loaned a new Chrysler every year, as is his wife, as part of the pitchman's perks.