Fantasy Island, Mr. Roarke's Paradise Where Dreams (Or Nightmares) Come True
Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize in 1977. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
The diminutive Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) alerted the mysterious Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) that de plane, de plane of visitors had arrived -- so began Fantasy Island every Saturday night on ABC at 10:00 p.m., from 1978 to 1984. Fantasy Island was a place where dreams come true, and where visitors always get what they want for better or for worse. The series was executive produced by Aaron Spelling, a genius of '70s TV who was also responsible for for Starsky & Hutch, The Love Boat and Charlie's Angels.
Like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island's weekly series followed a cast of guest stars made up of a mix of soon to be famous people like Michelle Pfeiffer and Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), and well known television stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and Sonny Bono. Unlike The Love Boat, the fantasies on this series often took a dark turn.
This huge primetime hit was a strange series at a time when television was pretty straightforward, and it was all helmed by Mr. Roarke, the seemingly magical caretake of Fantasy Island, where your dreams could turn to nightmares in a matter of moments.
You can't always get what you want
Even if you didn't watch Fantasy Island when it was on the air you know the basic premise: incredibly good looking folks on vacation fly to a mysterious island where all of their dreams come true. That may be a simple log line for the series, but it hardly shines light on the darkness at the heart of the series.
Each episode revolved around two or three different storylines where guests were able to explore their personal fantasies. These could range from wanting to spend one last day with a departed family member, or to see "the good old days." Sometimes visitors wanted to gall in love, or just have a fling, more often than not all of these fantasies turned nasty as the visitors found that their fantasies weren't all they were cracked up to be.
In some instances, the various storylines would sync up in the final act of the episode, but that wasn't always the case. On Fantasy Island, it wasn't important for the guests to meet one another, but rather for them to learn the all important lesson of "be careful what you wish for."
A man, a plan, Aaron Spelling
From the '60s to the '90s Aaron Spelling was a producing machine, with credits for shows like Charlie's Angels, The Mod Squad, and Dynasty on his resume (and that's just three of his hundreds of credits), but he didn't think about Fantasy Island until he was on his heels in a pitch meeting. According to Spelling, he and his production partner Leonard Goldberg were in a meeting with ABC where each of their ideas were shot down one after another until he joked about producing a show where people go to an island to have "their sexual fantasies realized."
ABC executive Brandon Stoddard loved the idea and told them to produce it with Orson Welles in the role of Mr. Roarke, something that Spelling balked at. He didn't want to use Welles because of his mercurial nature, and he didn't want Mr. Roarke to have a sexy female sidekick, he figured that there would be enough sex onscreen without someone drawing attention from his mysterious island leader.
Rather than go straight to series, Spelling produced two made-for-TV movies that served as backdoor pilots to the series, and introduced audiences to its core concept. Fantasy Island and Return to Fantasy Island are much darker than the series that made it to air, focusing more on the repercussions of wish fulfillment.
Aside from the opening to the series, which was filmed on Kauai, Hawaii, the series was shot entirely at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank before moving production to the Warner Ranch, which is also in Burbank, so even the setting of this magical series was a fantasy.
Who was Mr. Roarke, Fantasy Island's mysterious caretaker?
Guest stars came and went on Fantasy Island, but its one constant was Mr. Roarke, the well spoken and impeccably dressed caretaker of the island. Played by Ricardo Montalban of Chrysler's "soft, Corinthian leather" campaign, Roarke was never a malevolent presence but he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Even though the series was essentially escapism, questions abound about Mr. Roarke's abilities. How was he able to create a realistic fantasy for his guests? And why was he obsessed with making sure that people learned a lesson? It's never stated on the show, but it's heavily implied that he has some magical abilities bestowed on him by a higher power. In a few different episodes he goes tit for tat with the Devil, and he's able to transport people back in time to prove a point, but he's not just a simple wizard.
Throughout the series, Roarke's age fluctuates in such a way that he's at least hundreds of years old, if not thousands. While he dishes out moralistic fantasies he's never mean about them, he just wants people to learn something from their time on the island. The series was never interested in plumbing the depths of Roarke's abilities or lineage, but Montalban said that from the early days of the first made-for-TV movie he believed that Roarke was a fallen angel who was cast out of Heaven for being prideful, and that Fantasy Island was a kind of Purgatory where he could teach lessons to everyone who booked a stay with him.
Tattoo outlasted the fantasy
Each episode began with one important detail, Tattoo announcing the arrival of a new set of guest stars with his catchphrase, "The Plane! The Plane!" The line was an odd one to play during the show's opening credits, but it became more than just the introduction to the series, it became something of a worldwide phenomenon thanks to Hervé Villechaize's delivery and thick French accent.
Tattoo's popularity was somewhat of a surprise to the producers of the series, and as the show grew the show pushed him into the spotlight, giving him a go-kart to drive around and an entire fantasy of his own. The series was a life changer for Villechaize, who at the time of his casting was living in his car. For most of the series, Tattoo didn't have much to do other than flank Mr. Roarke while he waxed poetic about the nature of his guest's desires, but he was so importantly to the aesthetic of the series that it's impossible to talk about Fantasy Island without mentioning Tattoo. His catchphrase was so ubiquitous that he was hired by Dunkin' Donuts for their "the plain, the plain" ad campaign following the demise of the series.
With two to three storylines an episode for six seasons you need to have a lot of guest actors, and Fantasy Island had A LOT of guest actors. Something like 1,259 guest stars made their way through the island, with many of them appearing more than once. The amount of guests on the show may be staggering, but it's the names that are truly amazing: Don Knotts, Cassandra Peterson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonathan Frakes, Regis Philbin, Roddy McDowall, and so many more actors popped up on the show.
Aside from the magical aspect of the series, one of the most fascinating things to watch is the way in which stars past their prime like Scott Baio and David Cassidy run elbows with Tori Spelling and Sid Haig. Fantasy Island showed exactly what you could do with episodic television as long as you had the stars around to bring in the viewers.
The fantasy lives on
It makes sense that people want to return to Fantasy Island again and again. The original series told outlandish, often magical stories that gave viewers hope and sometimes terrified them. Each week brought something new, and audiences ate it up.
The series has been revived a few times, first as a revival series in 1998 starring Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Roarke, and instead of Tattoo his second in command was a sultry babe played by Mädchen Amick. While it seems that ABC finally got their fantasy of pairing Mr. Roarke with a sexy second in command, their dream turned into a nightmare when it the series was canceled after the first season.
Fantasy Island returned again in 2020 as a horror film made by Blumhouse. The film follows the episodic nature of the original series, but it doesn't quite have the magic of the original. Thankfully, through the power of reruns, DVDs, and the internet, viewers can always take a trip to the original Fantasy Island.
Tags: Fantasy Island | Herve Villechaize | Ricardo Montalban
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