Fantasy Island (1977)

Forty-three years ago, the television Fantasy Island premiered. Tied in with The Love Boat and usually airing directly after it, it created two hours of star-studded Saturday night guilty pleasure. Every now and then, I come across it in the listings, I usually stop in for a moment and see who is guest starring.

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Genre: Fantasy, Drama
Created by: Aaron Spelling, Gene Levitt
Starring: Ricardo Montalbán, Hervé Villechaize, Wendy Schaal, Christopher Hewett
No. of seasons: 7
No. of episodes: 152, plus 2 TV movies
Production company: Spelling-Goldberg Productions, Columbia Pictures Television
Distributor: Sony Pictures Television
Original network: ABC
Original release: January 14, 1977 – May 19, 1984

Before it became a television series, Fantasy Island was introduced to viewers in 1977 and 1978 through two made-for-television films. Airing from 1978 to 1984, the original series starred Ricardo Montalbán as Mr. Roarke, the enigmatic overseer of a mysterious island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, where people from all walks of life could come and live out their fantasies, albeit for a price.

Roarke was known for his white suit and cultured demeanor, and was initially accompanied by an energetic sidekick, Tattoo, played by Hervé Villechaize. Tattoo would run up the main bell tower to ring the bell and shout “Ze plane! Ze plane!” to announce the arrival of a new set of guests at the beginning of each episode. This line, shown at the beginning of the series’ credits, became an unlikely catchphrase because of Villechaize’s spirited delivery and French accent. In later seasons, he would arrive in his personal go-kart, sized for him, and recklessly drive to join Roarke for the visitor reception while the staff scrambled to get out of his way. From 1981 to 1982, Wendy Schaal joined the cast as a beautiful brown-eyed blonde assistant named Julie. The producers dismissed Villechaize from the series before the 1983–1984 season, which ended up being its last, and Tattoo was replaced by a more sedate butler type named Lawrence, played by Christopher Hewett, who pressed an electronic button to ring the bell rather than climb the tower.

A Grumman Widgeon aircraft was used for the series. Just prior to the guests debarking from the plane, Mr. Roarke would address his assembling employees with the phrase “Smiles, everyone! Smiles!” As each visitor disembarked from the plane, Roarke would describe to Tattoo (or another assistant) the nature of their fantasy, usually with a cryptic comment, suggesting the person’s fantasy will not turn out as they expected. Roarke would then welcome his guests by lifting his glass and saying: “My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island.” This toast was usually followed with a warm smile, but sometimes — depending on the nature of a guest or their fantasy — his eyes would show concern or worry for a guest’s safety.

Mr. Roarke’s actual age is never made clear. In the pilot film, he comments how the guests who come to his island are “so mortal” and there are hints throughout the series that suggest Roarke may be immortal. In “Elizabeth”, a woman from Roarke’s past appears, but it is revealed that she died over 300 years ago. Other episodes suggests that he was friends with Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. Roarke is also shown to know many seemingly-immortal beings over his time on Earth, including ghosts (“The Ghost’s Story”), a genie (“A Genie Named Joe”), the mermaid Princess Nyah (“The Mermaid”, “The Mermaid Returns”, “The Mermaid and the Matchmaker”), the goddess Aphrodite (“Aphrodite”), and Uriel the Angel of Death (“The Angel’s Triangle”). In “The Devil and Mandy Breem” and “The Devil and Mr. Roarke”, Roarke even faces the devil (played by Roddy McDowall) who has come to the island to challenge him for either a guest’s immortal soul or his. It is mentioned this is not the first time that they have confronted each other and Mr. Roarke has always been the winner. In the second story, the devil was one of the island’s guests, claiming that he was only there to relax and had no interest in Roarke’s soul at the time. However, this turned out to be yet another ruse.

Roarke had a strong moral code, and he was always merciful. He usually tried to teach his guests important life lessons through the medium of their fantasies, frequently in a manner that exposes the errors of their ways, and on occasions when the island hosted terminally ill guests he would allow them to live out one last wish. Roarke’s fantasies were not without peril, but the greatest danger usually came from the guests themselves. In some cases, people were killed due to their own negligence, aggression or arrogance. When necessary, Roarke would directly intervene when the fantasy became dangerous to the guest:

In one episode when Tattoo was given his own fantasy as a birthday gift, which ended up with him being chased by hostile natives in canoes, Mr. Roarke suddenly appeared in a motorboat, snared Tattoo’s canoe with a grappling hook and towed it away at high speed to help him escape.

In the 1979 episode “The Mermaid; The Victim”, a female guest seeking to fall in love with her dream man ends up as one of his sex slaves. When she and her fellow slaves managed to get free, they are saved by Mr. Roarke and Tattoo who have arrived with the police who then arrest the two men responsible.
In the 1980 episode “With Affection, Jack the Ripper; Gigolo”, a female guest intent on researching Jack the Ripper’s crimes was sent back in time to that of 1888 London and would have become one of the Ripper’s victims had not Mr. Roarke physically intervened.

With only a few exceptions, Roarke always made it quite clear that he was powerless to stop a fantasy once it had begun and that the guests must play them out to their conclusion.

In later seasons, there were often supernatural overtones. Roarke also seemed to have his own supernatural powers of some sort (called the “Gift of the McNabs” in “Delphine”), although it was never explained how this came to be. In the episodes “Reprisal” and “The Power” he temporarily gave the guest psychokinetic abilities and in “Terrors of the Mind” the power to see into the future. In one episode, when a guest says “Thank God things worked out well”, Roarke and Tattoo share an odd look and Roarke says in a cryptic way “Thank God, indeed.” In the same episode, Roarke uses some mysterious powers to help Tattoo with his magic act. Ricardo Montalbán would claim in interviews that he had a definite opinion in mind regarding the mystery of Mr. Roarke, and how he accomplished his fantasies, but he would never publicly state what it was. Years after the series was off the air, in an interview with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Montalbán finally revealed that his motivation was imagining Roarke as a fallen angel whose sin was pride and that Fantasy Island was Purgatory.

Each episode would alternate between two or three independent storylines as the guests experienced their fantasies and interacted with Roarke. When reruns of the series went into syndication, a half-hour version was offered, in which each hour-long original show was split to two separate half-hour shows in which only one guest’s story was told in each half-hour episode. This made it obvious that the original episodes had been planned in such a way that each guest or family got off the plane separately, did not interact with the other guest or family, and was given almost exactly half the time of the original episode.

Often the fantasies would turn out to be morality lessons for the guests, sometimes to the point of (apparently) putting their lives at risk, only to have Roarke step in at the last minute and reveal the deception. For example, one episode featured a couple who clamored for the “good old days” being taken back to the Salem witch trials. It is mentioned a few times that a condition of visiting Fantasy Island is that guests never reveal what goes on there. A small number of guests decided to make the irrevocable choice to stay permanently, living out their fantasy until death; one such person was an actor who had been in a Tarzan-type television series called “Jungle Man” in the 1960s. Aside from a clip show (“Remember…When?”) the only episode with a single storyline was “The Wedding”, in which terminally ill Helena Marsh (Samantha Eggar) returned to Fantasy Island to spend her last days as Roarke’s wife.

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