‘Fantasy Island’ returns, now with a Ms. Roarke

By Max Gao

More than 37 years after Ricardo Montalbán finished his run as Mr. Roarke, the debonair concierge of an enigmatic, wish-fulfilling beach resort in the Pacific Ocean, “Fantasy Island” is returning once more to network television.

But this time, the latest iteration, which comes a year after a horror film adaptation was widely panned by critics, arrives on Fox with women on both sides of the camera.

Created by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, the new “Fantasy Island” premieres Tuesday. It centers on Elena Roarke (played by Roselyn Sánchez), a grandniece of Montalbán’s Mr. Roarke who has left her life in New York behind to become the sophisticated steward of the island, where she sates her guests’ greatest desires but teaches them that what they want isn’t necessarily what they need.

“Elena was a regular woman studying neurobiology, madly in love, engaged to get married. She didn’t want the responsibility; she just wanted to have a normal life,” Sánchez said in a recent interview. “But the last name and the legacy is bigger than her.”

The original “Fantasy Island” ran for seven seasons from 1978 to 1984 on ABC, making, as Sánchez put it, “wish fulfillment a cultural phenomenon.” A 1998 revival, starring Malcolm McDowell as the new Mr. Roarke, lasted only one season. Another reboot attempt, in 2018, never made it past the development stage.

Then last summer, Sony Pictures Television executives approached Fox with the intention of finding a fresh take. They eventually bought a pitch from Craft and Fain, longtime writing and producing partners best known for their work on “Angel,” “The Shield” and “Lie to Me.”

“It was definitely an intimidating notion, because we did watch ‘Fantasy Island’ as kids and we have such strong memories of sitting in our respective houses and watching Mr. Roarke and his sidekick, Tattoo [played by Hervé Villechaize],” said Fain, who serves as a showrunner with Craft. “But we loved the show so much that it very quickly felt like a really incredible opportunity.”

In Sánchez, Craft said, the creators found someone who had the perfect combination of “humor, warmth, compassion and natural authority.” For the Puerto Rican actress, the show, which was shot on the island, offered a chance to reunite with relatives and many of the same crew members she had worked with at the start of her career.

The production also gave Puerto Rico a financial boost as the island continues to recover from a string of natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing more than $54 million to its economy in the past three months. “It’s really important to the island, to them and to me,” said Sánchez, who opted to postpone her directorial feature debut in favor of shooting the 10-episode first season of “Fantasy Island” in her homeland.

In a phone interview from Puerto Rico, Sánchez, who is best known for her work in “Without a Trace” and “Devious Maids,” talked about the pressure that comes with stepping into the shoes — and iconic white suit — of Montalbán, and Latino representation in Hollywood. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: In promotional videos you mentioned that you were a fan of the original. What are your most vivid memories of watching the show as a girl in Puerto Rico?

A: We had it in Spanish here. I was born in 1973, and the show was in the ’70s, so I was very young. But that moment of the Tattoo character ringing the bell and saying, “El avión, el avión” [“The plane, the plane”] is very vivid.

You have to understand that Ricardo Montalbán, for Latinos, he was like royalty. Just the fact that he was a leading man carrying his own show, and he did it so well, and it was so successful. Having the opportunity to portray pretty much that character and continue the Roarke legacy, it’s a dream, and I do recognize it’s a responsibility. But it’s one that I’m embracing with all my heart, and I hope people enjoy me as much as they enjoy him.

Q: How does this new iteration pay homage to the original while also carving out its own identity?

A: The premise is very much the same. It’s about wish fulfillment; it’s about growing as a human being; it’s about making dreams come true. Guests come to the island — they have a desire, they have a dream, whatever it is — then the island helps them navigate through a journey that has magic and can fulfill them.

But the fact that the lead role is a female, that’s a testament to how the showrunners wanted to do something that is a little more current. Directors, a lot of heads of departments, showrunners — they’re all female, behind the camera and in front of the camera. They took some creative liberties that are going to elevate the material, especially the fact that you have minorities in charge as leads. It’s keeping up with the current times.

Q: Why is now the right time for another adaptation of “Fantasy Island”? What sets this one apart from its predecessors?

A: Because of everything that is going on in the world right now. The world — especially in the United States — is in such an in-between, gray area right now, and I think people are looking for escapism, things that are positive. You want to still see blue skies, and you want to see hope for the future. I think people want to see minorities. Inclusivity is a very important topic nowadays, and we, all these different ethnicities that are so underrepresented, are fighting hard.

Q: There are very few Latino-led shows on television. How do you think that should be addressed?

A: We need more Latino executives in power. If we’re not represented, then we can’t expect that we are going to see our faces out there. Latinos also need to show up. We need the Latino eyeballs when we are actually putting our products out there. It needs to be an overwhelming amount of eyeballs that support it. If the Latinos don’t support it, then that’s the perfect excuse for the executives to say, “You know, we tried, it didn’t work.” So there’s a combination of so many things that need to line up.

When it comes to the Latino ethnicity, it’s a run of ethnicities, and we are falling behind. I don’t know exactly why that’s happening. There’s a lot of African American representation. Asians are becoming really powerful within the industry because they support their stuff, and their content is phenomenal. Latinos, we have the talent, we have the desire, we have the purchasing power. We can do this. We just need the break, we need the right content, and hopefully, it will change.

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