Good looks, manners and a wealth of talent help propel Rutgers grad to stardom



After stints as Prince Charming and martial arts hero Kung Lao, and official inclusion among the world's "most beautiful people," Jersey City's Paolo Montalban undertook his toughest change of pace.

In "American Adobo," opening Friday, the young Filipino-American actor plays a young Filipino-American. What will those crazy casting directors want next?

"I was a little afraid," admits Montalban, flashing the blinding grin of a born matinee idol.

It wasn't just the prospect of playing a "Pinoy" -- as writer- producer Vincent Nebrida says the Philippines-born are known -- but that the "Fil-Am" Raul in "American Adobo" is a promiscuous rat far removed from Montalban's reality and repertoire.

An "adobo" is a Philippines-style jambalaya. Raul is the least digestible ingredient in director Laurice Guillen's flavorful comedy-drama.

"I went to an all-boy Jesuit school in Jersey City," he confesses. "Everything I am comes from that."

The Manila-born St. Peter's Prep grad was aware that the world would be watching, including his toughest critic -- his mother. She'd been a bit dubious about his acting plans from the start.

"Acting isn't considered a serious source of livelihood in our culture," Vivian Montalban gently explains in a call from her East Brunswick home. She and Montalban's father both found U.S. success as computer programmers.

Worse yet, horny Raul isn't quite the polite "role model" she sees as her son's forte.

"This (role) is a little bit rude," she says discreetly, "not something for kids to look up to."

Montalban takes the point in good spirit.

"It was fun playing a bad guy," he says. "It makes up for my Jesuit years."

In person, Montalban turns a Manhattan hotel suite into a showcase for his upbringing. It's hard to imagine that even bad nerves could break through his courtly manner.

But producer Nebrida, also by phone, reveals that things were different on the set.

"Paolo was nervous," he says with a laugh. "He'd only done romantic heroes on screen. Now he's playing a repulsive jerk, or at least one with a repulsive side. The crew laughed because he was so new and shy. We called him a screen virgin."

The 27-year-old actor's first day of shooting involved a shower scene with actresses "used to soft-porn movies. He didn't know whether to touch them or what. They had to show him."

Defending his desperado credentials, Montalban points out that he made his professional debut as a sex fiend.

"I was one of the muleteers in the tour of 'Man of La Mancha', " he says. "I was a singing rapist. I sing the song 'Little Bird' while I'm raping Dulcinea."

Fresh out of high school, Montalban ravaged Dulcinea "in all the 48 contiguous states and Alaska."

It was a privileged debut, though the 18-year-old "was too innocent to know it."

Obstacles had meant little to him since his mom had tried to talk the high school freshman out of trying for the title role in "Oliver."

Vivian laughingly recalls: "I said 'Oliver's not supposed to be brown.' Paolo just didn't let that bother him."

Dickens' orphan became the first of his numerous star roles in school.

The actor looks back fondly on his Jersey City years. He, his sister (now an East Brunswick dentist) and their parents lived in a cozy "Fil-Am" enclave, but were hardly closed off from the wider world.

Montalban recalls no ethnic tensions or turf wars during his youth. The chances are that these wouldn't have upset him any more than the casting challenges he undertook from "Oliver" onward.

Putting his acting aspirations on hold, Montalban enrolled upon graduation in pre-med studies at Rutgers in New Brunswick.

"Burned out" from two years of maximum-intensity study, he shifted his major to psychology and invested his extra time in campus cabaret.

His luck held good. A New York agent visiting to audition actors from the Mason Gross professional performing arts school took Montalban under his wing instead. "Man of La Mancha" followed almost instantly.

"After that," Vivian Montalban says, "he learned more about show business ups and downs."

Montalban jokingly assumes that casting directors often thought, upon seeing him, "Hurrah, an ethnic!" But an Asian-Hispanic heritage proved a mixed blessing in film work.

"Half the time I'd be told I wasn't Asian enough for Asian parts or Hispanic enough for Hispanic ones," he says bemusedly. "I was an in-between."

In between proved pure enough for Disney when it cast Montalban alongside Whitney Houston and Brandy in the 1997 ABC-TV musical "Cinderella."

"It was their first try at color-blind casting," Montalban proudly records of his Prince Charming.

The following year he made a handsome impression as heroic Kung Lao in the syndicated series "Mortal Kombat."

"There's still talk of reviving it," he adds.

Montalban's least expected coup was inclusion in People Magazine's 1998 list of the "World's 50 Most Beautiful People."

"All my friends teased me about it," he says with unaffected embarrassment. "I still don't really believe it."

When writer-director Nebrida set about raising funds for "American Adobo," he recalled "knowing and liking Paolo's work."

And he's happy with the outcome. Even Vivian admits that this comedy-drama, the first film about "Fil-Am" daily life, is "true to its form."

As "American Adobo" enters release, Montalban continues acting in the road version of "Cinderella," prepping a March stand in "The King and I" at Millburn's Paper Mill Playhouse and fending off questions about whether he's related to Ricardo Montalban. (He isn't)

"Maybe someday," he cheerily suggests, "they'll be asking him if he's related to me."