John Gabriel Rodriguez
Rodriquez at the seaplane
Fantasy Island is open for business again. and, again, this arcane tropical paradise is putting its unwitting guests through the psychological wringer.
"We call the island 'extreme therapy,'" says Sarah Fain, who partnered with Liz Craft for Fox's reboot of the Fantasy Island confection as writers, executive producers and showrunners.
The original drama series, which ran on ABC from 1977 to '84, featured Mexican-born Ricardo Montalbán as Mr. Roarke, the debonair, enigmatic steward of a mystical tropical island where visitors paid to live out their wildest fantasies. Little did they suspect that the island had something else in mind. The gist of it: be careful what you wish for.
Most guests were forced to see the error in their ways. Many left transformed and renewed by their fantasy ordeal. Often the morality plays veered into ominous, supernatural and even deadly territory.
Some examples: a woman longs to date her so-called dream man, only to end up his sex slave. A couple wishes to time-travel back to the "good old days," but they land in Salem, Massachusetts, at the height of the witch trials. A soap-opera actress (played by All My Children's Susan Lucci) is determined to stop her evil television character/doppelgänger from coming to life.
The new series — which kicked off 13 one-hour episodes on August 10 — steers away from such darker, twisted scenarios. But it stays with the premise of the island as a wellspring for change.
Fain and Craft, who were "huge fans" of the original, say they've given it a makeover, bringing a lighter, more humorous touch to contemporary (and perhaps more relatable) stories that still demand the guests do some serious soul-searching. "Always there's hope. Whatever the fantasy is. Whatever direction it goes in. It always ends with hope," says Craft, who feels this is the right tone for a pandemic-weary audience craving reminders of life's possibilities.
Key to their new approach is a gender switch. Roselyn Sanchez, a Puerto Rican–born actress known for Without a Trace and Devious Maids, plays Elena Roarke, Mr. Roarke's grand-niece, thereby preserving the tradition of a Latin actor anchoring the show.
"We were mindful of the Roarke lineage," Fain says, and of Montalbán's prestige among Latinx viewers. He was revered as one of Hollywood's first Latinx leading men. "We knew there were big shoes to fill," Craft adds, "and that we had to cast someone we felt could be as charming and charismatic as Ricardo Montalbán."
"One of the reasons that we loved Roselyn," Fain says, "is that she embodies, in so many ways, strength. And she is also hilarious . She's smart. Obviously, she looks like Roselyn Sanchez. She has elegance and a natural authority." Also key: she looks good in white. Mr. Roarke was always smartly turned out in his iconic white suit. Ms. Roarke is similarly partial to sleek, modern white outfits.
At the same time, there are notable differences. Mr. Roarke was exceedingly suave and inscrutable, and viewers never knew whether he called the shots or if the island itself set the terms for each fantasy. Some critics hypothesized that he wasn't even human. There is no doubt, however, that Ms. Roarke is flesh and blood. Over the course of the first season, the writers peel away the layers of her backstory while establishing that any power or magic she wields is derived from the island's spirit.
"She is a conduit," says Sanchez, who was thrilled to follow in Montalbán's legacy and show viewers "another side of the Roarke family." She says, "I wanted to portray Roarke with warmth and humor, and more than anything she needs a lot of humanity. Because she needs to guide these people through incredible experiences where the outcome is unknown."
Those people include a terminally ill 75-year-old named Ruby Okoro who, in the first episode, arrives yearning for one last youthful romp with her husband before she dies. The island restores the couple to their 20-something selves. "But, of course," says Kiara Barnes (The Bold and the Beautiful), who plays young Ruby, "the island will always give you more than you asked for."
Bending to its will, she remains on the island and becomes Elena's young and healthy assistant (retaining the maturity of her 75 years). Her husband, however, must return home without her.
For executive producer Adam Kane, who directed the first two episodes, "Kiara embodies the kind of old soul that we were looking for. She's so comfortable in her skin and so at ease with the character that she's chosen to inhabit. It's just been a pleasure to be able to discover this young actor and bring her into her first [primetime] dramatic series."
Javier, the pilot who flies the guests in, is also susceptible to Elena's charms. Played by John Gabriel Rodriquez (Miranda's Rights, Rosewood), he is approachable and likewise no slouch in the looks department.
"Javier is this rugged, handsome and huggy guy," Sanchez says, which makes it tough for Elena to keep her distance. "She left the love of her life to become the steward of this island. She still has needs. She's a woman. Her relationship with Javier is flirtatious, but they don't want to cross lines."
On his first read of the script, Rodriquez knew he'd found a match. "It fit my personality," says the actor, who describes his character as an ex-military jack of all trades who caters to the guests and enjoys bantering with Elena. "There's a genuine attraction, at least from my perspective," he says with a chuckle. "And I'm pretty sure she's attracted to Javier as well."
In the original series, currently streaming on Tubi, the opening title sequence reveals a seaplane coasting along a lush tropical coastline that suggests somewhere in the Pacific. Some footage was shot in Hawaii, but Mr. Roarke's office was actually a Victorian cottage nestled in the L.A. County Arboretum. The dock where he greets the guests was in a lagoon behind it. Most of the fantasies were filmed on a soundstage on what was then The Burbank Studios, owned by Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures.
This time the producers are having none of that smoke and mirrors. They're bringing the series to life on the authentically lush tropical island of Puerto Rico. "Especially right now with Covid, with people in some places unable to travel and even see their own friends and family," Kane says, "we thought it was really important for people to escape into an hour of television."
He says shooting in PR made his job easier in many ways. "We are not stuck on a soundstage trying to fabricate the view out the window." Nor have they needed to build many sets. "One of the awesome things about this place," he says, is that "you can open the window or the door and look out and see the beach."
The production is based conveniently close to the picturesque, colonial-style capital of San Juan. "Set down camera, point and shoot," he says. "It's so stunning there. You get a lot for free." Perhaps the biggest challenge was locating the right shoreline, with favorable wind and current patterns, to build a dock for the seaplane.
Similarly, the local TV and film industry has embraced the production. "My experience is that the crews and people there are so passionate about filmmaking, like I am," Kane says. Sanchez, who launched her career there, says, "Even though it's a very small island, there is a lot of talent."
Probably 50 percent of the actors appearing in this Fantasy Island hail from PR, including Daniel Lugo, a prominent telenovela actor who serves as the metaphorical and literal caretaker of the island. All of which may bode well for attracting a strong Latinx viewership. "I hope we do draw that audience," Craft says.
This is not the first time Fantasy Island has been reimagined. There was a one-season reboot that aired in 1998 and a horror film adaptation two years ago. Neither achieved the popularity of the original series, whose beloved status can also be attributed to Mr. Roarke's diminutive sidekick, Tattoo.
Played by French-American actor Hervé Villechaize, Tattoo delivered comic relief and the show's most iconic line; he'd run up the belltower at the start of each episode to announce the arrival of new guests. "Ze plane! Ze plane!" he'd shout, ringing the bell.
Barnes, who steps into the assistant role, was too young to have caught the original but recently learned that her parents were big fans.
Likewise, Rodriquez says, his Mexican father "was ecstatic when he heard that I booked the show." Kane, on the other hand, watched the original series religiously. His father — composer, conductor and pianist Artie Kane — worked on its main title theme as a background musician. "I joked that it would be a legacy appointment for me," Kane says. "He had a big laugh about it."
Craft and Fain also retain strong memories of soaking up each new episode on Saturday nights. They haven't felt shy about lifting some of the zanier story devices, including body swapping and invisible people. However, Fain says, "We wanted to start with a clean slate and make the show that we thought it should be and would be most meaningful today." She adds, "During the pandemic, we all felt our world shrink."
As a result, they've leaned into aspirational, escapist and transformative stories. They frame each fantasy from the standpoint of what the guest wants versus what the guest needs.
The first season, for example, includes a morning news host who's been restricting her calories for years. Not surprising, since viewers note her slightest weight gain and shamelessly troll her on social media. The anchor, played by Bellamy Young (Scandal, Prodigal Son), just wants "to eat and eat and eat and not gain weight," Fain says. "Which is a fantasy that many people can relate to."
However, nothing that happens on the island is ever quite that rosy or straightforward. It can feel like "we've fallen into the rabbit hole of The Twilight Zone ," Kane says, "where the world is a little hyperreal, a little magical."
Seasoned collaborators, Craft and Fain have been telling stories together since they were 15. They attended the same high school. They had the same teachers. They read the same books.
"So I think we did develop a similar sensibility," Craft says, which later led to opportunities to write for shows including The Shield, Angel, The Vampire Diaries, Lie to Me and The 100. "We both love approaching stories from the point of view of the characters," Fain says. "And as we're telling stories," Craft adds, "we always want to subvert expectations" and incorporate unexpected twists and turns.
Hence, one episode time-travels to 1960s Havana. "Another," Fain says, "is a queer romance set in the 1860s. We haven't yet figured out how to do a Western in PR. But that is a nut we're going to crack."
Aaron Spelling and producing partner Leonard Goldberg, both deceased, said in separate interviews with the Television Academy Foundation that they invented Fantasy Island during a frustrating network pitch meeting.
Spelling recalled that after six show concepts had been shot down, he joked, "What do you want? This great island that people can go to and all of their sexual fantasies will be realized?"
Goldberg, meanwhile, said it was his idea: "I was looking out the window, and I was caught by the ABC vice-president of programming, who said, 'Are we boring you? ... Where would you rather be?' I said, 'I'd rather be on a desert island with Charlie's Angels.' The room stopped."
No matter whose idea it was, audiences embraced it. Craft and Fain are banking that people still want to clamber aboard that seaplane.
"When you see that plane fly through the sky," Craft says, "still today, it gets my blood pumping. I want to know: what fantasy is coming today?"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021
For more stories celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, click HERE