Before it became a long-running original television show, Fantasy Island was introduced to viewers in 1977 through two highly-rated made-for-television films in which Mr. Roarke and Tattoo played relatively minor roles. 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 "The plane! The 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 show's credits, became an unlikely catchphrase because of Villechaize's spirited delivery and French accent (he actually pronounced it, "Ze plane! Ze plane!"). In later seasons, he would arrive in his personal go-kart, sized for him, and recklessly driven to join Roarke for the visitor reception while staff scrambled to get out of his way. From 1980 to 1982, Wendy Schaal joined the cast as another assistant named Julie. In a highly unpopular move with both fans and the cast, the producers fired 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. Lawrence's personality was exactly the opposite of Tattoo's in many ways. For instance, Lawrence was also responsible for the bell ringing, but instead of climbing to the tower he simply pushed a button outside to have the bell ring automatically.
The actual aircraft used in the series, a Grumman Widgeon seaplane, was rented from a local charter company and almost all of the footage of the plane used throughout the series and films was shot in one day and recycled over the entire run. It is speculated that Tattoo never actually saw the plane; during the filming of the actual episodes, the guests climbed out of a paper-mache and plywood mock-up of the back of the plane. It is sometimes apparent that that number of people could not have all arrived in the plane at the same time. For example in one episode, seven adults and two children come out of the six-seat seaplane. In another episode, there is a sizable pile of luggage on the dock which viewers are to believe came out of the plane.
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.
Roarke's personal vehicle was an orange Dodge Aspen station wagon with a Safari top with the stance of a modern-day sport utility vehicle.
In the early seasons, it was noted that each guest had paid $50,000 in advance for the fulfillment of their fantasies and that Fantasy Island was a business. Later, it became clear that the price a guest paid was substantial to him or her, and for one little girl whose father was one of Roarke's guests, she had emptied her piggy bank—less than ten dollars—to have her fantasy about her father fulfilled.