That Zorro, What A Guy

Guy Williams as "the Fox, so cunning and free"

You can have your Douglas Fairbanks, your Alain Delon, and your George Hamilton, too.  For my money, Zorro, the masked swashbuckler, will always be Guy Williams.

That’s because he’s also the Zorro I grew up with. Yes, whenever TV showed Tyrone Power “making the sign of the Z” in the 1940 film The Mark of Zorro, I tuned in.  Years later, Antonio Banderas’ turn as the legendary do-gooder in the Steven Spielberg-produced The Mask of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro were stylish and entertaining.

But Guy Williams in the Disney TV show was the Zorro that I came to know and love first.

The series ran for only two years, from 1957 to 1959. It was broadcast on ABC in prime time, but syndication and later airings on The Wonderful World of Disney made its run seem a lot longer.

Williams, a dashing New York-born actor whose real name was  Armando Catalano, had credits in supporting parts in such films as Bonzo Goes to College and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. A strapping presence at 6’3” with ethnic looks, Williams snagged the coveted role of the masked and caped Robin Hood-like figure who rode his horse Tornado as he  battled evil-doers in Spanish-occupied California in the 19th century. An expert swordsman and acrobat, Zorro’s real name was Don Diego de la Vega, the son of a wealthy land baron. With help from mute sidekick Bernardo (limned by show biz veteran Gene Sheldon), Zorro encountered the troops of Captain Monastario (Britt Lomond) in the first season, led by Sergeant Garcia, a cherubic comic villain portrayed by Henry Calvin.

Williams, who reportedly beat out David Janssen, Hugh O’Brien and Dennis Weaver for the part, partook in rigorous training for the role. There were fencing lessons, as well as guitar and singing lessons for the episodes in which he had to serenade the ladies. While Williams scored in the swordsmanship department, he didn’t take too kindly to the music instruction and found his voice dubbed for the singing sequences.

No matter, because The Adventures of Zorro, sponsored by both 7-Up and AC Spark Plugs, became an instant hit. The wise Williams (or at least his agent) allegedly cut a deal that gave him a percentage of the marketing money brought in from the series. Among the items were comic books, lunchboxes, watches, pajamas and Halloween costumes complete with black cowboy hat, mask and cape, which this author owned. Like Fess Parker with Davy Crockett, Guy Williams cashed in on the Disney TV show that made him a star.  After Zorro, Williams, who died in 1989 at the age of 65, is best-remembered as Professor John Robinson in the sci-fi series Lost in Space.

A dispute between ABC and Disney studios ended the series abruptly after only two years. The aforementioned syndication and airings on Disney’s own show helped to keep Zorro’s sword swashing and buckling for years, well into the 1960s. Viewed today, the series holds up quite well, with each 30-minute episode packed with colorful characters, complex plotting, intriguing conspiracies and solid production work.

All of them showcase Zorro—and Williams—in his glory, as adept at costume changes as Clark Kent, as proficient at swordplay as Robin Hood and as heroic as Fairbanks, Power, Banderas, et al.—if not even more so.

Included in the recently issued DVDs Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro: The Complete First Season and Walt Disney Treasures: Zorro: The Complete Second Season are some interesting bonus material. Along with a Zorro pin, lithograph and certificate, there are four rare special hour-long shows that ran on the Disneyland TV series in 1960 and 1961, one of which even features singing Disney star Annette Funicello.