Copyright © 1998-2009 by Bill Cotter
One of the more enduring heroes of modern literature and film has been Robin Hood, who has become famous for "stealing from the rich and giving to the poor". The Robin Hood legend, one of a skilled fighter who strives to overcome the unfair oppression of the people by a tyrant, is an easy one for fans to identify with. It's not surprising that there have been several variations on this theme, with one of the most successful being Zorro.
Zorro, which is Spanish for "fox", is the story of a masked rider who battles the unjust rulers of the pueblo of Los Angeles during the days of Spanish rule. His real identity is that of Don Diego de la Vega, the son of a wealthy landowner. Diego returns from his studies in Spain and discovers that Los Angeles is under the command of Capitan Monastario, a cruel man who relishes in the misuse of his power for personal gain. Knowing that he cannot hope to single-handedly defeat Monastario and his troops, Diego resorts to subterfuge. He adopts the secret identity of Zorro, a sinister figure dressed in black, and rides to fight Monastario's injustice. Zorro was created in 1919 by writer Johnston McCulley. The first Zorro story, The Curse of Capistrano, appeared that year in All-Star Weekly, which became Argosy magazine. More than 65 Zorro books and short stories were to follow, with an estimated 500 million readers around the world following in the masked avenger's exploits in 26 languages before McCulley's death on November 22, 1958 at age 75.
With that sort of reader interest, it was inevitable that the Zorro story be made into a film. In fact, there have been many filmed versions, beginning with Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s portrayal of Zorro in the 1920 silent production The Mark of Zorro. Tyrone Power scored a huge hit with a 1940 remake of that film, and several other Zorro films and serials were also produced over the years.
In 1950, Johnston McCulley assigned the film and television rights to Zorro to Mitchell Gertz, a Hollywood agent. Gertz tried for several years to find the financing to produce a Zorro series, but to no avail. Then, in 1952, Walt Disney became involved in the Zorro legend when he was looking for a source of financing for his new theme park. He used his private research company, WED Enterprises, to license the rights to the Zorro stories from Gertz, planning to produce a number of episodes and use the resulting profits for developing the Park. At first, Walt tried to sell the show to anyone who was interested, but when the networks insisted on a pilot episode and he refused, work was halted on the project. The industry trade papers carried several stories in 1954 speculating that Zorro would be part of the packaging for ABC's investment in the Park, but the network instead settled on the Disneyland anthology series, and it looked like the Zorro project was dead. However, when Walt later needed a new series to offer to ABC in exchange for more money for the Park, the Zorro series was reborn.
By this time, the Disney name was a proven ratings draw, and no pilot was needed. Walt immediately set to work on a search for someone to play Zorro, knowing full well that whoever he picked, comparisons to Tyrone Power were inevitable. This was a much sought after role, for Disney's success with Davy Crockett was not lost on a host of other actors who could only dream of being the Studio's next Fess Parker. More than 20 actors were tested for the part, including Hugh O'Brian, John Lupton, Jack Kelly, Dennis Weaver and David Janssen. On April 18, 1957, the Studio held a screen test for a relatively unknown actor, Guy Williams. When Walt saw the results, he knew he had found his Zorro.
Guy Williams, whose real name was Armando Catalano, was born on January 14, 1924 in New York. After school, he worked as a male model and came to the attention of MGM and then Universal-International Studios, who put him under contract in 1952. Although he appeared in films such as Bonzo Goes to College, Mississippi Gambler, Seven Angry Men, Sincerely Yours, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Last Frontier and Man From the Alamo, Williams' parts were relatively small and it looked like his hopes of becoming a leading man were in vain. By the time Disney found the 6'3" actor, Williams was almost ready to give up his acting career. Luckily for Williams, he was auditioned for the role of Zorro, and to his astonishment, he found himself the star of a network series.
Throughout his exploits, Diego could always count on the assistance of his faithful manservant, Bernardo. Bernardo, who was mute, decided to help Diego by pretending to be deaf as well. This allowed Bernardo to secretly listen in on conversations and report back to Diego. Bernardo also came to the rescue several times by dressing as Zorro, which allowed Diego to be seen in the same place as Zorro, thereby eliminating suspicion that he might be the masked avenger.
Bernardo was played by Gene Sheldon, who brought his past experience as a pantomimist to his portrayal of the silent servant. A versatile performer with experience in radio, vaudeville, Broadway and films, Sheldon was signed to a long- term contract for Zorro which eventually led to several other films for the Studio.
Another important character was Sergeant Garcia, the second-in-command of the pueblo. Garcia was a fairly comedic character, due in part to his rotund physique. He provided a welcome relief to the sinister commanders of the garrison, and as the series progressed, he developed a certain kinship with Zorro. While he tried his best to be a good soldier, Garcia could always be counted on to let his voracious appetite or appreciation of liquor to get the best of him. The villains in the series took note of this, and Garcia accidentally would become a problem to Zorro over and over again.
Garcia was played by Henry Calvin, whose real name was Wimberly Calvin Goodman. Calvin, a native of Dallas, had performed on Broadway in Kismet and several other plays, and he had hosted his own radio series on NBC in 1950. The 6'2" actor weighed in at an impressive 340 pounds, and needed to use a special razor to maintain Garcia's stubbly beard.
Completing the regular characters on the series was Don Alejandro de la Vega, Diego's father. Alejandro was one of the wealthiest and most prominent of the citizens of Los Angeles, and many of the local peasants and landowners turned to him for help and guidance. It was Alejandro who first summoned Diego back home to help stop the evil Monastario in his quest for power, thereby inadvertently beginning Zorro's career. For most of the series, Alejandro didn't know that Diego was secretly Zorro, and his son's apparent cowardice caused friction within the family.
The part of Don Alejandro was played by veteran character actor George J. Lewis. Interestingly enough, Lewis had once donned a Zorro costume himself! He co-starred in the 12-part Republic Pictures serial Zorro's Black Whip (1944), which starred Linda Stirling as Barbara Meredith. When her crime fighting brother died, Barbara took on the role of the "Black Whip", a successor to Zorro. At one point, Lewis, who was cast as her boyfriend, donned the outlaw's costume to protect her secret.
Besides his distinctive black costume and skill with his sword, Zorro relied on his trusty horse, Tornado, to aid in him in his battles. Tornado was played by Diamond Decorator, a seven-year-old quarter horse, with three stand-ins used to perform the horse's various stunts. One horse specialized in Tornado's dramatic rearing, as seen in the opening credits, one was used in fight scenes and the third for high-speed running.
While casting was underway, the Studio was also working on the logistics of turning back the clock to the early days of Los Angeles. In June 1955, workers started building the series' permanent sets, which included the buildings of the Pueblo La Reina de Los Angeles and the soldier's cuartel, or stockade. These were the Studio's first permanent sets, and cost more than $100,000 to construct. Disney also spent $35,000 on furnishings and $30,000 on additional props, helping to bring the pre-production costs to a total of $208,000. All of this was expensive, but the quality was obvious on the screen, helping to set the mood for the masked adventurer's heroics.
While the costs to get ready for the series were high, so were the costs for each episode. Disney set a budget of between $50,000 and $100,000 for each 30-minute show, and the first season of 39 episodes was to eventually cost $3,198,000. When Disney was studying the television marketplace in 1950, the average cost for a 1-hour drama series was only $13,840 - and here was Walt spending an average for $82,000 for a show only half as long. Once again, Walt was setting his own standards.
Even with these lofty budgets, Disney did try to contain costs where it wouldn't show on the air. One method was to shoot portions of up to four episodes at the same time if they used common sets. Guy Williams commented at the time that "(It's) a little confusing at times. Not remembering the dialogue, but remembering what led up to it. Sometimes I'm real blank and we have to go back and read scenes we've already filmed."
Williams also had to deal with a rigorous training schedule designed to turn the former model into a dashing hero. Although he had previously done some fencing, it was decided that Williams needed some intensive brushup work if he was to be convincing on the screen. The Studio hired Fred Cavens, the fencing coach who had earlier coached Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Tyrone Power for their Zorro outings, to tutor Williams and the rest of the cast.There were other lessons to attend besides the fencing sessions. The part of Don Diego called for Williams to play the guitar as he serenaded young seņoritas, but unfortunately, Williams could neither play the guitar nor sing. Despite a series of lessons from guitar instructor Vicente Gomez, Williams never mastered the skills required and his singing was dubbed by Bill Lee, who was also one of the singers of the series' theme song..
In addition to Don Diego's love songs, music played an important part throughout the series. Composer William Lava wrote a different musical theme for each of the show's main characters, similar to the technique used in Peter and the Wolf. These brief themes were played when the characters were on the screen, and they helped to set the mode for the action to follow. When the bumbling Sergeant Garcia entered a scene, for example, a lively piece of music in the background foreshadowed the events to come.
The most important piece of music, though, was the series' theme song. A relatively short
song, it would become one of the best known television themes of all time. It was written
by Norman Foster (words) and George Bruns (music). Out of the night, Soon, people across the country were singing along, and not long after the show
debuted, the first of many recordings of the theme appeared on the market. While it might
have been expected that the quartet who sang the song for the series (Thurl Ravenscroft,
Bill Lee, Bob Stevens and Max Smith) might have had the honor of being first on the
market, it was actually Henry Calvin who rushed out the first version. Many other versions
followed, but the most popular was that of the Chordettes, quickly climbing into the Top
20. All together, more than 1,000,000 copies of the theme were sold during the two year
run of the series.
Out of the night,
Soon, people across the country were singing along, and not long after the show debuted, the first of many recordings of the theme appeared on the market. While it might have been expected that the quartet who sang the song for the series (Thurl Ravenscroft, Bill Lee, Bob Stevens and Max Smith) might have had the honor of being first on the market, it was actually Henry Calvin who rushed out the first version. Many other versions followed, but the most popular was that of the Chordettes, quickly climbing into the Top 20. All together, more than 1,000,000 copies of the theme were sold during the two year run of the series.
As soon as Zorro hit the air, children began imitating their new hero, pretending they were master swordsmen and scrawling "Z's" everywhere one looked. This juvenile vandalism was far reaching - a popular news story of the time told how Williams discovered a large "Z" scratched into the paint on his new car.
The new fans also began dressing the part, and the Studio had foreseen just this possibility. Disney had already lined up a number of merchandise licensees, and Zorro costumes, swords and bullwhips quickly soared to the top of many a youngster's wish lists.
Guy Williams' contract called for him to receive 2.5% of any Zorro merchandise sales. Just as Fess Parker had enjoyed a financial windfall when Davy Crockett merchandise sales soared, Williams was to find this clause a very profitable one. Many of the licensees who had enjoyed success with Crockett and Mickey Mouse Club merchandise quickly signed up for Zorro contracts, with more than 500 items being licensed. Some of the largest licensees and their products were:
Please click here for a detailed look at the merchandise available over the years.
Zorro had two sponsors, the 7-Up soft drink company and the AC Spark Plug Division of General Motors. Walt had gone all out in his effort to obtain 7-Up's backing, including an appearance in a film made for the soft drink bottlers and their distributors. Cracking Zorro's whip for emphasis, Walt explained the premise of the series, using models of the as-of-yet unbuilt outdoor sets, as well as samples of the costumes. The sales pitch was successful and 7-Up agreed to participate in a series of joint promotions with Disney, not all tied in with Zorro. For example, Annette and Roberta Shore were seen promoting The Shaggy Dog with a toast of 7-Up.
Although there were two sponsors, each had wanted to be specifically identified with the series, so Disney took a unique approach. Instead of having commercials from both firms each week, the sponsors alternated weeks, with a brief word from "your alternate sponsor" making sure that each company shared in the weekly success.
Both firms used animated characters in their commercials. The most successful of these was 7-Up's Fresh- up Freddie, a feisty rooster in a Zorro costume. At first, Freddie didn't have a name, but when the show's popularity took off, the advertisers decided to take advantage of the attention and began promoting Freddie himself. Freddie became a celebrity in his own right, receiving fan mail, and stuffed dolls were made available. 7-Up sponsored a monthly Zorro Newsletter for dealers, with a circulation of 10,000 copies per month, often featuring a Freddie doll in publicity photos with the stars of the series.
Almost forgotten today are the AC characters, Alan Cranbroke and Cynthia Aldrich. This animated couple was joined by live spokesperson Gordon Mills, who settled their domestic arguments and just happened to throw in a mention of AC's products in the process.
Just as Fess Parker and the Mouseketeers toured the country to promote their shows, Guy Williams saddled up to promote Zorro. One of his most popular venues was rodeos, where he received $2,500 to ride around the arena dressed as Don Diego. Williams found that the public was fickle when he appeared as the Grand Marshal in the 1958 Portland Rose Parade. He refused to ride a horse down the parade route, stating that he never rode a horse if he didn't know it's temperament. He rode instead in a car, disappointing fans along the way. A local newspaper then printed a picture of a five-year old riding the horse, and an embarrassed Williams replied that he had refused over concerns about how the horse would react to the crowd, not over fear for his personal safety. Later, Williams was quoted as saying he was careful around horses as he had broken his shoulder trying to learn how to ride Tornado, but other articles placed the event back in 1953, well before he landed the role of Zorro. Luckily, Williams weathered this minor controversy and his popularity remained intact.
In typical Disney fashion, Walt also used the cast of Zorro in a very successful cross promotion with a series of live appearances at Disneyland. Large newspaper ads touted the appearance of Guy Williams, Henry Calvin, Gene Sheldon and Britt Lomond at the Park, with the first shows held April 26-27, 1958 and a second outing on May 30 to June 1. In addition to parades each day, the stars also appeared in four shows daily. Three of the shows featured a running battle between Zorro and Monastario on the rooftops of Frontierland, with his foes ending up in the river. The fourth show each day was held in Frontierland's "Magnolia Park", with Williams appearing as Don Diego. The reaction was so positive that a third series of appearances was held November 27-30 for Thanksgiving weekend, but without Lomond, who was unable to attend. Williams also returned to Disneyland for another series of personal appearances for Christmas 1958.
Zorro enjoyed a very successful season, averaging 35.7% of the viewing audience each evening, and an estimated 35 million viewers saw the show each week. Every series that went up against Zorro this year found itself canceled; on CBS, it was Harbor Master and Richard Diamond, and on NBC, You Bet Your Life.
The success of Zorro prompted the Studio to take a page from its Davy Crockett book. Portions of the first 13 Zorro episodes were edited into the feature film The Sign of Zorro, released overseas in 1958 and domestically in 1960. While the film only did moderate business domestically, it was another story overseas. The series had not yet aired there, and with new audiences ready for the adventures of Zorro, it achieved yet another success for Disney.
Having enjoyed a very successful first season, it was no surprise that Zorro was renewed for a second year. Like many other series, there would be a number of changes made in the look of the series to reflect viewer comments and economic realities. One of the first changes made was a move away from the first season's rigid format of using 13 episodes for each story. As story editor Lowell S. Hawley noted at the time "Now we play stories for what they're worth. If a writer has material enough for three, four or five episodes, we let it go at that." This allowed for a greater number of stories, but also helped to solve a problem common to serialized series. If a viewer were to miss one of the early episodes in one of the first season stories, it was possible that they would not want to jump into the storyline midway through. Breaking the season into a number of shorter stories made it easier for viewers to miss a week and still be able to understand what was going on when they next watched the show.
The Studio also made a casting change for the second year in the hopes of attracting more woman viewers. One of the criticisms of the first season was Don Diego's lack of interest in the opposite sex, for he was always more interested in chasing yet another villain than in chasing women. Actress Jolene Brand was hired for the part of Anna Maria Verdugo, a local wealthy seņorita. Anna Maria was set to appear in nine of the first 13 episodes, allowing the Studio to assess audience reaction without having to commit to hiring Brand for the entire season. Evidently she didn't make a major impact, for the character was dropped and Don Diego went back to being his unromantic self.
Another change came with a new opening sequence beginning with the January 22, 1959 episode. Instead of using a stock opening each week as had been done up to then, now each show used scenes from that week's episode in a bid to attract viewers who might be flipping channels and come across the show. Announcer Dick Tufeld provided narration for both the new opening scenes and for previews of next week's episode.
All of the changes proved successful, for the ratings increased and Zorro moved ahead to take 38.9% of the audience each evening. The year saw the cancellation of two more series on NBC, Ed Wynn and Steve Canyon, and Zorro steadily outdrew CBS' December Bride. Overall, Zorro knocked five of the seven series to face it off the air.
The Studio also released another theatrical compilation of several episodes. Zorro, The Avenger, was only released overseas, and was not seen in the United States until it was eventually aired on The Disney Channel.
One other interesting Disney footnote concerns several of the second season episodes. Like many other young women, Annette Funicello developed a crush on Guy Williams, but unlike all the others, she was able to fulfill her fantasy. As a present for her 16th birthday, Walt cast her in several episodes as Anita Cabrillo, a new arrival in the pueblo with a mysterious past.
Unfortunately, Zorro was to come up against a foe even he could not hope to defeat - the American legal system. Disney and ABC became locked in a bitter series of legal challenges over the ownership of the weekly anthology series, The Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro. Unable to come to terms, Walt decided to pull Zorro off the air, despite the high ratings the series was sure to receive if were to return for a third season.
While the legal maneuvers went on, Disney aired four hour-long Zorro episodes on the anthology series to help keep public interest alive in the character. Walt even used Annette Funicello again in one of them, The Postponed Wedding, in an effort to capitalize on her popularity. Walt also kept Williams on full salary for two years, but by the time the legal issues were finally settled out of court, Walt decided that the public had moved on to other fads and there would be no point in resurrecting Zorro.
Despite this decision, Disney retained the rights to Zorro, paying the Gertz estate $3,500 a year for the privilege. It wasn't until 1967 that the Studio finally relinquished their rights to Zorro.
Zorro later returned to the air in syndication, beginning with the 1965-66 season. The original network run of the series had attracted an estimated 35 million viewers, and the demographics had been high in the desired age groups, making it relatively easy for Disney to sell the show in the syndicated market.
Planning to keep costs to a minimum, the Studio split the stations into three sets of prints, "A", "B" and "C", which were then rotated between the stations. To do so, they had to drop the first two episodes, Presenting Seņor Zorro and Zorro's Secret Passage, as those stations that started with the "B" or "C" series of prints would have confused viewers if they had shown Zorro's origin part way through the season. The gap was filled by taking two episodes from the show's second season, Seņor China Boy and The Iron Box, and using them in the "A" set of shows. Other than this switch, the Studio needed to do very little work, for the first network season had been divided into three 13-part stories in the first place.
A total of 43 stations signed up for the series, which began airing September 8, 1965, and Disney joined them in promoting the series. In addition to traditional print and television advertising, the Studio was able to tout the series and be paid for it at the same time! They created a new character, "Little Zorro", and used him in the daily Mickey Mouse comic strip which appeared in more than 100 newspapers across the country.
The first year of syndication went well and Zorro returned for a second year in syndication in 1966. The two network second season episodes that had been used to fill out the first syndicated season were replaced by splitting one of the anthology Zorro episodes into two parts, and once again, the series was very profitable for the Studio. In fact, there was serious thought to starting production on new episodes, but a look at the costs involved soon quashed that idea.
After the last of the anthology Zorro episodes had aired, Walt lost interest in the character, and in 1967, the Studio decided not to renew its option and let the rights revert to the Gertz estate. With the syndicated run over, Zorro became just another canceled television series.
Following his role as Zorro, Guy Williams only appeared in one other Disney project, the television show The Prince and the Pauper. The Studio tried to find suitable film roles for Williams, but eventually decided not to renew his contract. After he left the Disney payroll, Williams worked in a number of film and television roles. For a time, he was slated to replace Pernell Roberts on Bonanza when Roberts left the series seeking his fame in the movies, and he appeared in several episodes to test the character. When that effort didn't work out, he worked sporadically until he was signed to star as Professor John Robinson in the science fiction series Lost in Space.
After several years of playing an increasingly diminishing role in that series, Williams left show business and Los Angeles. He had appeared in Argentina several years earlier to promote Zorro and had enjoyed the public attention and lifestyle there. He moved to Buenos Aires and bought property in the country, opening a cattle ranch. He rarely returned to the United States, although in 1975, it appeared that he might once again do so to don the Zorro mask. Press reports claimed Williams was to star in a new film, Grandson of Zorro, but the project never came to be.
In 1982, word circulated yet again that Williams was to play Zorro once more. The Studio was starting work on a comedy version, Zorro and Son, and they were very interested in getting Williams to reprise his role as Don Diego and Zorro. At first, Williams indicated that he was indeed interested, but when he saw the scripts, he quickly decided to back out of the project. Zorro and Son did go ahead, but without Williams, who had returned home to Buenos Aires.
It was there that Guy Williams died alone, sometime in late April or early May, 1989, at age 65. Neighbors noticed that they hadn't seen him for several days, and police found him dead of natural causes in his apartment. His passing received major coverage back in the U.S., for it seemingly marked the end of an era. Click here for several of the many obituaries that marked his passing.
Zorro wasn't finished yet, however. In addition to Zorro and Son, the masked avenger gained new audiences when the original episodes were screened repeatedly on The Disney Channel. After several runs in the original black-and-white format, the series gained a new generation of viewers when Disney successfully colorized the series, thereby making it more appealing to today's audiences. Thirty years after Zorro first rode to fight injustice, he continues to attract new fans, who once again love to make the "sign of the Z".