Copyright © 1998-2013 by Bill Cotter
The Story of Zorro
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.
Walt becomes interested in Zorro
Happily, as events unfolded, the Zorro series proved later to be a viable project despite this early setback. Walt had continued working on the Disneyland theme park project, and eventually reached an agreement with the ABC television network to help finance it if he would produce a weekly series for them. In 1954 the industry trade papers carried several stories speculating that Zorro would be part of the packaging for ABC's investment in the Park, but the network instead eventually decided on the Disneyland anthology series. For a time, the Zorro project was dead yet again, but not for long.
By 1957 Disneyland had proven to be a huge success, but Walt wasn't satisfied with it and wanted to expand the Park. Once again he turned to ABC for financing, and once again they agreed if he would produce another television series. Sadly, these negotiations would later prove to be the basis for a major lawsuit between Disney and ABC over the ownership rights to the series. Things still looked good in 1957, though, and five years after Walt had acquired the rights, Zorro was finally headed to television. Walt formally turned over his personal rights to the series to the Studio, best known as Walt Disney Productions, and work began on putting the show into production.
Casting the series
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 named Guy Williams. When Walt saw the results, he knew he
had found his Zorro.
Preparing for the series
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, helping to make Zorro the most expensive western television series to date, but the quality was obvious on the screen, helping to set the mood for the masked adventurer's heroics.
Out of the night,
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.
A merchandising bonanza
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.
addition to a massive wave of traditional print and
television advertising, the Studio was also able to
promote 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. "Little Zorro" is all but forgotten
today, but at the time it was a wonderful example of
Disney's famed corporate synergy and marketing
In addition to a massive wave of traditional print and television advertising, the Studio was also able to promote 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. "Little Zorro" is all but forgotten today, but at the time it was a wonderful example of Disney's famed corporate synergy and marketing prowess.
Zorro meets his fans
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.
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.
The second season
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.
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.
The battle with ABC begins
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 in syndication
Although Zorro was no longer shown in the United States the series continued to air for several years in many overseas markets. The show was particularly popular in Australia, where it ran for several years. This success did not go unnoticed back at the Studio, which decided there was still a strong enough interest back home to take the show out of the film vault. Zorro returned to the American airwaves in syndication, a new market for Disney, 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. Click here for a look at some of the marketing material prepared for the syndication project.
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. The Studio had high hopes for the
syndication effort, expecting that it would help sell more Zorro
merchandise. Also hoping that more stations would sign up, Disney made a
considerable effort to promote the series. Many of the companies that
had enjoyed successful sales of Zorro products took out new licenses,
and several newcomers signed up to offer a wide variety of items. Disney
pumped out a steady stream of Zorro books and records, mainly re-issues
of items from the ABC run, and even brought back the "Little Zorro"
Life after Zorro
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".