Walt Disney’s phenomenal success and career was due to many factors, and storyteller has to rank in the top of the list. He had an inborn knack for conveying the stories of his own characters, those of others he acquired rights to and those of fairy tales into believable yarns that the reader could actually believe they were a part of. This was most evident during the halcyon days right after Disneyland park opened; Walt using the fairly new medium of television gave to the large crowd of baby boomers perhaps the most celebrated action/adventure shows, that even in today’s techno world of Computer graphics, are still remembered and watched…Davy Crockett, the mini-series made up of 5 one-hour episodes, airing from 1954-1955 in the Disneyland series and Zorro (Spanish for Fox). It is Zorro that this article will cover
Zorro, again the character was created by Johnston McCulley and enhanced by Walt’s’ talent, is an action-adventure series that premiered on October 10th, 1957 on the ABC network. There were 78 total episodes and in addition 4 hour long specials aired by Walt Disney anthology series between October 30th, 1960 and April 2nd, 1961. But in this article, we will explore the leading role of Zorro, personally picked by Walt and another example of “Storytelling” in the fact the Walt even had the knack to choose the right actor for his famous series…
Armando Joseph Catalano (Guy Williams) was born on January 14th, 1924 of Sicilian parent’s Attilio and Clare Catalano, insurance brokers from the island of Sicily. He was the eldest, with a younger sister Valerie. Although successful in Sicily, after moving to the Washington Heights area of New York City, they lived in poverty. His father Attilio was the son of a successful timber grower from Messina in Sicily. He had purchased land in New Jersey. He was raised in Brooklyn’s Little Italy community. He was called Williams (The Italian adaptation of his name) by his parents.
Williams attended New York’s Public School # 189, where he excelled at mathematics. He later attended George Washington High School. After he attended the Peekskill Military Academy, again he excelled. His interests and hobbies included…astronomy, chess, music, fencing, tropical fish, and sailing: he owned a 40-foot ketch called The Oceana. Williams was blessed with rugged good looks, was charismatic and possessed a beautiful baritone voice. He worked as a welder, cost accountant and aircraft-parts inspector during World War II. He then became a salesman in the luggage department at Wanamaker’s. While at Wanamaker’s he decided to send his photos to a modeling agency. This paid off as he quickly was offered assignments resulting in photographs in newspapers and magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, as well as on billboards and book covers. He was paid well and began to be recognized by his peers. He then assumed the name “Guy Williams” in the 1940’s.
Because of these successes, he decided to become an actor, much to the dismay of his parents. They were extremely disappointed; they hoped he would follow his fathers’ career as an insurance broker. In 1946 he was offered and signed a single year contract with MGM and moved out to Hollywood. He had his first feature role as a pilot in the film…” The Beginning of the End” in 1947 about the Atomic bomb dropped on Japan to end WWII. However, he only appeared in a few films and decided to move back to New York. It was after he joined New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, he was offered such Television assignments as Studio One in Hollywood 1948. In 1948 he got a gig to advertise cigarettes while skiing. It included a wide-ranging filming trip with Janice Cooper, a Robert Powers model. While working together, the fell in love and on December 8th they got married. They had two children, Antoinette Catalano (Toni Williams) and Guy Steven Catalano (Guy Williams Jr.)
By 1950, Guy Williams had begun filming for some of the pioneering television commercials in the USA. Regrettably, his father died in 1951, and never witnessed Guys rising fame. Williams was offered a new one-year contract with Universal-International in 1952 and moved back to Hollywood. His big break came in 1952 when after given a screen test by Universal Pictures, and he signed on. It was then that Guy began the long road to success as he was given unbilled bit-parts in films…” Back at the Front” (1952), “All I Desire” (1953), “The Golden Blade” (1953) and “Take Me to Town” (1953). But much to his dismay, even after billing, his was never used to his full potential, never achieving movie star prestige, despite his rugged good looks, hazel eyes, and impressive statue. He was billed in “Bonzo Goes to College” in 1952, a sequel to Ronald Reagan’s classic Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), “The Mississippi Gambler” (1953), co-starring with Tyrone Power and “The Man from the Alamo” 1953, with Glenn Ford.
Still unsatisfied how his career was going, Williams left Universal and tried freelancing. This netted him a role, abet a minor one as a cop in another 50’s cult classic “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” starring Michael Landon. Adding to his credits was infrequent appearances in the Lone Ranger (1949) and the “Highway Patrol” in 1955. In 1957, Guy appeared twice in the series “Men of Annapolis” a drama about the United States Naval Academy in the role of Steve Clay. He was also billed in the Rod Cameron (Who played Rod Blake) TV series “State Trooper”.
But the opportunity Guy was looking for was finally in coming. In 1957 the Walt Disney Company had put out casting calls for Walt’s new Television series “Zorro”, the character created by Johnston McCulley. The dashing and swashbuckling Zorro was already well-known in the movies, the role recreated by Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks. The requirements for the role was specially set by Walt himself. For the role (Don Diego de la Vega), the actor must be handsome, athletic looking and have a knowledge of fencing. Walt interviewed Guy himself, even telling him to grow a mustache, “neither very long or thick”. Guy received a very lucrative contract, a high wage for the time of $2500.00 a week. Williams had finally arrived. In order to fulfill the requirements Walt set out, he took professional fencing lessons with the then Belgian champion Fred Cavens, who was the trainer to the stars, i.e. Tyrone Poser, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. In addition, he took guitar lessons from the famous Vicente Gomez.
Williams was now famous. His charm and eloquence, dark good looks had garnered a huge female following, and the male audiences appreciated his appeal to women and fencing talent. Williams first appearance as Zorro was on the “The Fourth Anniversary Show”, a Disney anthology television series in which he challenged the notion that Zorro was a “fictional character”. The series of half-hour episodes debuted on ABC on October 10, 1957. It was an instant hit in the USA. The series was so popular that two feature films…” The Sign of Zorro” (1958) and “Zorro the Avenger (1959) comprised of selected episodes garnered together were shown. In all there were 78 episodes spanning two seasons. The Zorro theme song, composed by George Bruns and Norman Foster, was sung by the “Mellowmen” It was a hit on the airwaves, coming in #17 for the group the Chordettes on the Hit Parade. As an added fact, during the run of the series, many schools were plagues with thousands of “Z’s” being scratched in the desks and blackboards.
But despite being a hit, a legal disagreement between ABC and Disney caused the series to go on hiatus, and it was permanently cancelled. But four hour long shows were later created with the original cast. These were presented as part of “Walt Disney Presents” from October 30th, 1960 and April 12th, 1961. Williams fame as Zorro was a selling point for him. On March 5th, he appeared along Sally Brophy and Tom Nolan, on the Ford Show, hosted by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Guy’s last film for Walt was in the Magical World of Disney’s the “Prince and the Pauper”, playing Sir Miles Hendon, filmed in England in 1962.
Guy’s non Disney Roles…
After Guy’s contract with Disney was complete, he went to Europe to film two movies…MGM’s Damon and Pythias, filmed in Italy in 1962 as the Greek hero Damon and MGM’s Captain Sinbad, filmed in Germany, as Sinbad the Sailor. In 1964 Williams was again in Hollywood where he was added to the cast of the hit Cowboy drama, Bonanza. His role was that of Ben Cartwright’s nephew Will. Pernell Roberts who played eldest son Adam was planning to leave the show, and Guy would be the replacement fourth lead. However, after only five episodes, Pernell decided to stay another year, dashing Williams’ chance for the lead.
In his last, but as memorable as Zorro in show business, he returned as Professor John Robinson, the head of the family on the spaceship Jupiter 2, The cult science fiction series Lost in Space (1965). The show, which centered on colonizing the Alpha Centauri star system, lasted only three seasons, was an immediate smash hit, but faded quickly.
After Lost in Space, Guy decided to finally retire and enjoy his investments. William had once visited Argentina, where the people admired and revered him. He decided to retire to the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta, a suburb of Buenos Aires. However, in 1983 he was again asked to make two television shows…He played a celebrity edition of Family feud with several members of the Lost in Space cast and was a guest on Good Morning America.
Sadly, on May 6th, 1989 Guy, who was 65 years old passed away from a brain aneurysm in his home in Recoleta. Guy’s ashes were spread over the ocean in Malibu.
There had been many tributes to Guy over the years… In 2000, Guy was inducted into the New York City Bronx Walk of Fame, his son Steven attended the ceremony. In August 2nd, 2001 he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. October 2002, Guy’s fans along with Janice and Steven, dedicated a bench in his honor in Central Park, New York. And in August 2003, The Disney enterprise placed a memorial badge, honoring Williams in the San Luis Rey de Francia Mission in Oceanside California where the show Zorro was filmed. In addition, there have been several books written which feature Guy Williams in his role as Zorro.
Although never reaching the “Star Status” of many of his peers, Guy Williams will forever be endeared in the hearts of millions of Disney fans, who will always remember him as Zorro, the Fox!