Monday, 5 December 2016

Van Williams is Not Batman

Thick dark-haired young men were in plentiful supply on television in the late ‘50s and early ’60—Warner Bros.’ TV division especially employed them—and one of them was Van Williams. He had never acted, let alone seen a script, before he landed in Hollywood. And while he had co-starring roles on a number of series, he’ll likely best be remembered for a one-season attempt to see if the huge Batman fad could spawn a spin-off. Williams starred in the title role on The Green Hornet.

Williams came out second best, not only to Batman, but to his co-star, Bruce Lee, who became the subject of a cult of fans that only got bigger after his death. Producers took pains to shout “The Green Hornet is not Batman!!” but the comparisons were too great. Both characters fought crime. Both had secret identities. Both had younger sidekicks. Both had gimmick-laden cars. And both had the mock-serious narration of producer Bill Dozier helping the audience follow the activities on the screen.

About the only thing that was different was The Green Hornet was boring. Okay, the trumpet theme was great (by Al Hirt, I believe) and so was the psychedelic swirling title card. But I can’t remember anything else about the series, even though I watched it every week. That’s kind of a shame because Williams, whose death was reported yesterday by a former colleague, deserves to be remembered.

The Warners TV studio system tended to sour actors after awhile—Edd Byrnes and Jim Garner come to mind—and Williams doesn’t appear to have crazy about it after a while, either. Here’s a column from the National Enterprise Association syndication service that showed up in papers starting around September 16, 1964.

Van Returns To TV

HOLLYWOOD (NEA)—Van Williams has made a disturbing discovery. He can walk down the streets of major cities in several countries and be recognized as a star of SurfSide 6. Yet his name is not known among the industry's bigshots.
"I have a good friend who has great stature in the movies," handsome, green-eyed Van said. "We went to Las Vegas together and hardly anyone recognized him. They knew me though. Yet he could walk into any movie studio in town and get a part. Television is a matter of impressing the public. For movies you have to impress Hollywood."
And so, to impress movie moguls that he is a working actor, Van has returned to television. He is appearing as Walter Brennan's sidekick in The Tycoon, the new ABC-TV comedy series. He also figures he will be getting valuable acting working with Brennan and Jerome Cowan, another regular.
Van was dropped last year by Warner Brothers, where he had been under contract. But a year before he was released he asked to be let out of his contract and they refused.
"I could see the handwriting on the wall, when their shows started going off television. They kept me on, and cast me in six different shows. But they wouldn't loan me out to other studios.
"I look on my time there as an embryonic period. It did a certain amount of good. Everybody else who was there knocked it, but I think you have to look at what you are after in this business. I want to become a good actor, and work my way into feature films. Where else can you go and get paid for getting that experience before the cameras, and a chance to learn what goes on in the technical side?
"The only trouble is, nobody's personality came through. Warners wanted us like a bunch of fish, so if one of us kicked up our heels, we could be replaced easily."

On to The Green Hornet. Allow me to reprint a feature story that was part of a publicity campaign for the new series. It’s from the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette of July 10, 1966.

Van Williams To Star In "Green Hornet"

If things pan out as Van Williams believes they will, his forthcoming Friday night ABC series "The Green Hornet" will generate the kind of surefire entertainment that Hollywood movies did back when they were pleasing most of the people most of the time. Audiences, he feels, like to see "good looking people, nicely dressed" in polished escape stuff.
But the very good looking, dark-haired Van (who wears clothes with the nonchalance of a young Cary Grant) signals for a stop on that word "escape." Wants to explain. Just because both are produced by William Dozier, Van doesn't want you to get the idea that "Green Hornet" is another "Batman." Van is the chap who left Texas to become the first actor in his family "because though I love my father, I didn't want to play second fiddle to him all my life." So it figures he'd hardly relish being a second-string "Batman." No danger, though, it seems.
-o- -o- -o-
True, the double-life hero boasts a car that out-bats the Batmobile "but neither the concept of our show, nor the wardrobe are way out." Furthermore, even back in the days when the "Green Hornet" was a radio staple, the glamor boy publisher who moonlights as a crime fighter had to have his autos custom made. Not, of course, on the scale of the Black Beauty Van will be sporting. But then, this is a jet age Britt Reid he'll be playing. Now if by chance you're thinking Van is a mite young and lacking authority to play a 35-year-old millionaire publisher, well it means you’re Still hooked on the old Kenny Madison image from "Surfside Six" — or maybe the respectful young aide to Walter Brennan in "Tycoon." An hour's talk with the real Van Williams will correct that!
Nearing 35 now, he talks about himself with good humored honesty, says he's kept Texas as a secondary interest. And that includes co-owning with his mother "a working ranch, not rich by Texas standards where there is oil." Its net worth, he admits "is about a million dollars." He also keeps up some business interests with his fattier. "We have some buildings in downtown Fort Worth Woolworth's leases one we have a shopping center, too, and are developing another, maybe with a drive-in theater. I also have a lot of stock and personal investments and am part owner of a bank in California.
-o- -o- -o-
"I'm a capitalist. I admit it. But I also admit I'm very tight with money. It bothers my wife (Vicki Richards to whom he's been married seven years)...but I believe in keeping my money working."
He's glad, though, that William Dozier doesn't believe on stinting when it comes to the series. "He has beautiful taste and it's quality all the way. Why he chose the fabric himself for my coats — $27.95 a yard in a color he's named Midnight Green. It photographs more black. He's had the top tailor Richard Carroll make five identical ones. Fly front, very simple. I'd wear it myself in the daytime if I had one but in the series I wear them only at night when I'm being 'The Green Hornet.' In the daytime, as Brett, I wear normal clothes, never the green."
But wardrobe costs are dwarfed by Black Beauty expenditures. Estimates for the modifications are now quoted around $50,000. Says Van: They started with an Imperial Le Baron Four-Door, took all the chrome off, replaced the grill and wheels with magnesium ones. The exhaust has been removed, too, and the noise upped. They've gimmicked a control panel that's supposed to do 28 different things like fire rockets from the roof." And a touch he especially likes, "there are little brooms that come out to sweep away tire tracks on a dirt road."
-o- -o- -o-
"Green Hornet" did get one budget break, though. It never had a pilot film. Between the aptness of casting Van Williams and Dozier’s prestige, the series was snapped up right away.
For Van, of course, it’s the biggest break thus far in a career that's moved smoothly ever since he made up his mind to be an actor. The late Mike Todd is supposed to have given Van that first job. Not so, says Van "but he did give me some good advice and I went back to Texas Christian and finished college. I was married in college, two children and divorced, I had to think things ever." So he'd wandered a while, was teaching skin diving to Hawaii when he met Todd. "He had said to look him up. But he was dead before I went to Hollywood." It so happens, however, that Van was what Warner Bros. were in the market for. He started as Kenny Madison student on "Bourbon Street" and when that series folded was moved into "Surfside Six" as the more mature Ken Madison, lawyer.
And now of course, the big one, “The Green Hornet” with the handsome young capitalist playing the highly suitable role of a handsome young capitalist. Plus, of course, all that well-dreamed nocturnal crime fighting that Van figures should prove sure-fire fun.

If you’re wondering how The Green Hornet got on TV in the first place (besides networks looking for copycat Batman shows), this story from the Binghamton Press of September 3, 1966 provides some insight from the Hornet’s radio creator.

Green Hornet Buzzes Again

Special Press Writer
New York — A lot of the past, some of the present and a little of the future of broadcasting belongs to a fellow who never left home—George W. Trendle, now 82 and still generating new ideas.
When a sign of the times was the blue eagle of the NRA (National Recovery Act) and the Townsend Plan for old-age pensions was still only a twinkle in the eye of Dr. Francis Townsend, Trendle, a Detroit lawyer-turned-showman, created a new radio super hero, The Lone Ranger.
The masked rider and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, rode onto the airwaves on Jan. 31, 1935, before Alf Landon was nominated for President. Eighteen months later, Trendle had proliferated his radio heroes. Alongside the Lone Ranger were the Green Hornet and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.
Now more than three decades and three wars later, all three characters still are familiar to lovers of escape adventure.
The Lone Ranger handily made the transition from radio to movies and then TV. He'll be making another round soon as an animated TV series. And Sergeant Preston keeps recurring as a TV kiddie adventure series.
• • •
BUT the Green Hornet? Ah! Look what's happened!
"I put the Green Hornet on radio on Jan. 31, 1936," Trendle said by telephone from his office in Detroit. "He stayed on radio until 1952."
A few years ago, some sentiment was expressed for the good, old days of radio drama. Trendle got to thinking about it, and dusted off the old transcriptions of his Green Hornet series and offered them for sale. "Two years ago we got the Hornet in re-use on some radio stations. It didn't make any money, but It stimulated TV to get interested. I had four different movie studios in one week come to me about TV rights," Trendle chuckled.
He made his deal with Bill Dozier, the producer who does. Batman. Trendle retained his rights to approval on scripts and casting for the Green Hornet TV show, which will make its debut on the ABC network Friday, Sept. 16 over Channel 34.
TRENDLE is especially happy with Bruce Lee, the Chinese-American who will be TV's faithful Oriental servant, Kato.
"He's a foot fighter," Trendle said proudly. "He can floor a man with a kick." He also is skilled in karate and judo.
As for Britt Reid, the crime-fighter known only to Kato as "The Green (with feeling) Hornet," Trendle agreed to actor Van Williams for the role.
"Dozier sent a color film of a pilot for a TV series with Williams as a submarine officer [The Sea Wolves, from Four Star Productions, in 1965]. I said, That's the Green Hornet, except for the blond hair.' In my imagination, the Hornet was a blond with blue eyes," Trendle said.
Williams is dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-complexioned.
"Green Hornet will not be camp," Trendle promised. "Maybe teepee. There'll be the gas gun, and the Black Beauty car, and the mask. We changed him from a black cape and black fedora to dark green for TV.
"I've been telling them to play it serious and it will last longer. The Lone Ranger stayed on radio from 1935 to 1957 because we kept it serious. I'm hoping this will go four or five years on TV."

Unfortunately for Trendle, not to mention Williams, the show didn’t survive past the 1966-67 season. Williams appeared in a few other series through the ‘70s and then gave up acting for community service as a volunteer firefighter and reserve deputy sheriff, proving he was more than just another thick dark-haired young guy to be chewed up by the Hollywood television machine.

1 comment:

  1. RIP Green Hornet, now up there (both in respectablity terms AND heavenly-pun-terms) with Kato. Same Hornet Time, Same Hornet channell....what a sting.:)