In Hollywood film studios, the word you perhaps hear most often is "tradition." No other profession adheres to past experience so closely as do the movie-makers in the entertainment capital of the world. When Guy Williams auditioned for the choice part of "Zorro" for the television series Walt Disney was then planning, he, too, was reminded of tradition. For, were he fortunate enough to be given the part, he would be playing a role the legendary Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and the more recent Tyrone Power had already made world-famous. Would the director remind him, "Doug Fairbanks never did that!" Would Guy study every film Fairbanks, Sr. Power had made to memorize their every move? Would he be worried that he was inexperienced compared to the two men who had created the role in films?
On Thursday, April 18, 1957, when he visited the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, to take a screen test, Guy was concerned only with putting on a sparkling showing. But, several weeks later, when he was placed under contract to Disney to portray "Zorro" for the ABC television series, these matters began to annoy Guy. Then and there he decided that the "Zorro" he was going to play would be one of his own making and not a carbon copy of earlier films. In coming years, the director might have to remind a novice actor that "Guy Williams never did that!" So, in his first show business assignment of importance, Guy made good. "Zorro" is today one of the most successful television shows on the air. And it all came about because Guy dared to bypass tradition and attempt something untried and different.
"Zorro" is the fascinating story of the Robin Hood of Old California in the 1800's. Zorro, which means "fox" in Spanish, is a masked rider in black, riding a black stallion, who seeks justice and aid for the oppressed in old-time Spanish California. When he takes off his mask and cape, Zorro is really Don Diego Vega, the son of a wealthy rancher, played in the series by George Lewis. Only two other people know of his double identity. His servant Bernardo (played by Gene Sheldon) and a priest, Padre Felipé, who is portrayed by Romney Brent.
When Guy began filming the story of Zorro he was already familiar with the story Johnston McCulley had written. Over 500 million people the world over have read and enjoyed the story of Zorro. "To be honest," Guy told us, "I was really frightened at first of all the work that goes into a TV series. When I looked at the first script I asked myself, "Can I memorize all that?" Today shooting the series is fun and the memorizing comes easily." On the lot, Guy may be in El Pueblo de Neustra Senora de Los Angeles de Porcinuncia (known today simply as Los Angeles, home of the Dodgers) for one scene and riding hard in the heart of Mexico ten minutes later. As is the case with many filmed programs, they are filmed in parts and Guy may be working on four stories in one day. Says he, "I'm only exactly sure of how the film looks in its entirety when I see it in my little black box at home the same time everyone else does."
Fencing plays an important role in the story, as the sword is Zorro's only weapon against his foes. An accomplished fencer before becoming Zorro, Guy has since become one of the first fencers in Hollywood. His coach is Fred Cavens, a famed fencer who taught the art to both Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Tyrone Power, among others. "The only time I look at the old 'Mark of Zorro' films is when I want to study some particular move in sword-play," says Guy.
Zorro is a bachelor, but Guy Williams is a married man with two children and a beautiful wife. He met his wife, a former fashion model, on a modeling assignment. "Janice and I had to pose for the same picture together some fifty times. By the time the day was over, we knew each other pretty well," quips Guy. Their oldest son, Stephen, is a frisky young lad who is an enterprising businessman as well. "Little Stevie," says Guy, "didn't realize that other people also saw his father on television. When he finally did, a most interesting thing happened. One day he came home with a whole bunch of classmates who came to collect anything that they could get. Autographs, hats, masks and outfits. Steve had made an interesting little arrangement at school. For bringing his buddies to meet his father, he was allowed to raise and lower the flag every day."
But being a businessman is nothing new in the Williams family. Before becoming a television idol for millions of young people, Guy did many things not at all related to show business. Counting off his jobs, Guy recalls, "I was a welder, a model, an aircraft inspector, and finally an actor under contract to Universal-International." But though he was highly recommended to the studio by Hollywood acting coach Sophie Rosenstein, during the year that he was under contract he had little to do. However, shortly before leaving the studio to try his luck elsewhere, Guy fell from a horse and was badly injured. As a result of the accident, he still bears a long scar on his left shoulder. The accident still forces him to be careful. "In 'Zorro', I do all the fencing myself," says Guy, "but I don't jump on fast-moving horses from slanted rooftops. For that I do have a double. Otherwise, the falls that are taken are all mine."
Guy asked us to make note of and mention an important fact that is often overlooked when a new star is "born." "Nobody becomes a move star or television personality overnight," he reminds. "It takes a lot of hard work, for which you often are never paid, and a great deal of patience. My ABC-TV buddy, Lawrence Welk, for instance, was considered an 'overnight' smash. It took him over thirty years to become an 'overnight' sensation."
Now that Guy is an "overnight" idol, he was asked what his greatest experiences were. His answer is one which highlights the intensity of the man when he is off the screen. "I had really two memorable experiences. One was when I discovered music and the other came when I discovered what literature really was. For years I had been listening to music without any full understanding and appreciation of what I was hearing. When I was able to value music, and literature as well, I began two fascinating experiences, which of course, are un-ending." Many actors would have made up stories to fit in with the part they were playing, but Guy relates experiences which occurred before he ever heard of or hoped to become "Zorro."
Guy is just as honest and straightforward when he is asked how the show has changed the pace of his private life. "When you come into the spotlight, you no longer have a private life, just one hectic public life. You are then more thankful for the quiet, personal moments you can spend with your family, which for long periods are rare and far between." To "get away from it all," Guy, in partnership with actor Bob Stevenson, has bought a handsome, sleek 37-foot sailing ketch christened the "Oceana". Guy guarantees that he will keep the ship on the move constantly or at least as often as he can get away from his acting chores. Aside from sailing and fencing, Guy has nothing which he considers a hobby. He just does anything "which is popular at the moment and I enjoy." Chess, tropical fish and cooking are included in his list of favorite pasttimes, however. Horseback riding, despite his accident, is a pleasant diversion, and Guy is the best of friends with his equine co-star in the series. Tornado, the all-black eight-year-old quarter horse Guy rides in the show, gets top billing with Guy, both behind and in front of the camera. "We get along real well," he says, "but I think that Tornado is getting to be a ham!"
Guy has also given the letter "Z" a new lease in popularity. Many new words, some not in the dictionary, are being created with the letter. The day the show is seen on television is now referred to as "ThurZday" and some people connected with the show utter such zany remarks as "there is a lot to Z in this zeries." A "Z" flashed on the screen doesn't only open the show, but a jagged one is left on the scene wherever Zorro has met and defeated his opponents.
Guy sparked his career by breaking tradition, but he hopes to further it by sticking to a favorite tradition of many actors. "I'd like one day to do a Broadway play," says Guy, hoping of the day he can return on a permanent basis to New York, his home town. The next time you see Guy Williams' name in lights, it will be as himself, not as Zorro. For as Guy quietly says, "I can't expect to play Zorro forever." His fans, however, sincerely hope he will.
Calling All Girls Magazine. 1958.