Maybe things would have been easier if Guy Williams had paid more attention to his father. Back when Guy was about seven years old, his father sent him off to fencing school, as part of the rigorous program he had set up to insure Guy's proper physical development.
But Guy had no way of knowing, then, that one day he'd be the swashbuckling Zorro, star of Disney's television series on the ABC network, with a rapier practically growing from his good right arm. And all the niceties of classical fencing, the parries and the thrusts, the retreats and advances, seemed just too much bother for a direct-approach type seven-year-old. The thrusts and advances made sense, but the parries and retreats seemed an awful waste of time. So, after a few months of instruction, Guy begged off.
"Just think of all the future effort I'd have saved myself, if I'd gone on with those lessons," Guy grins with that irresistible flash of white which identifies Zorro. "They say youngsters learn more easily than adults. What a swordsman I could have been today if I'd just kept at it then!"
As it is, Guy is no slouch at wielding the dueling steel and this was because, years after his first encounter with fencing, he was almost forced to take it up. Falling from a horse during the making of a movie several years ago, he injured his shoulder badly. The doctor, suggesting beneficial exercise to strengthen the injured muscles, recommended fencing. Guy took a few lessons, found that NOW he liked the sport, and really went in for it in a big way. So when Walt Disney began looking around for a darkly handsome Latin type who was also expert with the foils, to play Zorro, Guy was a natural. On your TV screen, Guy is known as Don Diego de la Vega. Playing the son of a Spanish grandee, he's really the son of native-born Italians. Before he became actor Guy Williams, his name was equally romantic-sounding Armando Catalano. His parents were natives of Italy, and came to America only a few years before Guy was born.
Theirs was not, however, the usual story of Italian immigrants coming to the U.S.A., the land of plenty. The Catalanos were a well-to-do family, having a successful lumbering business in northern Italy. Guy's grandparents had bought an estate in upper New York state, to which their sons came on their vacations, much in the same fashion that wealthy Americans own a villa on the Mediterranean for their vacations. Only when it came time for Guy's parents to come to America for their visit, they decided to stay.
Guy's father, Attilio Catalano, became associated with a New York insurance brokerage firm, and the couple set about to rear their son in as American a fashion as possible. His was not a Hell's Kitchen type boyhood, but he was a city-bred child. He remembers such city games as ringalivio, kick the can, and fox-and-geese, all involving mad chases up alleys, over high board fences and through vacant lots.
Until he was twelve (and became baby-sitter to an adorable sister), Guy was an only child. His parents were so determined that he would not become the sissified, over-protected prototype of the 'only child', that they gave him even more freedom than most of the boys his age enjoyed. He remembers exploring the city with his chums, seeing how far one streetcar or subway fare would take them, with all allowable transfers.
There were also the movie binges he and his pals would indulge in, early in their teens. They'd blow a whole week's allowances in one day on movies, in a sort of marathon attempt to see just how many they could cover. Guy remembers sitting through as many as eight or ten features in a single day.
He polished off grammar school, spent the customary length of time at George Washington High school in New York, and was packed off to Peekskill Military Academy. He admits he was not a particularly outstanding scholar, however, and more than hints that his folks felt military school was what he "needed" at this point.
Having completed the boresome business of education, Guy decided it was time to get a job. Papa Catalano suggested the brokerage business, but Guy had other ideas. He picked up one modeling job, and then another, and almost before he knew it, was in fairly constant demand among the commercial photographers in New York.
And it's a good thing, too, as he points out, for his modeling assignments brought him more than just pay checks. They brought him also Janice Cooper, tall, blonde, and beauteous, now "Mrs. Zorro."
Before they'd ever actually met, Guy and Janice were familiar faces to each other. Guy had spotted Janice smiling out from a toothpaste ad, Janice looking housewifely in a cleanser ad, Janice doing the proper things to a chic dress in a fashion magazine. And Janice had seen Guy (and that grin) filling out shirts in a men's wear ad, using the right shaving cream, and gazing with approval at a set of golf clubs in a sporting goods ad. So, when they finally showed up at the same photographer's studio, they felt almost like old friends. And Guy declares that after that first joint assignment, they WERE old friends! They were doing a skiing sequence, and a particularly zealous photographer shot the scene fifty times before he was satisfied.
There followed a whirlwind courtship, which galloped through at least six cities. Janice would have an out-of-town modeling assignment, and Guy would suddenly discover some urgent business called him to that very same city at that very same time. Janice never questioned too closely just what that "business" was, but it did seem a mite curious that his working time always coincided exactly with her own, and whenever she was free, so was Guy.
Back in New York again, they were married. Guy describes it as "consolidating our finances", but Janice's reminiscent smile indicates that it was something more than a hard-headed business arrangement.
In 1952, Guy was signed to a contract by Universal-International movie studios, after having been interviewed and tested by U-I's drama coach, Sophie Rosenstein. Before that, he had done some little theater work, and had appeared in several television productions.
But the future Zorro was to find his first encounter with Hollywood a completely frustrating one. He attended the classes the studio maintained for fledgling contract players, he had a small part here and another small part there. But he had no major assignments whatsoever. And shortly before his year's contract was to expire, he was badly injured in that fall from a horse mentioned earlier. He still bears a long scar on his left shoulder as a souvenir of that accident. It was a lucky fall, even so, for it was in an effort to limber up those injured muscles that he took up fencing in earnest, and everyone knows where that finally led him.
After his U-I contract expired, Guy went back to New York, and returned to television acting, with a few modeling jobs tucked in now and then. It was 1957 before Guy worked up sufficient confidence to return to Hollywood and make another try. His timing was perfect, this trip. The Disney studios were auditioning for the Zorro series, and Guy walked off with the part.
Filming of the series went on for some weeks prior to its debut on the ABC network. It was an instantaneous success, but the biggest satisfaction Guy received was not in the approval of critics, or even in the ratings. It was in the fact that he was finally able to convince son Steve, five, that Pop really worked on the Disney lot. Every morning for weeks, Dad had been going off to work early, and every evening he had been coming home full of stories about how he'd seen one of the Mouseketeers, or talked with Jimmie Dodd. But Steve, wise to the ways grownups have in spinning yarns to entertain their young, never really believed much of it. He was a polite audience, but unconvinced until that day at Disneyland. Janice had arranged with Gene Sheldon (who plays Don Diego's faithful manservant in the Zorro series) to escort Steve to Jimmie, and introduce them. Jimmie had been chatting with some friends when Gene and Steve approached, and excused himself with the remark, "Pardon me, but my very best friend has just arrived, and I must say hello to him." Gene made the introductions, while Steve stood, completely speechless, one hand on his heart and the other, for some reason mysterious, plunk on the top of his head. The whole conversation which followed was a pretty one-sided affair, with Steve contributing only nods and grins.
But his seemingly lost vocal powers returned in volume when Steve was returned to his mother's side. Jumping up and down like a yo-yo in the hands of an expert, Steve screamed at the top of his voice, "He called me his very best friend! Jimmie Dodd called me his very best friend!" It was a chant which persisted for several days, and as fond of Jimmie as Guy and Janice are, the whole thing got a bit wearisome before Steve finally cooled off and came back down to earth.
The Williams live in one of the older, Spanish style homes so characteristically Los Angeles in style. In it, Guy is about as unhandy a man about the house as you're apt to bump into, in this OR Zorro's century. Of course if Steve's electric train gets out of whack, Guy seems thoroughly capable of fixing that in nothing flat. But for more plebian repairs, paltry things like frayed iron cords or balky light switches, it's a different matter. Guy suddenly has urgent business which calls him across town. He's a great one for hauling Steve off to the beach whenever the weather and his free time are favorable. He once was an avid tennis player, but admits he hasn't picked up a racket often since Zorro got in the way.
One of the avocations he can follow, Zorro or no, is cooking. Janice points out that even here the actor comes out. Guy likes to cook only for company, for an audience. And his favorite dishes are dramatic things, like gambai a la planca, a delicacy involving small green shrimp, a heavy iron skillet, and quantities of salt, and served with well-chilled white wine.
Domestic as he is at times, Guy looks more the romantic, he feels because of the moustache he had to grow for the role of Zorro. Objecting to parading around in private life with one, Guy was soon made to see that every predecessor in a similar role had one as a trademark. Guy's biggest worry about the new appendage was his wife's reaction to it. While it was growing in, she would throw her hands up and feign shock but once it grew in, she loved it!
No one will disagree that Zorro was almost a guaranteed, sure-fire hit, even before it was ever shown on the air. In a season marked by an almost monotonous parade of heroes of the rugged, rough-hewn, unschooled variety, the sleek, suave dash of Zorro came as a welcome relief. But it's a good guess that it would never have reached its popularity so quickly if it had starred anyone but Guy Williams, who is every bit as sleek, suave, and dashing as his television counterpart, and in addition, a peck of fun!