"The dashing Zorro is a long way from lovable Mickey Mouse, yet he's only the latest in a long chain of Disney successes. What does Walt put into them to make them click?
At the peak of the Davy Crockett craze, even Walt Disney himself would have been wary of predicting that any other movie-tv character could surpass the popularity of his own homespun hero. But Disney has done it again with his new Zorro teleseries, starring newcomer Guy Williams in a dual role.
Although Walt should be used to success, he isn't quite certain why Zorro is already showing signs of eventually becoming a bigger hit than Davy and is amazed at the way the show is zooming toward the top.
Of course, "It' s a case of proven popularity on a world-wide scale, "he points out." While Crockett is strictly a U.S. hero, the Zorro character created by Johnston McCulley almost forty years ago has found favor in foreign countries. Counting novels, magazine stories and comic books, more than 12,000,000 copies of the Zorro tales have been sold in the United States alone; Zorro is the most popular fictional character in Spanish-speaking countries; the stories have been printed in twenty six different languages, and it's estimated the name is known to 500,000,000 people. Therefore, you could say we had a lot in our favor before we started filming the series."
Two weeks after Zorro took to TV, fanmail for Guy Williams reached flood proportions and has been increasing ever since. Fan clubs, whose members wear such marks of Zorro as black hats, scarves, shirts and belts, have sprung up all over the United States and the movement is spreading to Canada and other countries. Merchandizing companies, abandoning the caution they displayed during television's turbulent year of 1957, are knocking on Disney's door with such regularity that sales of Zorro products have a better than even chance of breaking records rung up by Crockett kits.
The Zorro programs represent a switch in audience appeal for Disney Productions. Previously Walt's shows, directed primarily toward children but attracting large adult audiences as well, haven't been too popular with the in-between, teenage group. However, the masculine appeal of Guy Williams has resulted in females in the teens-and-20's category forming a romantic attachment for Zorro, which was never the case with Crockett.
The reaction of the fair sex is partly due to the fact that Zorro is the first TV show to combine romance and action in the dashing, fiery tradition of the old Douglas Fairbanks films. Williams regards the role as a real challenge, particularly since he is following in the footsteps of Fairbanks, who starred in The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Son of Zorro (1925), and Tyrone Power, who played the title role in a 1940 remake of the first Zorro movie. All were big box-office attractions, and it goes without saying that Guy Williams will be starred as Zorro on the screen before long. Walt feels he has discovered one of the great new personalities of the entertainment world, who may well become one of the big heart-throbs of modern-day Hollywood. And the director, Norman Foster, who handled the Crockett films and is now directing Zorro, declares he is amazed that other studios failed to grab Guy before Disney did.
"It has opened up a whole new life for me," Williams reveals. "It's the most wonderful thing that could happen to anybody. I don't have time these days to do much but live, eat and sleep Zorro, but I'm not complaining. One of the most important things about it is that I've convinced my five-year old son, Stevie, that his father's worth watching. Since the series went on the air, I've been a bit bigger in his eyes, perhaps because I've also been big in the eyes of the neighborhood kids. The hardest thing to get used to, though, has been the prose teenage girls pen in praise of my moustache. Then, too, I got a bit concerned when Zorro hit a higher rating than President Eisenhower's important missiles speech. This is really an odd reflection of the public's taste."
Tall (six feet, three inches), dark and handsome, Guy fits the role of the Robin Hood of old California like a glove. It wasn't entirely by chance that he was selected to portray Zorro. In addition to his magnetic personality, good looks and acting ability, he is one of Hollywood's most expert fencers, having crossed swords with many of the world's masters of this art. Nevertheless, in preparation for the part of Zorro, the masked rider and champion of the oppressed who makes a jagged "Z" with three strokes of his sword as a mark of justice done, Guy brushed up on his fencing. He worked with Fred Cavens, famous coach of film stars, including both Fairbanks, Sr. and Power. He also practiced horsemanship with Tornado, the educated quarter-horse that constantly steals scenes from him and often amuses the Zorro crew by untying himself and wandering leisurely around the Disney lot.
Williams' TV role is a dual one. To avert any suspicion that he is Zorro, he must pose as Don Diego, son of old California's richest landowner and a witty dandy more interested in music and poetry than riding, swordsmanship or the opposite sex. This part, which required Guy to take lessons from world renowned guitarist Vincent Gomez, also calls for more acting ability. Williams himself prefers the dashing role, even though he has twice suffered injury in sword fights. He thinks the way the fans go for Zorro gives him real distinction because, unlike Diego, he appears in only a few scenes of each show.
Playing the two parts keeps Guy twice as busy as most TV stars, which is very busy. He works all week before the cameras, spends Saturday singing, playing the guitar, fencing or riding, and studies his lines on Sunday and every evening.
This is feast after the famine of Guy's first stay in Hollywood. Then, under contract to M-G-M and later Universal, he was given little chance to act, let alone to achieve stardom. The Zorro shows mark his first major assignment, his previous credits including only one worthwhile movie appearance in The Beginning or the End, and a few small roles on Studio One and other TV programs.
Born in New York of Italian parents, Guy got his education in that city, learning to fence at a military academy. He remembers excelling in only one subject, mathematics. He had no early ambition to become an actor, but neither did he wish to follow the same profession as his father, Attilio Catalano, an insurance broker. After working at a soda fountain while still in school, Williams started a career as a model and appeared in many national magazine advertisements. This explains why so many televiewers found his face familiar the first time they saw him on the Zorro show.
"I'll always be glad I started my career in this way since on one assignment I met a Powers model named Janice Cooper," says Guy. "We were supposed to be skiing and I had trouble with my boots. The photographer shot the pose about 50 times and, when he'd finished, we felt we knew each other pretty well. Deciding to consolidate our finances, we were married in 1952."
That same year Guy began acting at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse and also wet his feet in TV. He attracted the attention of a Hollywood scout and was signed to a studio contract, but the only lasting mark he made during a year in the film capital was a long scar on his left shoulder, the result of a fall from a horse while working in a western. Disappointed, Guy returned to New York when his contract ran out and went back to TV and modeling. Something over a year ago he again tried his luck in Hollywood. Though one of many actors tested for Zorro, he was a unanimous choice for the highly coveted role.
In private life Guy is a tournament chess player, a tropical fish fancier and an accomplished chef.
He is quick to give credit to those with whom he works, including such regulars as villain Britt Lomond, faithful servant, Gene Sheldon, comedian Henry Calvin and his various leading ladies. He has played romantic scenes opposite Lisa Gaye, Joan Shawlee and 23-year-old Suzanne Lloyd, a former Toronto model who left Canada for California in 1954 and has appeared in nine "Zorro" episodes.
More than anything else, Williams recognizes Walt Disney's amazing ability to know what audiences want, a magic that makes it appear his TV shows can't miss. Just as Davy Crockett brought lasting fame to lanky Fess Parker, the new series should make Guy's future secure. Considering his uncertain career as an actor prior to being picked for the part, he has made more progress than any other newcomer in television's history. Or, as he puts it, he has gone "from zero to Zorro."
The Star Weekly Magazine, 1958. Contributed by Rita Winters.