Just one year ago, Guy Williams was a freelance actor; one of thousands in New York and Hollywood whose next job was about as dependable as the weather at a picnic. Then he made a screen test for Walt Disney and zippo! he was Zorro!
He got the nod, apparently, not because of any great acting ability, but because of all the other men who tested for the role, he alone could actually fence. (Zorro, the black-costumed avenger of injustice in Early California, whose mark is a jagged "Z," has little use for the usual gun; it's sabers for him.)
Nothing is left to chance when Zorro whips out his sword and goes after an enemy. Every move is worked out on graph paper and then blocked out on the ground. How complicated this business can be is best judged by the intricate pattern of light from red and blue torches with which Guy (left) and Britt Lomond (Capitan Monastario) fenced in darkness before using sabers to complete the picture.
"My father started teaching me how to fence when I was seven," says Williams. "It's in the Catalano blood."
Born Armando Catalano in New York City, the future Zorro had little choice but to learn swordsmanship. His father, Attilio, had been a skilled fencer back in his native Italy. While other fathers in the neighborhood were teaching their sons how to pitch, field and hit, he was teaching his scion how to parry, thrust and lunge.
Where Williams would be today if he hadn't absorbed the ancient art is anybody's guess. He had embarked on an acting career when he was in his late teens, gone through the usual dramatic studies in New York and eventually wound up with a contract at Universal-International in 1952.
"I used to play anonymous men leaning in doorways with cigarettes dangling from their lips," says Williams of his film days. "There were times when I seriously doubted if I were cut out for this business."
Today, as the star of ABC's Zorro series, Guy has left doubt behind. He knows that fate has played him a kind trick and is out to make the most of it while it lasts.
"Success is nebulous," he says. "I've been really too busy to think much about it. Of course, some things have changed. When I go to my gas station, five guys jump to take care of the car. Before Zorro, I had to honk my horn to get any attention."
Williams confesses, however, to being nonplused by large groups of children. On a recent visit to the home of long-time friend Dennis Weaver (who plays lame Chester in Gunsmoke), he was swarmed by neighborhood children who demanded his autograph and bits of his clothing as souvenirs. "I didn't know what to say or do, They had me coming and going."
On the elaborate outdoor Zorro set at the Disney studios, Williams is a different man. He works hard on his lines and practices riding and fencing.
Fred Cavens, a veteran Hollywood fencing master (he instructed Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., when the original Zorro films were made in the 1920's), nods his head with respect for Williams' ability. "He knows how to take care of himself, all right. He even keeps me on my toes."
Another man whom Williams keeps on his toes is Gene Sheldon, the actor who portrays Zorro's deaf-mute aide, Bernardo. "We argue all the time," says Sheldon. "Usually about how we should play a scene together."
One of the things that has zoomed Zorro to a contending position in the rating lists is Williams' undeniable wavy-haired, flashing-smiled charm. Julie van Zandt, the female lead in one of the episodes, readily admits that she fell victim to it. "I've never had so much help from an actor. He's cooperative, gracious and unselfish. He's also a big tease. He kept telling me how great I was, but I couldn't decide whether or not he was serious."
Willams' personal life is less hectic than his professional one. Married to ex-Powers model Janice Cooper, he is the father of a six-year-old son, Steve. They reside above the Sunset Strip (which connects Hollywood and Beverly Hills) in an old Spanish-type apartment house built by silent-moviestar Norma Talmadge.
"It's quiet up there," says Williams. "After a day's work, I hardly have enough strength to budge." Tired or not, however, Williams manages to carry on the Catalano tradition. Almost every morning he spends some time fencing with his young son. "I just want to teach him what my father taught me. It probably won't be of much use, though."
TV Guide. April, 1958.