Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Godspeed Van Williams

Van Williams, the star of the Sixties TV series The Green Hornet as well as Bourbon Street Beat and Surfside 6, died on November 28 2016 at the age of 82. The cause was renal failure.

Van Williams was born on February 27 1934 in Fort Worth, Texas. His family owned a cattle ranch and he grew up working the ranch. Curiously, despite being an actual cowboy, he was never cast in many Westerns. He studied animal husbandry and business at Texas Christian University. His television debut came in 1954 where he played Exton's servant in a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of King Richard III.

He later moved to Hawaii where he worked as a driving instructor. It was there in 1957 that he was discovered by producer Mike Todd. Mr. Todd encouraged him to move to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. He guest starred in an episode of General Electric Theatre before being signed by Warner Bros. His first work at Warner Bros. was a guest appearance in the Western Lawman. This was followed by a guest appearance on Colt .45. He was then cast as one of the leads, Ken Madison, in the short-lived detective Bourbon Street Beat, one of the many clones of 77 Sunset Strip that Warner Bros. made. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in Tall Story (1960).

After Bourbon Street Beat was cancelled, Van Williams reprised his role as Ken Madison in the new detective series Surfside 6 (yet another clone of 77 Sunset Strip). The series ran for two seasons. He also guest starred on such shows as Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip (once as Ken Madison), The Gallant Men, Hawaiian  Eye, and Temple Houston. In 1964 he played the one of the leads in the series The Tycoon. He also appeared in the theatrical short "Red Nightmare" and the feature film The Caretakers (1963).

Immediately prior to being cast in The Green Hornet, Van Williams guest starred on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. He also provided the voice of the President in the feature film Batman (1966). It was in 1966 that The Green Hornet debuted. It starred Van Williams as the title character and Bruce Lee as his valet Kato. Unlike its sister show, Batman, The Green Hornet was played entirely straight. While the series received low ratings in its initial network run, it developed a cult following. It would prove to be one of the few single season shows to have a fairly good run as a syndicated rerun. As The Green Hornet, Van Williams made a "Batclimb" cameo and later guest starred on a two-part Batman episode alongside Bruce Lee as Kato. He also appeared on The Milton Berle Show as The Green Hornet. Van Williams closed out the Sixties with guest appearances on The Big Valley; Mannix; Love, American Style; and Nanny and the Professor.

In the Seventies Van Williams guest starred on Ironside, Mission: Impossible; Apple's Way, Gunsmoke, The Manhunter, The Streets of San Francisco, Tales of the Unexpected, Barnaby Jones, Mrs. Columbo, and The Rockford Files. He appeared in the mini-series How the West Was Won and Centennial.  He starred in the short-lived show Westwind and had a recurring role on The Red Hand Gang. Afterwards Mr. Williams more or less retired from acting. His final appearance was in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), on which he played a director on The Green Hornet.

Following Van Williams's acting career he served as a reserve deputy sheriff at the Malibu station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a volunteer fire fighter.

Dark haired and handsome, Van Williams seemed born to play heroic roles. There should be little wonder that he played a succession of such roles from the Fifties to the Seventies. He was well suited to playing a detective like Ken Madison or a superhero like The Green Hornet.  That is not to say that Mr. Williams could not play more complex characters. In the Cheyenne episode 'Vengeance is Mine" he played a friend of Cheyenne Bodie who was determined to take revenge on those who had wronged him. In the 77 Sunset Strip episode "The Tarnished Idol" he played an outright villain--one half of a brother and sister team of grifters. Van Williams made a great hero, so much so that for many he will always be The Green Hornet, but he was quite capable of playing other roles s well.

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