“Out of the night… when the full moon is bright…” If you were a child in the 1950s, you immediately recognize those dramatic opening words to the theme song of a certain television hero of the time—“a horseman known as Zorro.” And of all the famous film Zorros, the memorable standout was Guy Williams.
Born Armando Catalano in New York City on January 14, 1924, Guy attended grade school in New York and received his advanced education at Peekskill Military Academy with the intention of entering West Point. Fate intervened in 1952 when a Hollywood agent saw him walking down Fifth Avenue. He took a screen test and began to find regular acting work in New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse and on television productions like Studio One. The screen test eventually led him to a one-year contract at Universal Studio—and a new name.
At that time in Hollywood, actors with foreign-sounding names were quickly typecast. In coming up with a stage name, he once laughingly recalled, “‘Guy Williams’ was about as non-specific as I could imagine!”
Not finding his big break despite a few early movie roles, he returned to New York to continue acting and occasional modeling. In 1957, he decided to try Hollywood again; this time he appeared as the policeman who guns down Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
Meanwhile, Walt Disney had scored major successes on the fledgling ABC television network with Disneyland, the Mickey Mouse Club, and a five-part western adventure, Davy Crockett. Walt acquired the rights to the Zorro stories, a fictional character created in 1919 by pulp writer Johnston McCulley, and began searching for his star. Enter Guy Williams, who not only physically looked the part, but was also an experienced horseman and skilled swordsman. Norman Foster, director of many of the Zorro episodes, said he was amazed “the other Hollywood studios failed to get him before we did!”
With Guy on board, Walt built an expensive replica of a Spanish pueblo on the backlot of his studio in Burbank and filming began. Zorro debuted on ABC on October 10, 1957, eventually running for 78 episodes over two seasons. The series was an instant hit, and kids from coast to coast soon drove parents and teachers crazy by scratching Zorro’s traditional “Z” on sidewalks, book covers, and even their clothing. As part of Guy’s contract, he also began delighting camera-toting tourists when he made occasional guest appearances in character in Frontierland at Disneyland.
The series ended in 1959 and Walt moved his anthology show to NBC, but Guy stayed with Disney in four one-hour Zorro special episodes and starred in a three-part television movie of the classic Mark Twain story The Prince and the Pauper. In 1965 Guy donned a silver spacesuit, starring as professor John Robinson in three seasons of the CBS series Lost in Space.
By 1973, Zorro was in syndication worldwide, with one very important fan—the wife of Argentine president Juan Peron. Guy was convinced to appear at a charity show in Buenos Aires, and he fell in love with the country’s large ranches and leisurely way of life. He built residences there and in California, and passed away on May 6, 1989, in Buenos Aires.