TV's Green Hornet feared series would be silly

NEW YORK • Van Williams, who played crime fighters on television in the 1960s, most notably the Green Hornet on a short-lived ABC show that later attained a cult following and that introduced American audiences to martial arts master Bruce Lee, died last week in a care facility near his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 82.

The cause was renal failure, said his wife Vicki Williams. She said he probably died on the night of Nov 28, but that he was not officially declared dead until the next day.

A tall, athletic Texan, Williams looked the part of a superhero and grew up an actual cowboy - although, curiously, he was not cast in many westerns.

He played the same character, detective Kenny Madison, on two ABC series: Bourbon Street Beat, with Richard Long and Andrew Duggan, in the 1959/1960 season; and then Surfside 6, with Lee Patterson and Troy Donahue, until 1962.

He also played a young executive alongside Walter Brennan on another ABC series, The Tycoon, in 1964 and 1965.

None of those parts were as memorable as his starring role in The Green Hornet, based on a character who originated in a radio series from the 1930s. The show followed the adventures of Britt Reid, a rich newspaper publisher who fights crime as a masked vigilante with the help of Lee's Kato, his valet and an expert martial artist.

ABC had hoped it would match the success of another show featuring a masked crime fighter and his sidekick: Batman, which starred Adam West in the title role and Burt Ward as Robin.

Williams told The Toronto Star in 1997 that he had been reluctant to take the part because he was worried that the series would be silly.

"One of the things I absolutely insisted upon was that I was going to play it straight," he said. "None of this 'wham, bam, thank you, ma'am' stuff that was going on with Batman."

The villains were slightly more realistic and the costumes considerably less ridiculous than those on Batman, and Lee's action sequences were a highlight.

Williams and Lee tangled with West and Ward in a two-part crossover episode of Batman. The series was cancelled in 1967 after one season, but it became a hit in Hong Kong, where Lee grew up. It was called The Kato Show there and its popularity helped Lee land a film deal.

Lee, who went on to star in gongfu movies such as Enter The Dragon (1973) and died mysteriously shortly before the film opened in Hong Kong, became better known than Williams.

By the 1980s, Williams had mostly left acting behind to run a communications firm. His last credited role was the director of The Green Hornet in the 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by their three daughters and two daughters from an earlier marriage.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2016, with the headline 'TV's Green Hornet feared series would be silly'. Print Edition | Subscribe