Van Williams is best remembered today for having played the title role in the 20th Century Fox television series The Green Hornet (1966-1967). At the end of the 1950s, he was one of the more promising leading men signed by Warner Bros.' television division. In a group that included Troy Donahue, Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, and Roger Smith, Williams probably had the strangest route to being discovered.
Born in Fort Worth, TX, to a cattle-ranching family, he graduated from Texas Christian University and became a professional diver based in Hawaii. He was earning extra money working at industrialist Henry J. Kaiser's Hawaiian Village, and happened to be teaching two of Kaiser's guests -- producer Mike Todd and his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor -- how to dive, when Todd suggested that the 23-year-old Williams go for a screen test. The producer was killed in a plane crash before the screen test could be done, but Williams still managed to get his shot at an acting career, on the small screen, with help from actress Lurene Tuttle after he arrived in Hollywood. At her urging, he took speech and drama lessons and was ready when a spot opened up in a television production starring Ronald Reagan. A small role followed, and then a contract with Warner Bros. television -- after playing a guest role in an episode of the series Lawman, Williams was cast in the detective series Bourbon Street Beat, set in New Orleans, which wasn't successful. This was followed, however, by Surfside 6, a similar series about private investigators set in Miami, FL, which ended up running for four seasons and took full advantage of Williams' good looks and muscular build. Williams followed it up with a supporting role in The Tycoon, a comedy series starring Walter Brennan and Jerome Cowan, which lasted for only one season -- he had little to do in that program, alas, except play it straight to Brennan's cantankerous multi-millionaire senior citizen, for whom his character worked. Following the cancellation of The Tycoon, Williams was up for the role of a submarine commander in a proposed World War II action series, Pursuit and Destroy, that never made it into production. Instead, he took the role with which he has been most identified for more than 30 years, Britt Reid (aka the Green Hornet) in the 1966-1967 ABC series The Green Hornet. The program ran for only one season, but developed a strong cult following, largely due to the presence of Williams' co-star, Bruce Lee, who dazzled audiences every week with his exhibitions of martial arts skills. Williams had the bad fortune to be caught playing a dual role that didn't really constitute a complete character between them. His portrayal of Britt Reid suffered from the limited time that the character was on the screen, while he was, in turn, limited in what he could do as an actor playing the Green Hornet, who had to remain a man of mystery to those around him. One actually knew more, in terms of background and interior emotional life, about Lee's Kato than one did about Williams' Britt Reid/the Green Hornet. Following the cancellation of the series, Williams made some guest appearances on shows such as Mannix and The Big Valley, and sitcoms like Nanny & The Professor. The best performance of his whole career, however, was probably in the 1974 Gunsmoke episode "Thirty a Month and Found," which garnered strong critical praise on its original airing. Williams obviously found some favor with Gunsmoke star James Arness, because he played in three episodes of Arness' later series How the West Was Won. His last attempt at a series of his own came in 1975 with Westwind, but during the 1980s, as his acting career slowed, he took on numerous outside business interests, including cattle ranches in Texas, Idaho, and Hawaii. He still made a rare foray or two back into television, most notably in "Love Is the Word," a 1979 episode of The Rockford Files, starring his old Warner Bros. stablemate James Garner. He has also served as an auxiliary volunteer for the Los Angeles County Sheriffs' Department. Because of the association of The Green Hornet with Lee's memory, and the reissue of several episodes of the show in edited form on DVD, Williams remains a fondly remembered leading man from 1960s television. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi