Disney+ gets so much attention from comic and geek culture fans for all the Star Wars and Marvel shows. Sometimes it gets a little too much attention, like the kind of attention from the misguided fans who are righteously indignant about Eiza Gonzalez being supposedly cast as Elektra.
But the Disney+ news that really excites me is their plans to re-release the old Zorro series. It debuted sixty-five years ago this month.
Their official release reads:
“Zorro” is an American action-adventure western series produced by Walt Disney Productions and starring Guy Williams. Based on the Zorro character created by Johnston McCulley, the series premiered on October 10, 1957, on ABC. The final network broadcast was July 2, 1959. Seventy-eight episodes were produced, and four hour-long specials were aired on the Walt Disney anthology series between October 30, 1960, and April 2, 1961.
Anthony Tollin, whom you might associate more closely with another crusading avenger dressed in black, The Shadow, recently posted on social media, “65 years ago today, Walt Disney’s ZORRO (starring Guy Williams) premieres on ABC-TV on October 10th, 1957. My favorite TV series as a child, it remains the ONLY one that fully lives up to my childhood memories of it! Great scripts and direction, incredible cast and superb music composed by William Lava. The second unit director during the first season was the legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt.”
As a kid, I believe I was first exposed to Zorro on the Sunday night Disney television program. I think it was officially called Disney’s Wonderful World of Color back then, but we just called the show Walt Disney. I also loved the 1958 Zorro book, by western author Steve Frazee. The prose combined with illustrations set me on a course that I still embrace today with publishers like Airship27.
But I just watched the first episode and was surprised how much I liked it! It seemed to standup to time’s harsh criticism pretty well. Much better than so many other old TV shows, in fact.
And then this past weekend, at the St. Luke’s Book Sale here in my hometown, I found a real treasure: an autographed copy of Chasing After Zorro by Britt Lomond. Lomond was the ‘bad guy’ in the first season of this Zorro TV show, playing Capitán Monastario. This 2003 book details the development of Zorro, his involvement and gives behind the scenes episode-by-episode details that only an integral actor could provide.
Lomond shares many amazing anecdotes. Here’s a (slightly abridged) one about how the show got the green light:
“In 1950, The Hollywood agent, Mitchell Gertz, obtained the rights of the Zorro stories from (creator) Johnston McCulley and began peddling the script to all the TV studios for financing and distribution. He had no takers. There was no major studio that thought the Zorro tale would make a successful television series and (so they) were not willing to invest their money in the project. Also, in 1950, Walt Disney became interested in Zorro, but he could not sell the show either. So again, it looked like the Zorro legend would never see the light of the television screen
Finally in 1957, along came a writer, producer and director by the name of Norman Foster, who rekindled the [sic] Walt Disney’s interest in the series. This time Walt was able to obtain sponsors for the series, but he did it a most unusual way. Walt gathered executives from the 7UP Bottling Company and the AC Product Company together while he himself made the pitch for the Zorro series. He first unveiled a miniature model of the fort and cuartel set, which also included some of the buildings of the Pueblo de Los Angeles. The potential sponsors were very impressed. However, Disney was not through with his presentation. He went on to add “And here, gentlemen, are representative figures of the cast members in our series.” He placed on the table six eight-inch-high model figures, detailed and painted as the characters would appear in the series. Walt smiled broadly, as he put the figures up for display and gave a little description of characters in his potential new series.
There were ‘Oohhs’ and ‘Ahhhs’ from the very impressed sponsor representatives.
The assembled executives loved Walt’s presentation and showed their appreciate with a thundering round of applause. There was no question that the two potential sponsors were now solidly onboard. Later, working with the 7UP and AC representatives, Walt developed animated characters to be in incorporated into the two sponsors’ commercials.
The vast audience of the Zorro shows loved those commercials and the idea of the animated characters Walt had developed. People watching their television sets really related to these commercials. Once again, Walt’s genius had struck paydirt. Make no mistake, the old maestro always knew what he was doing and provide it time and time again.”
Lomond revealed that he was Walt Disney’s first choice for the lead role of Zorro. The director wanted a model from New York named Armando Catalano, who was an excellent fencer. As the model became an actor, he would change his name to Guy Williams.
“Walt Disney wanted me for the lead role of Zorro. The director and the writer of the first group of segments, Norman Foster, wanted Guy Williams for the lead and for me to play the part of the Commandante. It was a stalemate. Neither of those two men would budge in this deadlock. It lasted almost a month.
It was my usual habit for several years to take a fencing lesson from my fencing master, Maestro Aldo Nadi, at least twice a week. However, during this frustrating period of waiting for the decision on the casting of the Zorro series, I went almost every night to take a fencing lesson. It was there at Maestro Nadi’s salle d’armes in West Hollywood that another fencing student introduced himself to me. It was Guy Williams. Guy was a very congenial fellow, and we quickly got along very well. When we did the series, both of us soon became very good friends and had some wonderful times together both on and off the set.
Finally, my own dilemma of the casting the on the Zorro series was solved. Walt gave in and agreed to let Norman have his way. It was settled as a fait accompli. Guy would play the twin parts of Zorro and Don de la Vega, and I would be cast as the evil Commandante, Capitán Monastario.”
I’m eager to watch more episodes of this series, and to augment my viewings with Lomond’s episode guide. Kind of like a director’s commentary, but old school style.
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And I just wrote a lengthy Zorro article in Back Issue Magazine #139. The theme of this issue is Classic Heroes, and my article’s particular focus was on Zorro comics in the Bronze Age. I had so much fun talking to creators like Don McGregor, Thomas Yeates, Renee Witterstaetter, Ruben Procopio and so many more. And it’s chock-full of wonderful illustrations too. Give it a look-see – available from TwoMorrows here or from your comic shop, and tell ‘em Ed sent ya.