Classic TV’s “The Green Hornet” Introduced Us to the Martial Arts and Heart of Bruce Lee
In 1966, ABC was looking for another superhero.
After Bewitched became a hit in its first season on ABC in 1964, NBC became interested in replicating that show’s magic popularity with the similarly-themed and also female-driven I Dream of Jeannie, which debuted the following year. More times than not, such is the case on network television: success in one genre usually breeds and begs repeating.
The situation was not any different from the TV superhero hit Batman, starring Adam West, and Burt Ward as Robin, the appeal of which networks started clamoring to replicate with shows like Mr. Terrific (played by Stephen Strimpell on CBS), and Captain Nice (William Daniels on NBC), both of which premiered January 9, 1967, and were short-lived.
Then there was The Green Hornet which, in fact, was brought aboard by Batman executive producer William Dozier for the same bat network, ABC in the same bat season (1966–1967). Like Batman, Hornet featured a handsome lead, this time in the guise of Van Williams, who up until then, was best known as Ken Madison on TV’s Surfside 6 (1960–1962), which co-starred Lee Patterson and Troy Donahue.
At Van’s side on Hornet was future martial arts legend Bruce Lee as Kato, Green Hornet’s side-kicking side-kick. (Kung Fu’s Keye Luke had played the role in two movie serials during the 1940s). Shortly after Hornet’s brief run, Lee would return to television as yet another sidekick, this time to James Franciscus, on another short-lived series, ABC’s Longstreet (1971–1972).
Longstreet debuted as a TV-movie in 1971, one year before David Carradine was cast in the 90-minute pilot TV-film for Kung Fu, the producers for which had rejected Lee as the lead (for being too “tough”). Consequently, Lee left American entertainment and returned to his homeland China, where he became a star of what became international martial arts cult films.
But it was on Hornet that both Lee and Williams made their indelible mark.
According to entertainment historian Professor Jeffrey Thompson, “Although Van Williams had appeared on Surfside Six, and The Tycoon before 1966, he made his indelible mark that year as the Green Hornet in a series that really should have run longer than one season. [His] elegant looks and a hard edge that came across in the Green Hornet’s body language and voice combined to make Williams convincing and exciting as both the wealthy newspaper publisher Britt Reid and the vengeful Green Hornet.
“Williams always played his dual role straight and seriously — even when he appeared in three episodes [one cameo and a two-part segment] of the outrageous Batman series. Van’s Green Hornet was more like George Reeves’s Superman than Adam West’s Batman.”
As recorded on TVRage.com, Williams was to follow in his family’s footsteps and had planned to become a cattle rancher, after studying animal husbandry and business (at Texas Christian University).
An early marriage then went south, and he flew to Hawaii, where he found work as a driving instructor. One of his clients was Mike Todd, the third of six husbands to Elizabeth Taylor, who suggested he utilize his charismatic assets in Hollywood, where Williams eventually landed (after a back injury curtailed other options).
He soon began making guest appearances on various TV series including Bourbon Street Beat, which was one of the many of the crime dramas produced by Warner Bros., most modeled after their successful 77 Sunset Strip show. Starring with Williams on Bourbon were veteran actors Andrew Duggan and Richard Long (later of ABC’s The Big Valley).
Bourbon lasted only one season, but executive producer William Orr took Van’s character, Ken Madison, and moved him from the French Quarter of New Orleans to a Miami Beach houseboat, and renamed the show Surfside 6, which teamed Van with Lee Patterson and young heartthrob Troy Donahue.
This series, which continued for only two years, established Williams as an attractive presence that could effectively perform both drama and comedy (as evidenced with a particularly enjoyable guest appearance in a 1965 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show — as a former boyfriend to Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie).
By this time, Williams was a husband to wife Vicki, a former surfing pro who he met in Hawaii, and married on New Year’s Eve 1959. They went on to have three children, adding to his family of twin daughters from a previous marriage. Somewhat disgruntled with the instability of acting, he began investing his earnings in business and real estate. However, he still continued to act in TV shows like ABC’s The Tycoon (with Walter Brennan), from 1964 to 1965.
One year later, The Green Hornet became a success, if with a few issues. Williams felt the 30-minute format prevented the series from fully developing its core mythology.
The result: Hornet nested for only 26 installments.
After that, Williams continued to act, but his roles were sparse. He starred in a final series — a Saturday morning children’s show titled Westwind; made a few other TV guest-spots (including a 1975 episode Gunsmoke, which he considers one of his personal best), and rejected others (such as a semi-regular role on the hit CBS 1980’s prime-time soap Falcon Crest).
Following a bit part on NBC’s The Rockford Files in 1979, he quit acting, if only to make a campy “TV-show-within-a-movie” cameo in the 1993 Bruce Lee biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, in which he portrayed the director of The Green Hornet.
While working on the original Hornet series in 1966, Williams sought more screen time for Lee, both to help his friend, costar, and martial-arts instructor and to give the show a lift by increasing the visibility of its most popular cast member. But the producers chose not to deflect attention toward a nonwhite actor.
After the series ended, Williams spent several months a year in Southern California as a reserve deputy with the Malibu station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Today, he resides in Ketchum, Idaho, where his neighbor is Batman’s Adam West.
Lee, meanwhile, died tragically on July 20, 1973, at only 32 years of age, from an accidental drug interaction during the filming of what became his final martial arts movie: Enter the Dragon, released the year of his demise. He left behind two children: Shannon and Brandon Lee, the latter of whom also met a grim death by an accidental shooting at a young age (28) on what would be his last martial arts movie (The Crow, 1994).
Adding further irony: Brandon had costarred with David Carradine in the 1986 CBS-TV-reunion film Kung Fu: The Movie, based on the original 1972–1973 ABC eastern-western. It was a twisted bit of casting, considering Lee was rejected for the lead on the first Fu, which was co-created by Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander, and not by Lee or the show’s producer Jerry Thorpe (as has been erroneously reported in the past).
Original Kung Fu star Radames Pera, who played Young “Grasshopper” Caine in the China flashbacks to Carradine’s future adult Caine of the Old West, shares his thoughts on it all:
“Some people say Bruce Lee should have starred in Kung Fu, but as has been fairly documented in the past, ABC didn’t think the U.S. was ready for ‘an Asian’ in such a leading role. Though they were short-sighted from a cultural perspective, I’m also not so sure Mr. Lee, clearly an innovator and someone much closer to the character himself in terms of inner and outer training, could have brought the subtlety and nuance to the performance that David Carradine did.
“Certainly the “kung-fu phenomenon” of the era, nor its lasting legacy, would have happened without the one-two punch of the U.S. TV series combined with Bruce’s Chinese films. It had to go this way for the greater good. This also paved the way for Brandon Lee, an even better actor than his dad, completing some pretty deep family karma by working alongside David in Kung Fu: The Movie. No doubt the two of them learned from each other.”
Writer/producer Joel Eisenberg, of the upcoming new series, Chronicles of Ara (for Ovation TV; and based on his books with Stephen Hillard), is “a huge fan” of Bruce Lee’s films, particularly Enter the Dragon, and 1972’s The Chinese Connection.
Eisenberg had for years believed the reason Lee died so young was that he “transcended man’s physical limitations.”
“No kidding,” he says. “I was convinced. No one else on the planet could throw so fast a kick or so speedy a punch; no one had ever before exhibited so feral a presence. He became a legend for a reason. He died a legend for a reason and his legend grew still over time. For a reason.”
“Before the legend,” as Eisenberg puts it, there was a series of early films he made as a child actor in Hong Kong, followed years later by his work on The Green Hornet.
Conversely, Van Williams played the Hornet lead with what Eisenberg calls “a straight-arrow’s seriousness and worldly charm,” while Lee’s “Kato was to be his cohort.”
“Turned out,” Eisenberg clarifies, “most would say it was the other way around.”
When Kato fought Burt Ward’s Robin in a two-part episode of the Batman series that gave birth to Hornet, Eisenberg rooted for Kato. “He was just too cool, too slick and deadly.”
Lee’s Kato wasn’t the costar of Batman, as was Ward’s Robin, so Eisenberg “had to settle for a draw” between the two co-leading characters; that outcome was somewhat unsettling for Eisenberg, but as he goes on to convey, the moment did not taint his or the world’s adulation for Lee:
“Bruce was a remarkable athlete, a remarkable performer, and a remarkable philosopher. One couldn’t help but take him seriously. His influence was supposed to live on, so many years later, in his son Brandon who, like his dad, was gifted with an unnatural charisma. Also like his dad, his death caused him to leave the mortal coil much too early.
“Some called it The ‘Curse’ of the Dragon as if any scion of Bruce was fated to an equally untimely end. Regardless, such tragedy only added to the legacy of the family name.
“Thankfully, however, today Bruce’s daughter Shannon carries on her family’s tradition of achievement. Shannon continues to thrive as a successful businesswoman and, along with Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce’s widow ensures that the spirits of her father and her brother will never be forgotten.”
The same may be said for Van Williams and The Green Hornet across the board.
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Originally published at www.emmys.com.