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Photo of Van Williams as the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee as Kato from the ABC television program The Green Hornet.

If that headline sounds strange, well, then in a way it’s correct. That’s because the man who played the criminal crime fighter in the 1966 television series was not only born in Texas but bore the name of a Texas county. He was of course East Texas Notable Van Williams.

Born in 1934 as Van Zandt Jarvis Williams, he grew up on a Fort Worth area ranch and was in Hawaii when he met producer Mike Todd in 1957. Todd encouraged him to go to Hollywood but suggested he finish college first. Williams followed his advice and by 1959 was under contract to Warner Brothers where he co-starred in several of their TV detective series. Along the way, he appeared in other TV programs and then in 1966 his agent suggested he play the Green Hornet.

This character came from a radio series started in 1935 by media executive George W. Trendle and others associated with the Lone Ranger series. The Green Hornet was a vigilante who was described as a wanted criminal who meddled in crime gangs to upset their plans and leave them for the police. This required official connections and on the radio this was often the police commissioner but on the TV series it was the local D.A.

The man behind the mask was Britt Reid, then the editor of a daily newspaper, at a time when newspapers had far more influence than today. On the TV series Reid was a newspaper publisher but also owned a TV station. The Hornet was assisted by Kato, a character described on the radio as a bodyguard/enforcer/chauffer who was actually Reid’s valet. Back then he was first a Japanese but in 1939 as the national sentiment against Japan grew (culminating in Pearl Harbor in 1941), Kato became a Filipino of Japanese descent. In the TV series, Kato’s ethnicity was not mentioned though he was of course played by later martial arts film star Bruce Lee. On television he was called the Hornet’s “aide.”

When the series began on the radio the opening announcer proclaimed that the Green Hornet battled “the biggest of all game – public enemies the G-Men could not reach!” However, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover objected and the line was changed. On TV the announcer (actually producer William Dozier) told the audience, “Another challenge for the Green Hornet...On police records, a wanted criminal, his dual identity known only to his secretary and the District Attorney...The Green Hornet rides to protect the rights and lives of decent citizens.”

Something mentioned occasionally on the radio series was Reid’s relationship to the Lone Ranger – another character created by one of the writers. Britt Reid was supposed to be the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew, being the grandson of the Ranger’s brother. However, on TV the Hornet’s motivation was revenging his falsely accused imprisoned father.

“The Green Hornet” series was actually produced by the same company that issued the more popular series “Batman,” but it was played straight instead of with a comic element. This connection allowed Williams and Bruce Lee as Kato to appear to appear on “Batman” several times. However, while Batman ran several years the Hornet series lasted just the one season.

When the series ended in 1967 Williams was not anxious to continue as an actor and didn’t need to since wise investments had made him successfully independent. In fact one magazine profiled him as “your friendly neighborhood tycoon.”

Though over the next few years Williams did appear on television and in movies, by 1981 he decided to retire completely after he turned down a major role offer in a popular series. He said earlier, “By the time the Green Hornet came along I had pretty well decided to get out of the television business.” Also, he was wary of type casting, knowing it had been a problem with previous actors in TV roles. Also, as one source put it: “He also stated that his only interest in acting was taking it up as a business rather than to gain celebrity status.”

As he retired in 1982 he opened his own communications company and also worked for several years as a reserve deputy with the Los Angeles Sherriff’s office stationed out of Malibu. He passed away in 2016.

In an interview later in life he introduced himself with the identification, “An old cowboy from Texas who just stumbled into acting.”

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