When I was younger, I had impeccable taste in films. Before I was a teenager I was watching The Muppet Movie (1979) every single Saturday morning with my dad. Do we all realize how genius that movie was? Every living comedian was in it! And a few living legends thrown in for good measure. Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Charles Durning, Austin Pendleton, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Dom DeLuise, Elliot Gould, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, James Coburn, Carole Kane, Cloris Leachman, and Orson Welles. These people were familiar to me as the evil Dr. Max (Brooks) or the studio exec and his squeaky-voiced secretary (Welles and Leachman). Only later, in discovering my appreciation for Peter Bogdonavich (same sense of humor and influences), did I realize that I actually was getting a really great education in comedy and in film.
Another childhood favorite was Disney’s Zorro TV series, which aired on ABC from 1957 to 1959. I watched it on VHS, taped from Vault Disney when it ran midnight to 1am. Obviously I was not allowed to stay up so late and watch it, so my dad would set the VCR. Those episodes I watched over and over again. I’m pretty sure I memorized some of them. And of course, I could fast forward through commercials. When Antonio Banderas’ The Mask of Zorro came out in 1998, I was excited. I loved Zorro! Then I saw the movie. And let me tell you, Banderas is no Guy Williams. I wanted MY Zorro! And, since December is my birthday month, which means I dedicate this month to things I enjoy and love for rational or irrational reasons, I am beginning a series of posts on this amazing and sadly overlooked 1950’s TV show.
Zorro was the original American superhero. His story has fascinated us since we invented the moving picture. In the early 1920’s there were several adaptations and sequels of Zorro-centered films. In 1940, Tyrone Power played the masked man. The story is familiar: a rich Spanish heir, Don Diego de la Vega, comes to California in the 1820’s to join his father, Don Alejandro de la Vega, and quickly realizes that the California of his youth has become corrupt. To fight the corruption, he adopts the persona of a dandy during the day, and at night becomes a masked man all in black, who carves a Z with his sword. Don Diego must pretend to be ‘soft,’ to know nothing of swordsmanship, but to be a conniseur of fine books and fine wines. Zorro, however, is the best swordsman in California. Zorro is both aided and hindered by the local authorities. Usually the mayor or government official is corrupt, while the military leader is merely stupid.
Guy Williams, my Zorro, did some film and TV work in the early 1950’s, before landing roles on Highway Patrol and Men of Annapolis. Post-Zorro, he played leading roles in Damon and Pythias and Captain Sindbad. He did a stint on Gunsmoke, and was a cast member of Lost in Space for three years (as the father). That was effectively the end of his career. In the scheme of things, a somewhat insignificant actor, definitely not a star, but still, to me he epitomized Zorro. He was tall, dashing, he had the mustache, the accent, and he always seemed to be smiling while swordfighting. Plus, he managed to keep his secret longer than Tyrone Power did, but then again, Guy had Bernardo.
Bernardo was Don Diego’s servant, who was introduced to everyone in California as deaf and dumb. In reality, he was just dumb. He could hear just fine, but when Don Diego decided to pretend to be something he was not, Bernardo wanted a secret too. Plus, it came in handy because people would say anything in front of Bernardo, thinking he couldn’t hear them. He had a kind of sign language for communicating with Don Diego (when Don Diego tells him to “slow down you’re speaking too quickly” – you know the show is clever), and he helps Don Diego keep his secret. He’s Alfred, if Zorro is Batman. (Hey, they both had caves under their mansions.)
Bernardo was played by Gene Sheldon, who worked sporadically (and I do mean sporadically, he had gaps of two to seven years between films) from 1930’s-50’s – when Disney found him and his comedy potential. He appeared in Toby Tyler and Babes in Toyland in addition to Zorro. (Both films also featured fellow Zorro alum Henry Calvin, better known as Sergeant Dmitrio Lopez Garcia.)
Sergeant Garcia falls into the camps of both helping and hindering Zorro. He is a portly gentleman, of greasy, slicked down hair and double chins. He is sincere and knows his limitations. He has a weakness for wine, and no stomach for real soldiering. He is easily manipulated, which local authority figures often do, turning Garcia into the hindrance to Zorro. Initially he issues a reward for capturing or killing Zorro, and even crosses swords with him a few times, but after Zorro rescues him, he relaxes his views. Garcia and Don Diego are very good friends – Garcia little suspecting Don Diego’s alter-ego. Henry Calvin, like Gene Sheldon, did not have a long or illustrious career in film and TV, apart from Disney. Calvin was an accomplished singer (he even sang a few songs on the show) and was featured on several Disney records.
Another soldier frequently seen on the show was Corporal Reyes, whose rapport with Sergeant Garcia is the stuff of legend. Corporal Reyes was a sleepy, droopy soldier, less fond of drink than Sergeant Garcia, but just as fond of doing no work. Think of him as Eeyore. He delighted in pointing out the obvious to Sergeant Garcia, who never saw it as obvious. Reyes’ delight was never apparent either – the genius of Don Diamond’s comedy. One of Diamond’s first TV appearances was a recurring role on The Adventures of Kit Carson. He guested on innumerable TV shows between 1950 and 1987, when he made his last appearance. He had longer stints on F Troop, Run For Your Life, The Flying Nun, and in 1981, The New Adventures of Zorro, as Sergeant Gonzalez.
Don Diego’s father, Don Alejandro (And let me stop to confess, I ran all these guys’ names together and it became Donalejandro, one first name. Only later did I learn that ‘Don’ was a prefix like ‘Mr.’ for land-owning Spaniards in early California.), was played by George J. Lewis, who probably had the most prolific career of the main cast of characters. Lewis started in films in the early 1920’s – making his break as George Benson in The Collegians series of shorts. There were 44 two-reel films in the series. From the 1930’s to 1950’s, Lewis played any number of supporting characters and uncredited roles. My personal favorite of these is as “Test Actor #2” in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, with Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell, and Walter Pidgeon). In the 1950’s and after, Lewis turned more to TV work, appearing on a few episodes of The Life of Legend of Wyatt Earp, which also featured Don Diamond, although not the same ones. He appeared on 77 Sunset Strip for a year and did a few episodes and guest spots here and there before retiring in 1969. Don Alejandro played a key role in encouraging Don Diego’s donning (ha) of the Zorro persona, and in season two, in keeping it alive.
So, now that you have been introduced to this fine cast of unforgettable characters, you can look forward to my next post, on season one! Here’s a teaser trailer to get you excited:
(Quick disclaimer: these beautiful black and white classic television episodes were COLORIZED in 1992 when they were being re-aired by Disney. Atrocities.)