WHY "ZORRO" IS ONE OF THE COOLEST TV SHOWS EVER @ 20 November 2009 06:22 PM

I grew up knowing Walt Disney's Zorro TV show more from the famous theme song than the show itself. There were reruns in syndication and a revival on The Disney Channel (with special emphasis on the Zorro episodes featuring Annette) but I don't think I saw more than a handful, I must admit. I missed the show at the peak of its initial success in the late '50s.



That's why I wanted to experience every episode from both seasons on the new Walt Disney Treasures releases. I must say, after 78 shows and four extra Walt Disney Presents hours, it is an extremely rich and entertaining television, far and above most similar programs of its era. And while there are the issues of political incorrectness (ethnicity, roles of women, drink and smoking), there's an amazing relevance to the overall series and perhaps a social influence beyond that.

Zorro rarely opposes standard robbers and bandits. His main adversaries are authority figures who have exploited their positions for wealth and power. They use people like playthings and often have mental problems (after all, The Caine Mutiny was popular around this time).

Because the episodes, while somewhat self contained, are almost always multi-part "arcs," much like today's episodic TV shows, these villains are permitted to oppress and pillage until they sink under their own weight. Zorro sees to it that their plans fail and eventually that they are put either in jail or outside any real influence.

Among the most interesting of these antagonists are, of course, Monastario (Britt Lomond), who sets the standard for the "executive" villain, but perhaps it is Jose Sebastian Varga, who has a secret identity as Zorro does -- 'The Eagle" -- that is among the most memorable. Played by Charles Korvin (whom fans of The Honeymooners will recognize as Carlos Sanchez, who taught Ralph, Alice and Mrs. Manicotti how to mambo), Varga is a complicated man, with sharp mood swings (punctuated by a voice that becomes shrill) and a paranoid fear of being alone. Don Diego (Guy Williams in his Clark Kent identity when he's not Zorro) and his servant, Bernardo (Gene Sheldon) actually subject Varga to a "Gaslight" type scare fest.

Speaking of Bernardo, his role as "servant" is so much more, of course. As played brilliantly by Gene Sheldon, he is a mute who also feigns hearing impairment in order to listen in to conversations. By today's standards, Bernardo would perform the same role but perhaps be called a "personal assistant."

Sgt. Garcia, a role defined by the versatile Henry Calvin (who co-starred in Broadway's Kismet and did a brilliant Oliver Hardy to Rob Petrie's Stan Laurel on a great Dick Van Dyke Show episode) is classic middle management. He's always eager to please his boss du jour, hoping that each successive replacement might not be as corrupt as the last, and also yearning for a promotion that never comes. Don Diamond joins the cast a few episodes into the show as Garcia's sidekick, a role he repeated in a manner of speaking on The Flying Nun, when he partnered with Vito Scotti as the Clouseau-like Captain Fomento.

Scotti is among the legion of guest stars that appear on the series and the four hour shows. In The Complete Season One set, look for Vinton Hayworth (General Shaefer on I Dream of Jeannie); Joan Shawlee (Buddy's wife Pickles on The Dick Van Dyke Show); Anthony George (Burke Devlin on Dark Shadows), and the beloved Mary Wickes (of countless shows from I Love Lucy and Dennis the Menace to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and the Mickey Mouse Club's Annette serial).



Annette plays two roles in The Complete Season Two package: a young daughter in search of her father (the role Walt famously gave to her as a sweet 16 gift since Guy Williams was her teen idol), singing Jimmie Dodd's "Lonely Guitar,"  and as a feisty young woman with bad taste in boyfriends, singing Richard & Robert Sherman's "Amo Que Paso" and "Como Esta Usted."

Music features prominently in many Zorro episodes, from original songs created primarily for the operatic Calvin or Bill Lee (who sings offscreen for Williams and also guest star Cesar Romero) to William Lava's score, which weaves themes for Zorro, Bernardo and Garcia (the last of which reminds me a bit of the Nutcracker March).

Season two features more guests stars then season one, since the series was a huge hit by then. They include spaghetti western stalwart Lee Van Cleef, as well as Michael Forest and Barbara Luna (both seen on the classic Star Trek series); Richard Anderson (Six Million Dollar Man & Bionic Woman); Whit Bissell (The Time Tunnel); Tige Andrews (The Mod Squad), Neil Hamilton (Batman), Robert Vaughn (The Man from UNCLE); George Neise (Leo Fassbinder on The Dick Van Dyke Show) and none other than Lost in Space's Dr. Smith himself, Jonathan Harris!

The hour long shows all feature celebrity guests. In addition to Annette, there's Rita Moreno (the same year as West Side Story), Ross Martin (The Wild, Wild West) and Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island). Walt Disney introduces each of the hours.

It's interesting to speculate that Zorro, which was a huge hit in 1957, depicting a renegade romantic hero who flew in the face of errant authority, might have inspired the youth of the day to revolt ten years later when it seemed to happen in real life with Vietnam and Watergate. And today, those baddies can be compared with maniacal corporate cads like Bernie Madoff and Leona Helmsley.

It's a mistake to consider Walt Disney's Zorro as a footnote in television history or in Disney history. As the bonus features prove, the series was produced at a budget unheard of at the time and has a movie quality. The character never seems to go out of style -- just ask Antonio Banderas, who portrayed the hero in two recent films. But surely even he would acknowledge that Guy Williams in many ways made Zorro his own and may always be fondly remembered for the role.

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