“Another challenge for the Green Hornet, his aide Kato, and their rolling arsenal, the Black Beauty. On police records a wanted criminal, the Green Hornet is really Britt Reid, owner-publisher of the Daily Sentinel — his dual identity known only to his secretary and the District Attorney. And now, to protect the rights and lives of decent citizens, rides the Green Hornet.”
–The opening title narration for The Green Hornet
The year was 1966. Television airwaves had been filled with westerns, straight-laced cop shows, lawyer dramas, and traditional family sitcoms. Irwin Allen had started breaking that mold a season or two earlier, with cheap, occasionally silly SF shows, and the fall season of 1966 seemed populated with either extremely dry and serious television, or safe escapist fare. ABC was home to much of this new style, and one of the hottest shows from earlier that year was the campy and outrageous Batman, based on the comic book character.
Another comic book crimefighter show started that fall, designed to capitalize on the runaway success of the Caped Crusader and appeal to both the serious and the escapist viewer at the same time. The Green Hornet was introduced as a companion to the Batman series, including cross-over character appearances featuring fights with The Dynamic Duo. While The Green Hornet got reasonable ratings, they weren’t Batman-level. The show had been rushed into production and placed in a difficult time-slot, and therefore The Green Hornet was not nearly the television success of its near twin. But what do you expect when you’re portrayed as essentially the “next-best” comic-book crimefighter on television?
The Green Hornet was created by George Tendle and Fran Striker in 1936 as a radio program. This occurred nearly a year before the first character appearances of both Superman and Batman, as all three properties have many similarities. Batman and Green Hornet have armored cars and no superpowers, and are rich playboys; Superman and Green Hornet both work at newspapers. Similarly, The Green Hornet had other successes in both the film serials of the 1940’s, and comics that stared around the same time. The Green Hornet should have been known as “the original”.
And yet… The Green Hornet character didn’t even get first billing by his “creators”. Tendle and Striker also created The Lone Ranger, and explained in the radio series that the Hornet was The Lone Ranger’s great-nephew, in order to help market and cross-promote them both. So it wasn’t surprising what happened when television came along….
Hot off the success of his spring hit Batman, producer William Dozier decided to put together another show about a masked crimefighter supported by a youthful sidekick. Also lacking superpowers (and therefore not needing expensive special effects), the Green Hornet instead has, in addition to significant fighting skill, creative weapons like the Hornet Gun (a gas gun that knocks out enemies) and the Hornet Sting (seen above, which used sonic energy to open up doors and cause distractions). The Green Hornet also encouraged a reputation as a criminal and allowed his name to be sullied in order to get closer to the bad guys. (Again, not what you would think of as the actions of the best hero out there….)
“We tried to make The Green Hornet as truthful as you could be with a guy running around in a mask. I feel proud about that and I don’t care what anybody says.”
–Van Williams, comparing the TV versions of The Green Hornet and Batman
Where the Batman series went for the camp angle, The Green Hornet was played straight. Instead of fighting outrageous villains like the Joker, the Penguin, or Mr. Freeze, Green Hornet took on the lowlifes of the criminal underworld. Fistfights were shown as actual violence instead of comedy, and punches were never followed by a BAMPH! or a POW! There were few (if any) one-liners or catch phrases, and the only relationship the two shows shared (besides their comic book pasts) was a storyline “connection” as young playboy rivals mentioned during the cross-over episodes.
The Green Hornet’s true identity is Britt Reid (Van Williams). A newspaper publisher by day and the Green Hornet at night, his mission is to combat crime as a vigilante. His father, Dan Reid, was the founder of the Daily Sentinel, a newspaper that sought out and uncovered the evil denizens of the city and brought their injustices to light. When Britt’s father passed, Britt took up the mantle of editor and owner of the Daily Sentinel, and uses the vast financial and news-gathering resources to defeat the crime underworld in his city. But lawful methods are not always successful, and Reid’s alter ego allows him to go after those who were unable to be stopped in any other way.
The Green Hornet is accompanied by his Asian manservant Kato (Bruce Lee). Kato is of Japanese-Filipino descent and, unlike most sidekicks, actually drives the super-car and third main “character” of the group, the Black Beauty. In the previous radio and comic versions, Kato was a relatively minor character, and although Kato always had some hand-to-hand combat experience, Lee added much more to the role with his extraordinary martial-arts fighting skills. Lee also used his knowledge of the nunchaku and added them to Kato’s personal arsenal, which included “throwing darts” to immobilize armed enemies.
Mike Axford (Lloyd Gough) is the crime reporter for the Daily Sentinel. His loyalty and fervor for the paper is matched only by his hatred for The Green Hornet, believing that the Hornet is a true villain and menace to the community. Britt allows this (as he obviously would have the power to stop any article that Axford would want to print), because he feels that The Green Hornet being viewed as a criminal will get him closer to the criminal elements that he wants to defeat. Even though Axford would never suspect Britt as being the Hornet, Axford’s knowledge and resources make him an invaluable asset to “both”, since all of his scoops pass through Britt first, thus keeping the Green Hornet in the know about the happenings of the scum of the city.
Frank Scanlon (Walter Brooke) is the city’s District Attorney. His glasses have a receptor that, when activated by the Green Hornet, notifies the D.A. that they need to meet. He is one of the few people who knows Reid’s crime-fighting alter-ego, and is also one of very few people whom Britt trusts completely. This partnership is extremely valuable for both parties, as the D.A. gets crime off the streets thanks to the Hornet’s efforts, and the Green Hornet is able to do his work with little police interference.
The Green Hornet’s car, Black Beauty, might well be considered a character in the series. It is a customized 1966 Imperial Crown sedan equipped with several weapons and defensive measures, including headlights that flipped to a “infra-green” mode, allowing anyone in the car to see perfectly in complete darkness. This “rolling arsenal” features rocket launchers, machine guns, and even a scanner device that could be launched into the air and send coordinates and pictures of cars and/or people being followed by Green Hornet and Kato. These all could be easily concealed, as there were times during their adventures when a low profile was necessary.
Shooting of The Green Hornet took place mostly on the Fox studio lot. Many of the sets used were simply re-dresses of already built sets for movies and shows that were currently in production. Budget-conscious producers (like Dozier and his bosses) were expected to be creative with their money, especially on a half-hour show. The signature shots of the Black Beauty leaving its secret lair and heading out into the city were actually shot on redressed Western town sets, making the car seem larger than it would on traditional city streets, and this shot was a “signature” because the same clip was used in almost every episode, eliminating the need to shoot the footage differently each time!
The many “night shots” in the series were actually filmed during the daytime using the day-for-night technique common during the ’60s (and refined and used even today). This involved using a specialized lens, or even just underexposing an ordinary daytime shot, to create a darker exposure approximating nighttime action and saving a bundle in actual night overtime filming as a result. The Green Hornet was still notoriously expensive, as it was really trying to be an hour drama with a half-hour comedy budget, and that budget was blown sky-high on more than one episode. Again, the series was trying to live up to being “the best” and not being given the ability to do so.
“Oh, Bruce was just livid. He didn’t get along with Burt Ward at all. Ward was always making cracks about Bruce being a waiter, and it got back to Bruce. He didn’t want to have a confrontation with Robin where he would be bested. As a matter of fact, Bruce almost walked off the show because he thought Robin was just a comic character and had no balls. Here, Bruce was the big kung fu guy and he was going to be bested by this kid. It was just a mess.”
–Van Williams, talking about Bruce Lee and filming the Batman cross-overs.
The Green Hornet was often seen in the back seat of the Black Beauty, being driven to his criminal confrontations by Kato. Ultimately, the actor playing the Hornet willingly took a back seat to his co-star in popularity. Williams actually asked for more screen time for co-star Bruce Lee, as Williams saw his talents and thought it would be great for the show, and thus would benefit everyone. Although Lee would joke that the only reason he got the part in the first place was that he could pronounce “Britt Reid” well enough to satisfy the brass at 20th Century Fox, rumor has it that the writers of the series modified the scripts to show off Lee and his amazing talents. Lee’s portrayal of Kato earned him more fan mail than Williams before the series was over. (Lee still suffered from the racial attitudes of the day, however. He was the lowest paid performer on the show, making a fifth of what Williams made per episode, and less than the other regulars and guest stars, even though he got second billing.)
Bruce Lee’s impact on the character of Kato and The Green Hornet franchise is still felt today. Nearly all portrayals of Kato since Lee’s have been strong and important to the storyline, unlike in the original radio and movie serial incarnations. Nearly every version since the television series features Kato as a martial arts master, with him training The Green Hornet and honing the Hornet’s fighting skills. Some comic-book versions portray Kato having the same look and mannerisms as Bruce Lee, and have progressed to having Kato training a new Green Hornet in case of the former Green Hornet either retires or is killed. Even compared to the sidekick, the Green Hornet finished in second place.
“We really didn’t have time to develop anything except a stern guy who was out to do good. There was no scope to it. Somehow, we would discover a new criminal element, and there we would go. There really wasn’t the time to do Kato and I.”
–Van Williams, on the lack of time and budget caused by the half-hour episode length
The Green Hornet was rather successful, although not as successful as Batman had initially been. The show still won its Friday time slot, and ABC actually wanted to renew the series for a second season. Producer Dozier was tired of fighting the budget battles, and wanted ABC to commit to an hour-long version of the show that would better handle dramatic storylines (and be able to afford them), and ABC was unwilling to pay for that version. The Black Beauty was then parked after one season and 26 episodes, again having to settle for being the next-best version of what it could have been.
VAN WILLIAMS (The Green Hornet/Britt Reid) was known for his earlier leading role as Kenny Madison in both detective series Bourbon Street Beat and its sequel Surfside 6. Williams was already financially successful when he did The Green Hornet, as he had brokered several business deals with his money from acting and made several very profitable business investments. After his acting career, he used his investments and a job as a reserve deputy of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to keep him going (and apparently fighting crime!) His land dealings has also kept him in touch with Batman actor Adam West, who is not only a close friend, but neighbor as well.
BRUCE LEE (Kato) moved to Hong Kong soon after the cancellation of The Green Hornet. The Green Hornet’s success there was actually a stepping stone for Lee, marketed there as The Kato Show. Several other films followed, including Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon (which featured Chuck Norris), and Lee’s most popular film Enter the Dragon, bringing him international acclaim. Lee was also a teacher, philosopher, director, producer, screenwriter, and founder of his own form of martial arts. He is considered one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century and a cultural icon, and his trademark style has influenced movies, games, MMA, health, fitness and philosophy. Most of this, unfortunately, he would never see as he died of a cerebral edema, caused by a painkiller, only a few weeks before the premiere of Enter the Dragon in 1973.
LLOYD GOUGH (Mike Axford) was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and lost 12 years of his film career (from 1952 to 1964) due to that unfortunate and terrible time. Primarily a movie actor before then, he became a character on television during his “second” career, guesting in shows like Ben Casey, The Odd Couple, and Barnaby Jones. He died of an aneurysm in 1984.
WALTER BROOKE (D.A. Frank Scanlon) is best known for playing Mr. McGuire in The Graduate, where he said his famous line, “Plastics”, which caused the stock market for that particular commodity to rise in real life. He also did many plays in the Washington D.C. area and was a veteran TV actor with nearly 200 titles and a 45-year professional career to his credit. Brooke died of emphysema in 1986.
THE BLACK BEAUTY sat on the Fox back lot until 1992, when Green Hornet fan Dan Goodman bought the main (number 1 of 2) Black Beauty and commissioned the original designer Dean Jefferies to restore the car. This version now resides in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where it is part of their permanent Cars of Hollywood exhibit. The second version is in the hands of a private collector, who has created a website about the history of both cars.
The Green Hornet has not been released on DVD (at least, not officially, although the standard bootlegs are out there, of course). The rights issue on the TV series is rather cloudy, considering its comic book origins, although the upcoming release of a major Hollywood feature film based on the franchise is cause for some hope. (The movie was a labor of love for its star, Seth Rogan, who is a huge fan of the original TV series, comics, and radio program, and the movie has been in development with various other actors as far back as 1992.) Here’s the trailer for the film, which comes out in January 2011. The show’s famous opening theme song (also used in the radio series) is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, performed for the series by the famous trumpeter Al Hirt.
“I dig the fact that he kicked off a run of billionaire playboys who decided to put on a mask and fight crime, and that he was Batman before there was a Batman.”
–filmmaker and comic book writer Kevin Smith
The Green Hornet movie finally being produced after all this time (after the blockbuster success of The Dark Knight) shows once again that Hollywood seems to think of the franchise as being the also-ran to Batman. Nothing could be further from the truth. One can only hope that The Green Hornet will finally gain the respect it deserves, and maybe the title of this article can be changed from “The Next-Best Crimefighter” to a slightly different version: “Next, the Best Crimefighter”.
I’d like to thank my good friend John B., Green Hornet fan extraordinaire, for all his help and knowledge in making this article work, and for wanting to cover this show as a prelude to the new movie version. I appreciate the continued support. –Tim R.
26 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: September 9, 1966
Last aired episode: March 17, 1967
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No, but Fridays at 7:30/6:30 Central is about as close as you can get.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.