“Out of the night, when the full moon is bright Comes the horseman known as Zorro . . .”
On October 10, 1957 – 65 years ago this week – audiences nationwide first tuned in to watch Disney’s Zorro starring Guy Williams, hearing those iconic lines from the Sherman Brothers’ theme song. Today, after years of fans waiting for the classic series, both seasons (all 78 episodes) have premiered on Disney+ in the U.S. and Canada for the first time.
Set in 1820’s California, before the land was incorporated into the U.S., the half-hour Western drama follows how Don Diego de la Vega (Williams) returns from Spain to find his hometown besieged by a power-hungry dictator. The young man, unknown to his wealthy father, decides to take on the persona of “Zorro,” which is Spanish for “fox.”
Author Johnston McCulley, who wrote more than 65 Zorro books and short stories, had some involvement in the Disney series prior to his 1958 death. If the set-up sounds like another wealthy playboy-turned-vigilante, you’re not wrong. Batman co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger admitted their masked hero was influenced by Zorro.
For fans of vintage Walt Disney-era films and shows, this 65th Anniversary streaming release of Zorro marks the first addition from that era to Disney+ in over a year. Perhaps further titles will premiere in the months ahead as part of the #Disney100 celebration.
Here are five things you should know about Disney’s Zorro TV series:
1. The lead actor wasn’t originally named Guy Williams
A first-generation Italian American, whose parents were born in Sicily, the star later known as Guy Williams was born in New York City as Armand Joseph Catalano. Early in his career, he played a series of what he later called “eminently forgettable” roles in several Hollywood films.
During the 1940s, Williams originally took on the screen moniker “Guido Armando.” But he learned from his agent that a major director turned him down for a role, because his name sounded “too foreign.” He thus adopted the name Guy Williams. Beating out 20 other actors, the relative unknown won the role of Zorro after a screen test.
2. From the start, the adventure series was a massive ratings hit
Following Disney’s success with its anthology TV series, Walt Disney himself played a big role in producing their first TV drama. According to historian Bill Cotter, production on Zorro season one cost $3.2 million–which translates to $33 million in today’s dollars. Sets featured elaborate period details, action scenes were carefully choreographed, and legendary fencing instructor Fred Cavens helped hone Williams’ skills.
The actor proved versatile, able to tackle scenes whether action-driven, comic, or romantic. Similar to Disney’s Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker (part of the Disney anthology TV series), Zorro became a merchandising and promotional bonanza–with Williams appearing at Disneyland and black masks becoming popular among kids.
3. The first and second seasons have some significant differences
Zorro follows a serialized format, often leaving viewers on a cliffhanger until the next week–similar to current hits like Star Wars: Andor. Over 39 episodes, Zorro season one tells three major dramatic stories, each 13 episodes.
By season two, producers changed the format to allow multi-episode arcs to be any length, with some lasting only four episodes. Certain storylines emphasized romance to a greater degree (including three episodes featuring Disney star Annette Funicello), in hopes of keeping female viewers. IMDb episode ratings reflect that Zorro fans regard season two as highly as the debut season.
4. Four Zorro specials remain unreleased, in the Disney vault
Facing a rights dispute with ABC, Walt Disney did not move ahead with season three despite the show’s high ratings. To satisfy fan demand, the character came back over a year after season two ended – for four hour-long special episodes aired on the Disney anthology TV series.
Two of those specials aired in fall 1960. “El Bandido” and “Adios, El Cuchillo” center around the same villain, who meets his comeuppance in the second drama. “The Postponed Wedding” features Disney legend Funicello again, though in a different role.
“Auld Acquaintance” reunites the key cast, including Zorro’s father (George J. Lewis), Bernando (Gene Sheldon), and Sergeant Garcia (Henry Calvin) for a final adventure.
5. Two different Zorro reboot series are currently in the works
Two different iterations of the masked hero are being developed for the small screen, both licensed by Zorro Productions Inc., which claims the rights to the character in many countries worldwide. For The CW network, producer Robert Rodriguez (The Book of Boba Fett), his sister Rebecca Rodriguez, and Sean Tretta (Mayans M.C.) are working on a “contemporary take” on the legend with a female Zorro in the lead.
For Disney Plus, Latino actor Wilmer Valderrama (That 70’s Show) is working with producer Gary Marsh (former head of Disney Channel) on a reimagined Zorro series. Reportedly it will have a similar setting as the classic series “told in a very modern telenovela style — with richly drawn contemporary characters and relationships.”
In a recent update, Valderrama called the reboot series “a Zorro for this generation (with) an incredibly thoughtful origin story that’s grounded in authenticity.”
What are your thoughts, now that the classic Zorro adventure series is finally on Disney Plus? Leave your comments below to join the discussion.