LET’S ROLL: A birthday tribute to Van Williams…
UPDATED 2/27/21: The late Van Williams was born 87 years ago on Feb. 27, 1934. Perfect time to re-present this piece by animator J.J. Sedelmaier that first ran during 2014’s GREEN HORNET WEEK. Dig it. — Dan
By J.J. SEDELMAIER
With all the chatter surrounding the much-awaited release of the 1966-68 ABC-TV Batman show on Blu-ray/DVD, it seems like such a shame that we can’t be anticipating the equivalent with its short-lived sister show, The Green Hornet, starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee.
I was personally hoping that the there would have been a double boxed set, thinking perhaps the pairing could justify bringing the show out of corporate mothballs.
No such luck. I think the Black Beauty is on blocks in the garage . . .
It’s a shame because this was one of my favorite TV shows as a kid, and it’s been a thread of one kind or another for me from its original airing up until the present. Now, I could attempt to justify my “time to get a life” behavior by explaining how I’ve dovetailed this (for close to half a century) interest into a legitimate professional endeavor. But real being real, what I do professionally is wrought with “time to get a life-ness,” so what’s to justify? Everyone should be so lucky !
When Batmania engulfed America in 1966, kids and adults alike were following the show and it defined the word “camp.” I was psyched to see the show (twice a week, mind you) but I always wished it could’ve been less silly than it was. I grew up reading my dad’s Batman comics, (and yes, he still has them) starting with Batman #1!
The early issues were so much darker than what the character had become, and certainly more serious than the William Dozier spin. But whatever apprehensions I may have had about the show, that Batmobile totally rocked!
Then my dad later told me that the Green Hornet was also going to be a TV show. My first question was, “Does he have a cool car, too ?” My dad proceeded to tell me about how the Green Hornet and his Asian sidekick Kato worked and traveled together in their special Black Beauty automobile. He also told me that the same folks who created the Lone Ranger had done the Green Hornet, but that’s another article . . .
So The Green Hornet hits the TV screen and I’m getting off on the fact that it’s more serious than Batman.
But what really got me riveted to the tube was this Kato dude! I’d never seen anyone fight like him before, and what’s with the sounds emanating out of him – he was like an angry, possessed alley cat! Even though I’m not yet conscious of it in 1967, as of this moment I was destined to become a lifelong Bruce Lee fan. . .
The Green Hornet lasted just one season and I didn’t think of it much until the early 1970s when two aspects of the show resurrected.
First, was the release of Bruce Lee’s martial arts films. Once I heard those distinctive sounds, I knew it was Kato all over again! I had missed his other TV appearances (“Longstreet”, “Ironside”, “Here Come The Brides”, and the rarely seen “Blondie” episode, etc.) before he left the U.S. for Hong Kong, so I hadn’t been following his career after his role as Kato.
But my high-school friends and I followed his films and subjected ourselves to multiple visits to his 4 1/2 (Game Of Death was a post-mortem edit job) feature length movies. When the news of his death came in July of 1973, we were devastated. . .
The second aspect involved J.J. Born’s “Historical Antique Automobile Museum” that had opened in Highland Park, Ill., in the early 1970s. I lived in nearby Evanston and it was a 30-minute drive away – AND they had obtained an original Black Beauty used in the TV show!
Unfortunately, it had been modified like crazy with a lot of added gadgetry that wasn’t originally a part of the vehicle. They also had one of the original Barris Batmobiles, but it too had unfortunately been “remodeled” with what they called “Bat-Fur”: It looked like the entire surface had been covered with “G.I. Joe Life-Like Hair” . . . ugh. The museum closed after I left for school in Wisconsin, but having access to these two favorite TV cars of mine was still awesome!
Fast forward to the early 2000s. I now had a thriving career in film production and design and was always looking for interesting projects to explore outside the realm of what I was known for.
Danbury and Franklin Mint were producing die-cast 1:25 scale models of famous cars from films and TV shows, and I grabbed several of them up to display in my studio. It got me thinking about the Black Beauty again, but after inquiring around, it was apparent that it was too obscure for any company to invest in producing.
After investigating all the available options in terms of “garage kits”, etc., I realized that none of them did justice to the prototype, so I decided I’d try and build my own — and even considered recreating the Green Hornet’s special garage with the platform that flips Britt Reid’s ragtop Chrysler 300 upside down to reveal the Black Beauty.
But first I had to research the car and see what I could find out about it. The Internet is a wonderful thing. I was able to determine that there were two Black Beauties created for the TV show, both designed and built by the legendary car designer Dean Jeffries.
I started pulling visual reference and grabbing up vintage 1966 Chrysler Imperial plastic models produced in the 1960s. It was the ’66 Crown Imperial that Jeffries used as the basic source for the two cars.
The #1 car, and the one primarily used for filming, had been restored and was in the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. But the #2 car, which had also starred in several episodes of the show and was the car that travelled around to promote The Green Hornet and Jeffries’ involvement, was in private hands.
I reached out to Karl Kirchner, the owner of the #2 BB – AND the one that was in J.J. Born’s Highland Park Museum! We discovered that we not only were in synch with our interest in the Black Beauty, but we also shared a passion for film cartoon music tracks!
We struck up a friendship and we even worked together on designing and recreating some fun elements for his awesomely restored #2 Black Beauty!
How’s that for a full-circle journey?!
— 13 COVERS: A VAN WILLIAMS GREEN HORNET Tribute. Click here.
— The BATMAN ’66 Top 13 Countdown: A Piece of the Action/Batman’s Satisfaction. Click here.
From SNL’s Ambiguously Gay Duo, to Adult Swim’s Harvey Birdman, to The Colbert Report’s Tek Jansen, J.J. Sedelmaier has carved out a unique niche running an independent studio that’s done some of the most outrageous superhero cartoons around.