Bud Kennedy

Fort Worth’s ‘Green Hornet’ left superhero stardom for quiet life

Van Williams co-starred with Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet.
Van Williams co-starred with Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet. AP

Fort Worth actor Van Williams played a 1960s Batman-era TV superhero, co-starred with everyone from Ronald Reagan to Bruce Lee, and then breezed away into private life.

“He never did like the Hollywood life, or being an actor,” said Ronald Clinkscale of Fort Worth, a football teammate at Arlington Heights High School and TCU and Williams’ friend to the day last week when TV’s The Green Hornet died in Arizona.

Williams was 82.

“He walked away, because he had the financial means to do that,” Clinkscale said.

“He just always liked to be doing something different.”

Williams, born Van Zandt Jarvis Williams to a former TCU football star and a mother from Fort Worth’s pioneer Van Zandt and Jarvis ranching families, was far removed from both his Texas hometown and TV career most of the last 40 years.

He invested in a two-way radio communications company and a bank with Clint Eastwood and James Garner, but also volunteered as a firefighter and Los Angeles County reserve sheriff’s deputy.

For decades, he declined invitations to nostalgia conventions and autograph signings with stars such as friend and Idaho resort neighbor Adam West, 1960s TV’s Batman.

In other words, he was a Fort Worth rancher’s son from Locke Avenue who lived large as a TV hunk in Hollywood, then retired proudly from the limelight.

“I never wanted to be an actor,” Williams told the Star-Telegram in 1957, when he was 23 and just breaking in doing Western roles: “I wanted a ranch of my own.”

Instead, he was teaching scuba on Waikiki when he was “discovered” by producer Mike Todd and wife Elizabeth Taylor.

In Hollywood, he starred as a detective, first in Bourbon Street Beat and then with Troy Donahue in Surfside 6. After his friend Adam West’s Batman became a TV hit, ABC cast Williams as the masked Green Hornet, fighting crime along with young sidekick Lee as Kato in a customized Chrysler Imperial named “Black Beauty.”

Williams’ flashy leading-man life was far from his Fort Worth childhood. Here, he was an asthma-prone high school athlete who often wheezed from pollen and practice-field dust and once collapsed at a track meet.

In the 1970s, he returned for guest appearances and special events, and in his role with Van Zandt family ranches and real estate developments in northwest Tarrant County. (The late songwriter Townes Van Zandt was a distant cousin.)

According to Tarrant Appraisal District records, the family’s Idaho-based trust still holds more than $1 million in rural ranch land between Haslet and Eagle Mountain Lake.

As far as I can tell, the Star-Telegram had not interviewed him since 1966.

“He wasn’t somebody who sought the spotlight,” Clinkscale said: “He was just having fun at life.”

He wildly succeeded.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.