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Felled by the Ratings’ Sting: The Story of TV’s THE GREEN HORNET

By John C. Alsedek:

“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 to the district attorney. And now, to protect the rights and lives of decent citizens, rides The Green Hornet!”

Let’s be honest: most of us take the Internet a bit for granted. I mean, how can we not? We’ve got a world of information and entertainment just a few keystrokes away. You’re sitting there, just having your morning coffee and think, Hey, is that thing true about praying mantis females eating their mates? So, you pull out your smartphone and have the answer in ten seconds or less. (The answer is "yes," by the way! It’s called "sexual cannibalism.")

Didn’t used to be that way, though. As a pre-Internet kid, any such search involved the appropriate volume of the household World Book Encyclopedia. If the answer wasn’t to be found there, then it was off to the local library. And if the answer wasn’t to be found there . . . well, you were just gonna have to remain ignorant on that subject.

A great example of this for me was The Green Hornet. No, not the OTR version, which I didn’t even know of when I was ten. I’m thinking specifically of the one who appeared on the 1960’s live-action Batman TV show, home of “BIFF! BANG! POW!” and The Batusi. The Green Hornet and his faithful assistant, Kato, turned up as anti-heroes in the two-part Batman episode "A Piece of the Action"/"Batman’s Satisfaction," and I was an instant fan—in no small part due to the fact that Kato was played by martial arts megastar BRUCE FRIGGIN' LEE.

As I worked my way through the rest of the three-season run of Batman, I kept hoping the Green Hornet & Kato would make another appearance, but it never happened. A few years later, I was perusing a TV show guide and found that they’d, in fact, had their own series! But beyond a brief notation that it had aired on ABC during the 1966–1967 season, there was really nothing about The Green Hornet. And forget about actually watching it! Since it had only run for one 26-episode season, it had no chance of making it into a syndication package during the 1970s and 1980s. So, The Green Hornet became one of those "Holy Grail"–type productions that I would have to wait decades to finally see.

The basic concept of The Green Hornet was this: Britt Reid, millionaire playboy and owner/publisher of the Daily Sentinel newspaper, fought crime as the Green Hornet. Unlike Batman, who worked completely in concert with the Gotham City Police, the Green Hornet was a wanted criminal who used his status in the underworld to infiltrate gangs; his only connection to the judicial/law-enforcement establishment was District Attorney Frank P. Scanlon, who not only aided Reid in his battle against crime, but also knew his secret identity. Reid’s motivation for becoming a masked crime fighter was related to his father, who was framed for a crime he didn’t commit and died in prison.

The Green Hornet is accompanied into battle by Kato, Reid’s valet and closest confidant, as well as a master of the martial arts. They tool around town in the "Black Beauty," described accurately as a rolling arsenal equipped with rockets, knockout gas, and a flying surveillance drone. The Green Hornet himself carries both a gas gun and "The Hornet’s Sting," which used ultrasonics to accomplish a wide variety of tasks, including breaking locks and setting objects on fire.

The Green Hornet premiered on September 9, 1966, and it was in trouble from the very beginning. Producer William Dozier had pushed hard for a one-hour time slot that would allow for more in-depth storytelling, but ABC insisted on the same 30-minute format that Dozier was using on Batman. Even though it had all manner of things going for it (including handsome series star Van Williams and a virtuoso "Flight of the Bumblebee" theme by trumpeter Al Hirt), The Green Hornet struggled to find an audience. After the two-parter Batman crossover failed to boost ratings, ABC had seen enough. With The Green Hornet losing an estimated $40,000 per episode, the network cancelled the show after just 26 of the first season’s 30 episodes; the last original episode of The Green Hornet aired on March 17, 1967.

So why did The Green Hornet fail where Batman succeeded? Simple. What people loved about Batman was the over-the-top camp element: stars Adam West and Burt Ward playing it completely deadpan while madcap, cartoonish villains romped about the crazy, colorful sets, setting up ridiculous deathtraps for the Caped Crusaders before being felled in a fistfight punctuated by BIFF! BOOM! and CRASH! The Green Hornet, however, played it pretty straight; the fantastic elements were toned down to a point where much of the show could have been mistaken for a spy show like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Instead of Cesar Romero’s Joker and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler chewing up the scenery with gleeful aplomb, The Green Hornet just had a line of largely interchangeable mob bosses who were competently acted but rarely memorable. Yes, Bruce Lee’s martial arts prowess and the "Black Beauty" (a 1966 Imperial Crown sedan modified by Dean Jeffries) were appealing to audiences, but they weren’t enough.

Another factor was that the whole Batman craze had already reached its apex. A proposed Dick Tracy series (produced by William Dozier and the Batman team) hadn’t gotten past the pilot stage. And Batman itself would last just one season beyond the cancellation of The Green Hornet, a victim of its own plummeting ratings. Public interest was veering toward detective and police shows, and by the end of 1967, programs such as Mannix and Ironside were taking over the airwaves. A disillusioned Van Williams largely retired from acting, Bruce Lee went on to international stardom, and The Green Hornet became another footnote in television history.

Speaking of Mannix and Ironside . . . the busiest director on The Green Hornet was Allen Reisner (6 episodes); he would go on to work on both Mannix and Ironside. However, before all three of those shows, Reisner had directed on Kraft Suspense Theatre, a largely forgotten anthology series that will be the focus of the next column. Until then, thanks for tuning in!


SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.


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