LOS ANGELES — Van Williams was teaching scuba diving in Waikiki when a man approached him and said he looked like Hollywood material.
The idea seemed comical to Williams. A Texas kid who’d chased adventure around the South Pacific and finally to Hawaii, his résumé consisted of exactly one high school stage production and a whole lot of football.
Still, the guy seemed sincere, and urged Williams to get his college degree and then look him up if he was ever in L.A. The man turned out to be movie producer Michael Todd, then married to Elizabeth Taylor, and though he died before Williams graduated from Texas Christian University and headed to Hollywood, his name alone seemed to open doors.
Williams was quickly cast as a private detective in “Bourbon Street Beat,” a short-lived show in which the main character worked out of an agency perched above a restaurant in the French Quarter, exploring the dark mysteries of New Orleans.
Magically, the character was resuscitated the next year in “Surfside 6,” another private detective show, but this time set in a houseboat off Miami. He was cast alongside Troy Donahue. The series lasted two years. Williams later appeared with Walter Brennan in “The Tycoon,” the story of an eccentric and cranky millionaire who helps people who show promise.
But the role the cemented Williams’ lasting reputation in prime-time television was as the emerald-suited superhero in “The Green Hornet.”
Though the series lasted only one season, collapsing in the ratings alongside “Batman,” Williams was never able to fully escape his brief stint as Britt Reid, the wealthy Los Angeles newspaper publisher who fought crime after hours alongside his personal manservant and karate pal Kato, played by a young Bruce Lee.
Williams, who died Nov. 28 at the age of 82 in Scottsdale, Arizona, continued to pick up occasional roles — “The Rockford Files,” “Barnaby Jones,” “The Streets of San Francisco” — but grew weary of Hollywood, the expectations and the glad-handing it seemed to take to land roles.
Born outside Fort Worth in 1934, Williams was raised on a farm and preferred straight-shooting common folk, not the plotting and scheming he witnessed in Hollywood.
And the fun he once found in location shooting had evaporated, to the point he turned down a role in “Falcon Crest” because it involved filming in Napa Valley.
“He never saw himself as an actor, it was just something he fell into,” his wife Vicki said. “He was tired of all the shenanigans, he just wouldn’t play along.”
Instead he launched a communication company in Santa Monica, renting out pagers and walkie-talkies to Hollywood types when such devices were cutting-edge technology. He later licensed a half dozen repeater stations, renting out airtime for customers to relay their own walkie-talkie conversations.
And, he became a cop. Actually a reserve deputy in Malibu with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He liked law enforcement, his wife said, and found patrol work and search and rescue missions in the hillsides along the coast to be deeply satisfying jobs.
“The Green Hornet,” though, never fully loosened its grip.
He was occasionally drawn from his work to attend conventions and superhero fan fests, signing autographs and posing alongside knockoffs of the Black Beauty, the Hornet’s sinister-looking, low-slung car that was outfitted with tubes under its chassis that could launch rockets, “infra-green” headlights and — hard to fathom at the time — a car phone.
“I mean, it’s been what, 30-some-odd years since the thing’s been on,” Williams told the Toronto Star in 2007 before attending a television collectibles convention, marveling at the show’s lasting appeal.
As “The Green Hornet” faded from the airwaves in America, it had a second life in Hong Kong where it was branded as “The Kato Show.” Bruce Lee’s career began a rapid ascent after the show’s debut.
Tired of Los Angeles’ epic traffic and looking for fresh air after damaging his lungs fighting a brush fire in Malibu, Williams and his family moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, and began spending part of the year in Scottsdale, Arizona.
He is survived by his wife and their three children, and two children from an earlier marriage.