Van Williams starred as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet, who, in a modernization of the radio property, is not only publisher of the Daily Sentinel, but is also owner/general manager of an associated television station. Gary Owens, the iconic "Announcer" on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, occasionally appeared as a news anchorman on Reid's station.
The show is best known for introducing martial arts legend Bruce Lee, playing Kato, to Western audiences. Lee's portrayal became so popular in Hong Kong (his Chinese home town) that the show was retitled The Kato Show when broadcast there. Because Lee himself was a martial artist, his Kato demonstrated those skills in the show (although the radio series made isolated references to Kato's ju-jitsu expertise, martial arts skills had never been an important part of Kato's characterization in either the radio series or film serials), and this development has had a huge influence on later Green Hornet adaptations: rumors of various proposed film adaptations have universally had a martial arts star being cast in the role of Kato, and it is now probably unthinkable for Kato not to be a martial arts master in any subsequent Green Hornet adaptation in any medium.
As for the supporting cast, Lenore "Casey" Case and Mike Axford were brought over from the radio series to comprise the regularly appearing Daily Sentinel staff. In the TV series Case knew Reid's secret identity (as in later years of the radio serial), while Axford lost his former policeman/bodyguard back story, and simply functioned as the Sentinel's regular police reporter. Because Dozier's Batman series already featured a police commissioner as a supporting character, District Attorney Frank P. Scanlon replaced the radio series's Police Commissioner Higgins as the Hornet's confidante within the law enforcement community.
The TV series also changed some of the Hornet's equipment. The most extensive changes were made to the Black Beauty, which had many more features and gimmicks than the vehicle did in the radio series. Some of the features of the television Black Beauty were "infra-green" headlights for stealthy night driving (supposedly, the headlights used "polarized light" which, in conjunction with polarized vision filters would provide as much illumination as conventional headlights while remaining very dim to anyone viewing without such filters), a sleep gas sprayer, rockets, mortars, and an aerial surveillance device called "the scanner". In the TV series the Green Hornet carried a gas gun (as in the radio series), while television added an electronic weapon referred to as "the Hornet sting", which the Green Hornet used to open locked doors and containers and to disarm assailants (typically, it caused an explosion in a lock, allowing the door or container to be opened, or in the breech of a firearm, which caused the person holding it to throw it down violently). Also, in this version Kato was armed with green colored, abstractly "hornet shaped" throwing darts which he used against armed assailants too far for him to engage directly with his martial arts skills (usually, the pain inflicted by the dart distracted the assailant long enough for Kato to reach him and render him harmless). In one episode ("Seek, Stalk, and Destroy") Kato uses a "tear gas dart", which he throws into the open viewport of a stolen tank in order to force the tank thieves out of the tank and into the open.
The terms under which executive producer William Dozier acquired the rights to The Green Hornet gave radio series creator George W. Trendle (hired by Dozier's Greenway Productions as a consultant) quite a bit of control over the series, up to and including approval of series scripts. Trendle was wedded to the idea of doing the series as a straight adaptation of the radio series, whereas Dozier wanted to modernize the setting of the series while introducing camp elements similar to those used in Dozier's then-current hit series Batman. Trendle agreed to modernizing the series but held firm on playing the adaptation straight, resisting the incorporation of camp elements. Dozier chafed under Trendle's contractual rights to approve or disapprove, and the conflict between the two added to the normal difficulties of producing and broadcasting a television series.
The Green Hornet premiered on ABC on September 9, 1966. The series garnered respectable ratings when it premiered, winning its time slot against competition from The Wild Wild West (CBS) and Tarzan (NBC), but after several weeks ratings began to slip. The failure of the series to maintain its initial high ratings exacerbated the conflicts between Trendle and Dozier which first became manifest during initial production. As ratings slipped, it became clear that ABC had little interest in giving the series a second season (in fact, Dozier was concerned that the network wouldn't even run the series during the summer re-run period). In a valiant attempt to save the series, Dozier presented network executives with a proposal to convert the series from a Dramatic Half-Hour to a Dramatic Hour Long, and featured the Hornet and Kato in an Intercontinuity Crossover in two episodes of his still popular Batman series hoping to generate interest in The Green Hornet among Batman fans. While ABC did eventually order summer re-runs of the series, it did not order a second season, and the series ended its run.
The continuing conflict between Trendle and Dozier (a true case of "Creative Differences") added to the normal difficulties in making the series, and after it was clear that the series would not be renewed Dozier blamed Trendle's veto power over series scripts and his right to approve or disapprove Dozier's plans for the series for its ultimate failure. Owing to the popularity of Bruce Lee, however, the series has become a Cult Classic, and has managed showings in syndication, notably on the FX and AmericanLife networks. A 13-hour marathon of the series aired on Syfy on January 11, 2011 to promote the Movie adaption opening that month.
This series provides examples of:
- Berserk Button: In "The Preying Mantis" Kato does not like getting surprise attacked. This was the first time we ever bore witness to Bruce Lee's classic Tranquil Fury in any medium. In this case he really wanted to get Lo Sing and when he did, brought him down to nothing.Kato: If we ever meet that masked Gung-Fu man again. I want him.Britt: You got him.
- The Cast Show Off: Bruce Lee as Kato. In prior versions of the property, Kato was merely Reid's valet and the Hornet's sidekick, and he did not demonstrate any notable fighting skills, much less martial arts mastery. Owing to Lee's status as a martial arts master, his Kato was given every chance to show that mastery on the air. This has influenced subsequent adaptations of the property; it is now probably unthinkable for Kato not to be a martial arts master in any new adaptation of The Green Hornet in any medium.
- Celebrity Paradox: One scene has some Mooks watching Batman on TV. Batman and Robin are real in the show's universe; Britt and Kato even teamed up with them once.
- The Chess Master: The Hornet constantly plays criminals and mob bosses and the yakuza like a violin.
- A good example would be the TV episode "The Preying Mantis". At the end the Hornet calls out the villain in front of his people and makes him look weak, forcing him to accept a fight with Kato that he promptly loses, and then calls in the police to take him in while he and Kato leave.
- Pretty much any episode from the TV show has him bribing, threatening, blackmailing, or working with a criminal to lead to their capture.
- In fact, he is so good at it that it's one of the reasons that he nearly quits being the Hornet, because he feels like he has too much power over people and it's easy to lose yourself doing it.
- Compilation Movie: In 1974 four episodes of the series—"The Hunter and the Hunted", "Invasion from Outer Space" (Parts 1 and 2), and "The Preying Mantis"—were stitched together for overseas theatrical release. DVDs of this movie are noteworthy for its spotlight stealing billing: "Bruce Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet". Followed by a 1976 release, Fury of the Dragon, which compiled the episodes "Trouble for Prince Charming", "Secret of the Sally Bell", "The Ray Is for Killing", and "Bad Bet on a 459-Silent".
- Cool Car: The Black Beauty was even more tricked out in this adaptation: a customized 1966 Chrysler Crown Imperial with green headlamps, a mobile telephone (in 1966!), a sleep gas sprayer, rockets, mortars, and a flying video scanner.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Lo Sing from "The Preying Mantis" suffers two brutal ones at the end of the episode. The first one is a verbal one by the Hornet, who calls him out as weak, when the guy Lo Sing is working for tells him he's nothing without him the Hornet bluntly tells him he's nothing with him, and tries to set up a fight between him and Kato to settle things "the traditional way." Britt's position makes it clear that he was sure Kato would win with Lo losing control of the gang for being weak. When he tries to weasel out of it Britt directly calls him out as a weak-willed coward in front of his gang and the more he talks the more nervous Lo gets. He gets him to accept, playing him like a cheap fiddle. Lo Sing clearly doesn't want to fight Kato but he accepts the fight and he lands one blow on Kato, that somehow makes his forehead bleed, as he's going down. He was no match for either of them.
- Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: Averted in the series when Mike Axford's calls in a hot story and wants an extra printed. Reid immediately shoots that down, reminding Axford that his radio and TV businesses handle breaking news.
- Hollywood Science: In the TV series, the Black Beauty was given green filtered headlamps; this was explained in a Spin-Off comic book adaptation as being "infra-green" headlights, which used polarized light in conjunction with a green tinted polarized filter screen to allow Kato and the Green Hornet near perfect illumination while rendering the headlights nearly invisible to anyone not using such a filter. Also, in the episode "The Ray is for Killing", criminals use a laser as a death ray, capable of causing far more damage than a real laser could do.
- Insert Grenade Here: In "Seek, Stalk, and Destroy", Kato uses a "tear gas dart", which he throws into the open viewport of a stolen tank in order to force the tank thieves out of the tank and into the open.
- Intercontinuity Crossover: Because both series were produced by William Dozier, it was practically foreordained that The Green Hornet and Kato would make an appearance in Batman, which they did in the episodes "A Piece of the Action"/"Batman's Satisfaction", which aired on March 1 and 2, 1967, as well as an appearance in a brief "window gag" in another episode. The styles of the two shows didn't really mesh, however.
- As for the styles of the shows not meshing, it's interesting to note that in the Hornet's "window gag" appearance (the earlier of the two appearances), Batman and Robin acknowledge his and Kato's status as heroes. In the later guest appearance, the episodes run with the standard "on police records a wanted criminal" plot device, and entangle the Hornet/Kato and Batman/Robin in a Let's You and Him Fight standoff.
- A scene of Batman and Robin walking up a wall appears briefly on a television set in the Green Hornet episode "Ace in the Hole".
- In the second season episode "The Impractical Joker", Bruce and Dick are watching the news to which Bruce Wayne checks his watch and says "It's about time for The Green Hornet" followed by a hornet sound and theme tune.
- Knockout Gas: The Green Hornet's gas gun; in the TV series the Black Beauty was also equipped with a sleep gas sprayer.
- Let's You and Him Fight: In the The Green Hornet/Batman crossover episodes ("A Piece of the Action"/"Batman's Satisfaction"), The Hornet and Kato wind up fighting Batman and Robin. Justified, in that The Green Hornet was, after all, a wanted criminal...
- Mirrors Reflect Everything: A mirror reflects electricity in "Invasion from Outer Space" part 2.
- A Nuclear Error: Episode "Invasion from Outer Space". An unarmed H bomb in a truck can be set off by a detonator attached to the outside of the truck.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: The radio series used Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumblebee" as the opening theme. The version for the TV show was performed by jazz legend Al Hirt.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: "The Preying Mantis." Still smarting from the Curb-Stomp Battle he got hit with in the alleyway, Kato wants no more than to have the honor of getting back at his aggressor. Britt is happy to oblige.
- Spotlight-Stealing Title: The show being renamed The Kato Show when shown in Hong Kong (where Bruce Lee was a much bigger star than Van Williams).
- To the Batpole!: Both averted and played straight. While Reid's and Kato's costume changes were not implied to be anything other than normal changes of clothes, the problem of parking both Reid's day-to-day car and the Black Beauty in a one-car garage was given a very cool solution: when they need to access the Black Beauty, they activate clamps that hold the regular car to the floor, which then flips around to reveal the Black Beauty.