Beyond Kit Carson

Remembering the Charm and Talents of Bill Williams

Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Wilhelm Katt, Bill Williams started his career in Vaudeville, touring the US and Europe as an adagio dancer until he joined the army in WWII. Following an honorable medical discharge, he returned to show business, starting out as an extra in Hollywood and playing small, uncredited parts before he finally landed a deal with RKO in the mid 1940s. As a contract player, he was slowly cast as a budding co-star, opposite popular colleagues such as Spencer Tracy in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Robert Young in Those Endearing Young Charms, Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time and Susan Hayward in Deadline at Dawn while in private life he quietly divorced his first, long estranged wife. In 1946, two years after shooting West of the Pecos, a small Western featuring RKO starlet Barbara Hale whom he had previously been introduced to by acting coach Lillian Albertson, he got married to his former co-star gone studio sweetheart and saw a bright future laid out before him. Considered for a series of pictures following A Likely Story co-starring his young wife, Bill’s stream of luck ended with the sudden death of RKO president Charles Kroener and the structural changes that followed at the studio.

After serving as good-will ambassador from Hollywood to the public in 1946 and 47 for several months, keeping his popularity afloat by touring he country, he was struck down by an old injury that would further interrupt his career while Mrs. Williams was expecting their first child. With A Likely Story under his belt, however, the press didn’t lose interest in him and focused on the private life of the growing Williams family instead, presenting them as happy, lovely and homey. After bowing out of The Window, his second would-be collaboration with wife Barbara, Bill regained his health and starred with her in The Clay Pigeon. Shortly thereafter, the couple faced a new challenge in their conjoined careers when Howard Hughes entered the scene to change the course of RKO by letting all the contract players go. While his wife managed to land a career-breaking part in Jolson Sings Again and a follow-up contract with Columbia Pictures, Bill Williams continued working as a freelance actor, starring in a number of small Westerns and memorable films like The Stratton Story until he got his big break on television in 1951. Landing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Bill breathed life into a character who soon turned into a kids’ favorite and guaranteed him long hours on set. Successful for four consecutive seasons, the show turned Bill into a household name and Western hero, a good fortune he tried to continue with Date with the Angels in 1957. Starring opposite TV darling Betty White, Bill was seen as a newlywed husband who showed splendid comedic timing. Although promising, entertaining and less strenuous to work on than his predecessor series, the show did not last longer than a season. Instead, his wife Barbara Hale started an unexpectedly long career on television when she agreed to star as Della Street on Perry Mason, a show that would last from 1957 to 66. After years of putting her family first, it was Bill now who spent more time at home with the three children. He did not return to the small screen until 1960 when he starred in Assignment: Underwater, an underwater adventure show modeled after Sea Hunt, a surprise hit Bill Williams himself had turned down in 1958. Following the show’s cancellation, Bill returned to being a working actor and guest starred on a variety of popular programs including his wife’s great success and her co-star Raymond Burr’s follow-up smash Ironside until he retired from acting for good in 1981.

Although originally a city boy with a defining Brooklyn accent, Bill was frequently cast as a handsomely talented cowboy throughout his career. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athleticism, he was the perfect ‘good guy’ when he was young and a credible character actor when he got older. Always deeply committed to his craft, he worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and earthy charm. Not unlike his darling wife, Bill Williams is now often remembered for his one career-defining role as Kit Carson, but it would be a pity to forget all the other characters he breathed life into, including the many different men he played opposite Mrs. Williams – from their first feature West of the Pecos in 1945 to their last in 1976, Disney’s Flight of the Grey Wolf.

Twenty years ago, on September 21, Bill Williams died in Burbank, California at the age of 77. He left his wife of 46 years, two grown daughters and his son, William Katt, a working actor who continued the tradition of keeping the business in the family by repeatedly working with his mother, Barbara Hale, on the same projects. By his fans, he is still remembered with great fondness, especially by those who grew up loving Westerns.

* Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. (Thanks for the mention, Gina!) Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.

Happy Birthday, Handsome(s).

Today, two of my favorite actors were born – Bill Williams in Brooklyn, New York, in 1915 and Raymond Burr in New Westminster, British Columbia, in 1917. Their career paths, parts and looks were as different as they get, but they were both the leading man in the life of one darling lady, Barbara Hale.

Getting acquainted on the RKO studio lot as fellow contract players gone sweethearts, Bill married Barbara in 1946, had three children with her and frequently co-starred with his wife in the same projects. Raymond met Barbara at RKO a year before she met her husband, but didn’t work with her until they were both cast for the Perry Mason TV show in 1956. As Perry Mason and Della Street, they had nine successful years of companionship on screen and off, a gift they shared with Bill when he came to guest star on the hit show for four non-consecutive episodes. In the late sixties and seventies, after the conclusion of Perry Mason, Bill continued to co-star with his wife in movies and on TV while Raymond invited his former leading lady to join him for an episode of his Ironside series. While Bill resigned from acting in 1981, Raymond stepped back into the shoes of the famous lawyer in Perry Mason Returns in 1985 and talked Barbara into joining him to reprise her own popular alter ego. During the success of the renewed franchise, Bill Williams died on September 21, 1992, after forty-six years of marriage to his wife. One year later, on September 12, 1993, Raymond Burr passed away shortly after finishing his 26th Perry Mason TV movie.

Both equally committed to their craft, Bill Williams and Raymond Burr gave their audience a variety of memorable characters who are every bit as genuine today as they were back in the days. With his stage background, Raymond Burr was a versatile supporting actor and frequent villain before he broke through as a charming leading man on TV. Bill Williams, with his roots in Vaudeville, was one of RKO’s great new hopes and leading talents before he found success as TV’s Kit Carson in the 1950s. Guest starring as a character actor in many contemporary programs towards the end of his career, he seemed to finish on characters Raymond Burr had started on. Both unique in their charm, approach and expression, the two actors will always be remembered for entertaining their audience with talent, quality and good looks. After all, who could resist those two handsome men?

Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.

Bill Williams

To those of you who are as enthusiastic about classic TV gems as I am, the name Bill Williams will ring a bell as one of television’s most charming leading men gone frequent guest star.

Career: Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Katt, Bill Williams started his career as a dancer in Vaudeville. Picking up on his expertise as a professional swimmer, he appeared in aquatic underwater shows before he broke into film business. Following army service, he started out working as an extra and played small, often uncredited parts in the mid 1940s before he finally landed a contract with RKO.

As a contract player, he was frequently cast as a budding co-star, opposite Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward or wife Barbara Hale. Bit by bit, he got a chance to show off his talents as the handsome leading man, mostly starring in entertaining B movies from all genres, including Westerns and film noir.

In the 1950s, Bill turned his attention to TV and landed the lead in The Adventures of Kit Carson for a four season run from 1951 to 1954. The show was a great success and turned him into a household name and Western hero, especially idolized by children. In 1957, another TV show followed, Date of the Angels, in which he starred opposite TV darling Betty White. Although promising, entertaining and a lot less strenuous to work on, the show unfortunately did not last longer than a season. In 1960, Bill gave TV another shot as a leading man, putting his efforts into an underwater adventure show called Assignment: Underwater, a program modeled after Sea Hunt.

Apart from working on feature films and TV movies, Bill Williams had successful stints as host and guest star on numerous popular TV programs in the 1960s and 70s, including his wife’s smash hit Perry Mason and family friend Raymond Burr’s follow-up show Ironside. In 1981 then, Bill retired from acting completely and retreated to pursuing his many interests outside of Hollywood.

Characters: Although originally a city boy, Bill Williams was frequently cast as a convincing and handsomely talented cowboy. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athletic charm, he was the perfect ‘good guy’, a true mother-in-law’s dream. He worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and a down-to-earth mentality. It’s not really a surprise that he memorably worked his way into the hearts of an entire generation of kids when he starred as TV’s Kit Carson. It would be a pity though to remember him for only that.

Not unlike his marvelous wife, Bill is often remembered for his one career-defining role. Now I’m here to ask you to check out more of his work. Go beyond his favorable Western show and check out his other work, feature films and TV guest stardom, either way. You will not regret it, especially if you have a look at the lovely programs and projects he starred in with Mrs. Williams aka Barbara Hale.

Family business: On RKO grounds ca. 1944, Bill Williams met fellow RKO contract player and actress Barbara Hale. According to a Movie Stars Parade article from 1948, they were introduced by acting coach Lillian Albertson, although later articles suggest that they met on the set of West of Pecos which was released in 1945. Either way, Bill and Barbara got married in June 1946 and started working together on a frequent basis.

Together they had two daughters and one son, actor William Katt, born in 1947, 1951 and 1953, and several grandchildren. For the most part, they lived a rather quiet simple life in the San Fernando Valley area, enjoying forty-six years of matrimony until Bill Williams passed away on September 21, 1992 at the age of 77.

Bill and his wife starred side by side in several movies and TV projects, including West of Pecos, A Likely Story, The Clay Pigeon, Young Couples Only, Slim Carter, her TV hit show Perry Mason, Buckskin, Insight, The Giant Spider Invasion and Flight of the Grey Wolf.

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The Adventures of Kit Carson

TV classics: The Adventures of Kit Carson

USA 1951-55, 4 seasons,  103 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, Syndication, black & white. Produced by: Richard Irving, Originally sponsored by Coca-Cola. Cast: Bill Williams, Don Diamond

Plot summary: Kit Carson brings order and justice to the Wild West with a little help from his friend El Toro.

Review: Still new on the entertainment market in the early 1950s, TV brought Western storylines and characters directly into America’s living rooms as a successful substitute for its silver screen rivals, leaving the movie industry observing the development with anticipatory anxiety.

The Adventures of Kit Carson was one of the first TV Western shows on television, and one of the most successful ones at the time. Addressed to a young audience, the show did not only direct its sponsor’s commercial messages to a minor target group, it also created a picture book hero for children to look up to: a fictionalized Kit Carson who sought right from wrong in the Wild West, always with the assistance of his Mexican friend El Toro.

The title character was played by charismatic movie actor Bill Williams, whose sportive background added to his all-American attitude and boyish charm. Don Diamond was a great sidekick to Bill Williams’ impressive horseman qualities and disarming righteousness, both always supported by a beautiful cast of guest actors, a fantastic set and many outdoor scenes. Shooting often lasted all day as the team followed the sun to use as much light as possible to give the show the same appeal on the small screen as Westerns then had in movie theaters. And the hard work paid off. The show was very popular with children and lasted four seasons before it was successfully kept alive in reruns for many years.

Today, The Adventures of Kit Carson is a darling example for the early days of television when the business was still learning to walk and borrowed much of its esthetics from commercial Hollywood. It’s a real treat to re-watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon, with your (grand-)children or alone. The show has an air of nostalgia about it and leaves you feeling like a kid in your parents’ backyard playing cowboy and Indians, waiting for your mother to call you in for a glass of homemade lemonade and apple pie. And like you in your heart, the show never gets old.

Selected episodes available on DVD. Sample episode of The Adventures of Kit Carson