More than one equine actor played that black horse.
Photographs Courtesy of Jill Panvini and Guy Williams Jr.
He stole the hearts of the señoritas and brought justice to the Pueblo de Los Angeles. He was “El Zorro,” the fox, and he thundered across screens in America and worldwide in the late 1950s.
Walt Disney had envisioned a series based on Johnston McCulley’s fictional dual character, Don Diego-Zorro, and set in 1820s Los Angeles when California was still under the flag of Spain. So an old-time California plaza was built on the Disney lot, and among those who answered the casting call was Guy Williams. Tall, elegant, and stunningly handsome, he was perfect for the role.
But who would be Tornado, his equine co-star? Who would faithfully and fearlessly carry the dashing hero on his daring rides to right wrongs and bring justice to all?
For this role of honor, Disney chose and purchased Diamond Decorator, a registered Quarter Horse. The gelding was foaled in 1950 and registered as a gray, but, according to legendary Hollywood horse trainer Corky Randall, Diamond Decorator was a beautiful coal-black horse. Randall, along with Bobby Davenport, trained the Disney Zorro horses for the series.
Foaled at the Double Diamond Ranch in Reno, Nev., Diamond Decorator started his career as a racehorse. At 3 he was trained as a reining horse, or stock horse as it was referred to in those days. He was spotted for Disney at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, where he was successfully shown in stockhorse competition.
Diamond Decorator’s counterpart was a beautiful white horse named King, better known as Phantom. He was owned by Corky Randall’s father, Glenn Randall Sr., who has passed away. Considered a legend among Hollywood horse trainers, he had trained, among many others, Roy Rogers‘ horse Trigger.
“King was white, almost silver-white,” remarked Corky Randall, adding, “His skin was pink, and his eyes were black. He was very unusual in color. He was very good to work with.” King was used extensively in the series. “Anytime you saw a white horse on Zorro, it was King.”
Actor Britt Lomond, who portrayed the evil Monastario during the first 13 episodes of Zorro, referred to King as a very talented actor. “He never missed a cue. He would stand quietly, listening for his cue, and move through the scene flawlessly.”
Unlike King, whose bloodlines Randall could only guess as possibly some Thoroughbred and maybe some Arab, Diamond Decorator’s background glows. His pedigree lists his maternal grandsire as Quarter Horse racing legend Joe Hancock, and his paternal grandsire was foundation sire Old Sorrel. Both are in the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame.
According to AQHA records Diamond Decorator’s racing career is an honor to Joe Hancock. In 1952 he achieved a Register of Merit for racing with a speed index of 85. Entered in 15 races he placed third twice, took second place once, and twice crossed the finish line first. With earnings of $1,117, he ran his last race as a 3-year-old in September 1953.
Click page 2 to find out just how many horses played “Tornado.”
No records of his years of competitive showing could be found with AQHA, perhaps because he probably was shown in open events not sanctioned by the AQHA in those years. “But he was a wonderful reining horse,” commented Randall.
Buddy Van Horn, who at the time worked as Guy Williams’ stunt double, said that Diamond Decorator was a well-trained, competitive stock horse. “If you touched him with your knee, he was ready to go. He really liked to move.”
Diamond Decorator had his own doubles. Among them were Midnight, another registered Quarter Horse; Rex, an American Saddlebred owned by Glenn Randall Sr.; and Ribbon, a grade horse. Each lent his own special talents and strengths to the dashing El Zorro.
The horses were so close in looks the average viewer could not tell which horse was which. “In pictures I cannot tell, especially Diamond Decorator and Midnight,” states Randall To keep the horses as uniform in color as possible, “Miss Clairol” was employed.
The horses each had special strengths and talents, all of which were called on regularly. According to Randall, it was Midnight who retrieved a bucket of water for Sgt. Garcia (Henry Calvin) in the series when the sergeant had captured Zorro’s horse.
Van Horn’s favorite Tornado was Ribbon. “He could do transfers, and he could run.” Laughing, Van Horn added, “I could about outrun a camera car with him. They really had to hustle to keep up.”
According to Randall, Diamond Decorator was the only horse solely owned by Disney; trainers and wranglers owned all the other horses on Zorro. Diamond Decorator had been purchased specifically for Zorro.
King was seen in many movies and series, including Spin and Marty as the fabled Dynamite. Rex was Leslie Nielson’s mount in his role as Francis Marion in Swamp Fox and also appeared in many other movies. Diamond Decorator, however, was used only as Tornado in the Zorro series.
After the series ended, Disney retired the black to the Disney owned Golden Oak Ranch near Newhall, Calif., where many scenes of Zorro had been filmed. Diamond Decorator never again appeared in movies or a series. He had done his work, he had done it well, and he was rewarded with a long, quiet life.
As for the relationship between Guy Williams and Diamond Decorator, according to Randall, there was a clear sense of trust between the two. “He was obviously Guy’s favorite mount.”
Nor did the friendship between the horse and rider end when the final scene was shot. “I remember Dad telling me he was going out there,” commented the late actor’s son, Guy Williams Jr. Long after the series ceased, Guy Williams Sr. drove to the Golden Oak Ranch to spend time with his equine friend and former co-star.
Although Walt Disney’s Zorro originally aired for only two seasons, beginning in 1957 and ending in 1959 due to a dispute with ABC, the Disney cable channel now airs the classic series nightly. Although the Zorro horses are long gone now, the echoes of their hoofbeats still ring out today. With their dashing human counterpart, they continue to capture new young fans while still holding captive older fans, who breathlessly watched the series in their youths.
The author, a native Californian, received her first pony for her sixth birthday and wrote that her favorite place to shop was Oakdale Feed and Seed. After 18 years in the broadcast industry, she is now a Napa Valley stay-at-home mom, writer, and emerging equine artist.
This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Western Horseman.