Van Williams was going to be a cattle rancher, a family business. He majored in animal husbandry and business at Texas Christian University. However, a move to Hawaii changed his life forever. While working as a diving instructor he met Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Mike Todd. Because of his good looks he was encouraged to become an actor. He went to Hollywood at Todd's suggestion and became one of numerous "beefcake" actors at Warner Brothers studios.
Cashing in on the success of 77 Sunset Strip, Warners began a series of similar shows, the first of which was Bourbon Street Beat. Williams was cast as Kenny Madison, a young detective working with Cal Calhoun (Andrew Duggan) and Rex Randolph (Richard Long). The series only lasted one year on ABC, but Warner Brothers producer William T. Orr (creator of the series) took Williams' character and moved him to a Miami Beach detective agency set on a houseboat.
SurfSide 6 was launched in 1960, teaming Williams with Lee Patterson and young heartthrob Troy Donahue. The series had a measure of success, but failed to pull in the successful ratings of 77 Sunset Strip (especially after the show was scheduled opposite CBS's hit Andy Griffith Show). The series was cancelled in 1962 after 74 episodes and a guest appearance by the "SurfSide" cast in a two-part 77 Sunset Strip episode. Williams stayed busy as an actor, landing minor roles in movies such as The Caretakers with Joan Crawford, and on TV series like The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The role for which Van is best remembered came in 1966. William Dozier, basking in the success of Batman, decided to make another masked crimefighter series. He picked as the subject of his next project the Green Hornet, a character that originated in the 1930s on radio in Detroit before branching out into two movie serials in the 1940s and a number of comic books. Williams was signed to play Britt Reid. The role of his partner, Kato, was given to a young actor by the name of Bruce Lee.
The Green Hornet was the total opposite of Batman. Where Batman was campy, The Green Hornet had a serious tone. The characters and situations were more realistic than the escapism fun of Batman. While The Green Hornet had good ratings, ABC was not willing to make the committment to the series in order to allow for deeper character development. As a result, the series only lasted 26 episodes before being cancelled in 1967.
While Bruce Lee went on to legendary iconic status (sadly because of his death at the young age of 32), Van Williams stayed in the background. He was content with the real-life role of husband and father, appearing occasionally in guest spots (including a memorable role -- one Williams cites as one of his favorites -- in Gunsmoke in 1975).
Williams had one final lead role, in a Saturday morning children's show called Westwind, which also lasted for one year. His final TV role was as a policeman on a 1979 episode of The Rockford Files.
Williams retired from acting to devote himself full-time to his successful communications company. He also served for many years as a part-time sheriff's deputy in California.
Van and his wife, Vicki were married on New Year's Eve, 1959. They met in Hawaii where she was a surfing pro. They have three children, and Van also has twin daughters from his first marriage.