Friday, November 6, 2009

Check Out These Swingers!


Today, we’ll examine a few TV & movie Tarzans. Typically, the first name that comes to mind when thinking of the famous vine swinger is the first sound film Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller. Having essayed the role from 1932 to 1948, he was also the actor with the longest span of portrayal.

Weissmuller’s early years have a touch of mystery to them, mostly because he and his family fudged his place of birth (Austria-Hungary, but changed to Windber, PA) in order to ensure his eligibility for the 1924 Olympics where he won three gold medals as a swimmer. He also took a bronze that year as part of the water polo team and then returned in 1928 to win two more golds. Weissmuller never lost a race during his entire swimming career and set 67 world records! Prior to his acting in films, he swam with Billy Rose’s Aquacade where, if you believe Esther Williams, he not only tried to seduce her throughout the time they worked together, but also sported an eye-popping endowment.

The first film in Weissmuller’s series, Tarzan, the Ape Man, is an unqualified classic and also contains an adult sensibility that would be absent from many of the subsequent films. Made in the “pre-code” era, Weissmuller’s loincloth was at its skimpiest and his female costar Maureen O’Sullivan had a nude, underwater swimming scene. Later films would have both the stars slightly more covered up and also impose a sort of conventional family dynamic upon the couple and their eventual adopted son ‘Boy.’ Weissmuller, perhaps, stayed too long at the fair, so to speak, where this role is concerned and his later entries in the series are cheaper and more routine.

Lex Barker, who then inherited the role, is featured elsewhere on this blog. One of the beefiest and cutest-looking Tarzans was Gordon Scott, who owned the role from 1955 to 1960. A bodybuilder with big arms and a tiny waist, Scott was discovered in Las Vegas as a lifeguard and signed for the part in the wake of 200 prior applicants. Though his first couple of films in the role are nothing tremendous, Scott is the first Tarzan to appear in color onscreen and his last two features, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent are widely considered among the best ever. His first attempt (Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle), however, costarred Vera Miles and the pair were married for a while during the 1950s. Are ya getting this? Vera Miles got to have sex with Gordon Scott! No wonder her skin stayed so dewy fresh for all those years.

A Tarzan TV series was suggested in 1958 starring Scott and he filmed an extensive, three-part pilot for it, though, for some reason it was not picked up. This was put together as the movie Tarzan and the Trappers and later shown on TV in 1966. Scott worked in Italian films, sometimes with his pal Steve Reeves, for a time, but really didn’t work in films past the late 60s. Though he did make more than a few personal appearances at conventions and so on, his later years were less than successful. In fact, he spent the last six years of his live living in the spare bedroom of a fan, passing away in 2007.

In 1966, the screen’s first real hairy-chested Tarzan made his debut. Mike Henry, a former Pittsburgh Steeler and L.A. Ram, is, despite a pretty brief run at the part, many folks’ favorite. He only did three Tarzan movies from 1966 to 1968, but his lean, dark good looks and amiable persona made him memorable in the part.

Henry had a very rough time of it, the series by now being filmed in strenuous locations such as Mexico and Brazil, where he suffered from injuries, infections and even a serious chimpanzee bite to the chin! The latter incident led to stitches and a three-week recovery thanks to Monkey Bite Fever. He was intended to star in yet another TV version of the story, but he not only turned it down but also sued the producers for the conditions under which he’d been working during the previous films.

Henry has a notorious fight scene with an animal in one of his films (I believe it is Tarzan and the Valley of Gold) in which his loincloth flips up, revealing something underneath. Rumors persist that it’s one of his balls, but I have always believed that it is a jockstrap. In any case, despite all of his problems and reservations concerning the experience, he was a very good Tarzan.

Some people might be surprised to learn that he later appeared as Jackie Gleason’s sidekick in Smokey and the Bandit and its sequels. He also did no fewer than three Charlton Heston films and two with John Wayne as well.

When the TV deal with Henry didn’t work out, a series was finally put together starring 6’4” bit actor Ron Ely. The show, which ran from 1966 – 1968, got an unusual kickoff when three former Tarzan’s met Ely to swing on vines for the press. The Tarzans were Jock Mahoney (one of the least favorite from Poseidon’s point of view), Johnny Weissmuller (Oh dear Lord, JW, that loincloth!) and a rather little known one named James Pierce, who had portrayed the King of the Jungle in a 1927 silent film! (See below)




Ely, who did virtually all of his own stunt work, incurred a ridiculous number of injuries during the filming of the 36 episodes! These include, but are not limited to: burns, bites, a dislocated shoulder, open wounds, cracked ribs and sprained wrists! In 1975, he starred in the (unsuccessful) film Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. (Ronny doesn't look all that bronze in the attached photo!) By 1980, he had moved on to comparatively safer work such as hosting the Miss America Pageant after the departure of Bert Parks and the game show Face the Music. Face the Music, which only ran for a year and a half, will nonetheless be a vivid memory to people of a certain age. The bonus round would play songs with titles related to a certain star and each step of the way featured early pics of that star from infancy up to the way they looked in their hey day.

Tarzan, as a franchise, did many little gay boys a favor over the years because it was perfectly acceptable to watch one of the films in a theater or on TV, yet they always afforded prolonged glimpses of handsome, muscular, nearly naked men!

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