Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Tarzan - Part 3 (1949-1960)

Character's first film appearance: Tarzan of the Apes (released January 27th, 1918)
Character description: Tarzan - aka John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke - is a fictional character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. He was a feral child raised in the African jungles by the Mangani great apes after being separated from his parents when their ship was marooned off the African coast by mutineers. As an adult he experiences modern civilisation for the first time, largely rejecting it and choosing to remain in the wild as a heroic adventurer.

This is the third in a multi-part entry charting what happened to the various actors who have played Tarzan over the years. Click here for the silent era (1918-1929), or click here for the 1930s and 1940s (1932-1948). Or read on to find out about the Tarzans of the 1950s...

Lex Barker (born Alexander Crichlow Barker Jr)
Played Tarzan: 1949-1953
Birthdate: Thursday, May 8th, 1919
Location: Rye, New York, USA

Died: Friday, May 11th, 1973
Location: New York, USA
Cause of death: Heart attack

Although Lex played football as a youth, he was no champion sportsman like many of his predecessors. However, he was a respected military veteran, having enlisted in the US Army in 1941, rising to the rank of Major. He was wounded in the head and leg during action in Sicily, recuperating at a military hospital in Arkansas, before moving to Los Angeles after the war and breaking into acting.

Lex's pre-Tarzan roles were nothing to write home about. He had various uncredited bit parts in films such as Doll Face (1945), Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946) and Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948), but it wasn't until he landed the role of Tarzan of the Apes in Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949) - replacing Johnny Weissmuller after 16 years - that he made it big. At 6ft 4in he was an impressive Lord Greystoke, and appeared as Tarzan in four more productions - Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), Tarzan's Peril (1951, filmed partially in Kenya, making it the first Tarzan film shot in Africa), Tarzan's Savage Fury (1952) and Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953).

Lex as Tarzan with Cheeta
Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs visited the set of Tarzan and the Slave Girl in early 1950. By this point he was suffering from Parkinson's Disease, and this set visit was to be his last public appearance: he died on March 19th, 1950, just four days after the cinematic release of the film. He was 74 years old.

During his time as Tarzan, Lex did appear in other roles - he appeared in the TV series Tales of Tomorrow, playing a space explorer in the episode Red Dust (broadcast May 2nd, 1952). He also appeared in 1952's Battles of Chief Pontiac, playing Lieutenant Kent McIntire to Lon Chaney Jr's title character in a film set before the Revolution.

After hanging up Tarzan's loincloth, Lex continued to secure roles in films such as Thunder Over the Plains (1953), Black Devils of Kali (1954), The Yellow Mountain (1954) and The Price of Fear (1956), but by the late 1950s he was finding it harder to secure work, so decided to move to Europe to try his luck, settling in Spain's Costa Brava. After all, he was multilingual, able to speak English, French, Italian, Spanish and some German. On the Continent, he found work in Captain Falcon (1958), Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) and Terror of the Red Mask (1960).

As Old Shatterhand in 1962's The
Treasure of the Silver Lake
Lex even managed to secure the title role in Robin Hood and the Pirates (1960), FBI Agent Joe Como in two Dr Mabuse films (1961-62), and the title role in 1962's Dr Sibelius. However, it was in the 1960s that Lex's career got its second wind as he played a number of characters in film adaptations of the books of German author Karl May - Old Shatterhand in seven films between 1962-68, Kara Ben Nemsi in three films (1964-65) and Dr Karl Sternau in three films (1965)

By 1966 Lex had become a major star in Germany and was even awarded the Bambi Award for Best Foreign Actor that year. He also turned his hand to singing, recording two songs in 1965 - I'll Be on the Way to You Tomorrow, and Girl in Silk and Velvet.

Lex in his final acting role, Rod Serling's
Night Gallery, in January 1972
Lex was a bit of a ladies' man too, having married five times. In the 1940s he was married to Constance Thurlow, daughter of a metal manufacturing magnate; he was married to actress Arlene Dahl (mother of actor Lorenzo Lamas) for a year; his third wife was the Hollywood icon Lana Turner, although this marriage seemed laced with something darker - in her 1988 memoir Detour: A Hollywood Tragedy, Turner's daughter Cheryl Crane claims Lex repeatedly molested and raped her from the ages of 10 to 13, leading to Turner divorcing him in 1957 (the actress allegedly ordered him out of the house at gunpoint when she found out). Lex's fourth wife was Swedish actress Irene Labhardt, who killed herself in 1962 after five years of marriage to Lex; and his fifth and final wife was Tita Cervera, aka Miss Spain 1961.

Lex, aged 53, with lover Karen
Kondazian, then 22, in May 1972
Lex's final acting appearances were back on US screens. In January 1971 he appeared in an episode of The Name of the Game called The Man Who Killed a Ghost, in which a reporter played by Robert Wagner sets out to expose the wholesome image of Western star Will Cheyenne (played by Lex). Two months later he appeared in an episode of crime series The FBI, while his final acting work was in The Waiting Room segment of an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery broadcast on January 26th, 1972, playing an outlaw awaiting punishment in a saloon bar.

On Friday, May 11th, 1973, just three days after his 54th birthday, Lex was walking down Lexington Avenue in New York City, on his way to meet his lover Karen Kondazian, when he collapsed and died from a heart attack. The funeral took place in the Big Apple, and his remains cremated and taken back to Spain by his wife, Tita.

Gordon Scott (born Gordon Merrill Werschkul)
Played Tarzan: 1955-60
Birthdate: Tuesday, August 3rd, 1926
Location: Portland, Oregon, USA

Died: Monday, April 30th, 2007
Location: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Cause of death: Complications following heart surgery

The first time Gordon appeared on the cinema screen was as Tarzan of the Apes in Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955). He was discovered by a talent scout while working as a lifeguard in Las Vegas's Sahara Hotel and Casino, and it was undoubtedly his 6ft 3in frame which did the job. Movie producer Sol Lesser asked Gordon to change his name from Werschkul as it sounded too like Weissmuller, and so he became Gordon Scott.

Gordon, aged 39, in Hercules
and the Princess of Troy (1965)
After signing a seven-year contract, Gordon played Tarzan in five films in total - Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955), Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957), Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958), Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), as well as a TV movie made up of edited-together pilot episodes, called Tarzan and the Trappers (1958).

During his time playing Tarzan, Gordon was married to his co-star, Vera Miles, but the couple divorced in 1960 - the year Gordon decided to hang up the loin cloth for fear of being typecast, and moved to Italy to seek Continental work. It was there he became quite a popular action film star, especially in "swords and sandals" epics such as Goliath and the Vampires (1961), Duel of the Titans (1961), A Queen for Caesar (1962) and Goliath and the Rebel Slave (1963).

However, as the market for this genre faded away, Gordon tried his luck at Westerns and spy-fi films - such as Buffalo Bill (1965) and Danger!! Death Ray (1967) - but these were not successful, and Gordon's final acting work was as John Sutton in the Italian crime drama Top Secret (aka Segretissimo), released in May 1967.

Gordon with fan Roger Thomas, who
he lived with between 2001-07
Aged 41, Gordon gave up acting and spent the rest of his life enjoying the attention from fans of Tarzan and his other 1960s action films on the convention circuit. He did, however, appear in two documentaries about the history of Tarzan: firstly, 1997's Investigating Tarzan, and later the 1998 film made by British chat show host Jonathan Ross, In Search of Tarzan.

Gordon actually spent the last six years of his life living in the spare room of his number one fan, Roger Thomas, and his wife Betty, in Baltimore. The Thomases had visited Hollywood to look round the memorabilia and souvenir stores in 2000, and mentioned to shopkeepers that his idol was Gordon Scott (he had all his films on tape) and would love to meet him. A month after returning home, Roger had a call from Gordon, who was then living in Arizona, saying he'd like to come over and visit them.

Gordon in hospital in the
last few weeks of his life
It was March 16th, 2001 when Roger and Betty Thomas picked Gordon Scott up from the airport. The former Tarzan was then 74 years old, and although they first saw him sitting in a wheelchair, Gordon was certainly fit enough not to need it (quite why he was in the wheelchair is lost in the mists of time). They took Gordon to their home on Pontiac Avenue, put him in the back bedroom, thinking he'd stay for a few days - but he ended up staying for six years, the rest of his life! He paid rent only occasionally, but fan Roger didn't care. After Gordon's death, he said: "From childhood up, he was everything in the world to me. If I could be like him, the bullies wouldn't bother me. He represented an ideal."

Gordon had a number of operations on his heart in early 2007, but he died of complications following the surgery at 10.50am on April 30th, 2007, at the age of 80, at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He had apparently been estranged from his family for some time. He is buried in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Denny Miller (born Dennis Linn Miller)
Played Tarzan: 1959
Birthdate: Wednesday, April 25th, 1934
Location: Bloomington, Indiana, USA

Died: Tuesday, September 9th, 2014
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Cause of death: Motor neurone disease

Denny had perhaps one of the most enduring acting careers of all the Tarzans after his one outing as the Lord of the Jungle in Tarzan, the Ape Man in 1959. Denny played basketball at the University of California in Los Angeles as a youngster, and it was while working as a furniture remover to pay his way through school that he was spotted by a talent scout for MGM and signed up, becoming the first ever blond Tarzan.

Tarzan, the Ape Man was made on the cheap and took a lot of its incidental footage from old Johnny Weissmuller films. Although Denny was signed up for 20 months, he worked only eight of them, but this brief sojourn into the jungle did nothing to harm what became a glittering career.

Denny as Duke Shannon
in Wagon Train, when he
was aged 30
After Tarzan - for which he was paid $180 a week - the 25-year-old Denny began to specialise in the Western television shows popular at the time, and made appearances in everything from Have Gun - Will Travel (1960), Laramie (1960) and The Rifleman (1960), to Stagecoach West (1961), The Deputy (1961) and Love in a Goldfish Bowl (1961). The year 1961 proved a major turning point in his career after he secured the role of Duke Shannon in what would go on to be more than 100 episodes of the series Wagon Train between 1961-64 (sometimes credited as Scott Miller).

When Wagon Train ended in April 1964, it wasn't long until he secured another regular role, that of Mike McCluskey in the romantic comedy series Mona McCluskey opposite Juliet Prowse. This ran for 26 episodes between 1965-66, after which Denny fell into a plethora of guest star roles in series such as The Girl from UNCLE (1966), The Fugitive (1966), The High Chaparral (1968), Hawaii Five-O (1969) and Mission Impossible (1971). These guest star roles carried on well into the 1980s, securing a semi-regular turn as Max Flowers in soap Dallas in 1984.

Denny's acting career came to an end in the 1990s: after playing Sheriff Owen Kearney in Lonesome Dove: The Series (1994-95), he drew a line on his CV with the role of Noah McBride in a two-part story in the series Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, broadcast in February 1996. He was aged 62 and ready to retire, and in retirement he stayed for nine years, until he was tempted back before the cameras to play Horace the miner in the $1.2m TV film Hell to Pay, which reunited ten legendary Western stars, including Lee Majors, Buck Taylor and James Drury, among others.

Denny lived until he was 80 years old,
and always advocated healthy living
and fitness
Another of Denny's high profile roles was as the yellow-clad Gorton's Fisherman on TV seafood commercials for more than a decade until 2005, after which he was replaced by Craig Littler. Also in later years he wrote an autobiography entitled Didn't You Used to Be What's His Name?, and a book about obesity called Toxic Waist? Get to Know Sweat! (aka Me Tarzan! You Train - Without Pain!). Even toward the end of his life, Denny could still fit into the loincloth he'd worn as Tarzan, and drove around in a car with a personalised numberplate - X TARZAN.

In January 2014, at the age of 79, Denny was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, a form of Motor Neurone Disease. He passed away in Las Vegas on September 9th that year, aged 80 - before he died, he'd been the oldest living Tarzan actor.

To read the previous chapter about the silent era Tarzans, click here, and the previous chapter about the Tarzans 1932-48, click here. The next chapter in the Tarzan story, looking to the 1960s, can be found here.

No comments:

Post a comment

Please add your comments here...