“The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete. ” –Johnny Weissmuller
In today’s world, an athlete who wins Olympic medals will hear the beckoning of advertisers, talk shows, and countless others. In the US, Americans who win Olympic medal appear on the Wheaties Cereal box, sign endorsement deals with companies such as Subway or McDonald’s, and will sit down to talk with Jay Leno or David Letterman. They can also land guest-starring roles on television (Vancouver’s star Lindsey Vonn had a less than memorable one.). And, many of them have tried to use their Olympic success for launching an acting career. Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis, and Tara Lipinski have had less than successful results; but if an Olympian can win the roll of “Tarzan,” their chances at Hollywood fame seem better!
What is it about Tarzan and Olympic athletes? Of the 80+ Tarzan movies produced by Hollywood, the majority of them starred former Olympic athletes.
The most successful Tarzan movie franchise began in 1933 with Herman Brix. The Washington State native was an all-around superb athlete. He not only excelled at shot put in the Olympics, but played football for the University of Washington. Following his silver medal in shot put at the 1928 Olympics, his acquaintance, Douglas Fairbanks, convinced him to pursue acting. Tinseltown was all to eager to find roles for the handsome, muscular man. The first role he landed was that of Tarzan in a new film enterprise between MGM Studios and the creator of Tarzan, author Edgar Rice Burroughs. But Brix injured his shoulder and was replaced by another Olympian, Johnny Weissmuller. However, when Burroughs became unhappy with how MGM was developing Tarzan for film, he and producer Ashton Dearhold hired Brix to star in their own film series, The New Adventures of Tarzan. Years later, Brix has been lauded for his authentic portrayal of Tarzan, and for performing most of his own stunts. Brix would later go by the screen name of Bruce Bennett.
With Brix’s injury, MGM sought out another Olympic athlete who was enjoying his recent Olympic success. Born in present-day Romania, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller immigrated to America at a young age with his family. Following his contraction of polio, Weissmuller took up swimming in his new hometown of Chicago. As he continued to excel, he was named to the US Olympic Team in both 1924 and 1928. In 1924, he won several gold medals and also helped the US Water Polo Team secure a bronze medal. In 1928, Weissmuller won gold again. With his good looks and muscular build, studio executives thought he was the perfect replacement to don the loin cloth. They were right. Weissmuller would star in over 20 films, six of which he starred as Tarzan. It was Weissmuller who developed that famous undulating Tarzan cry.
Clarence Lindon “Buster” Crabbe, who portrayed the jungle man in the serial Tarzan the Fearless. Crabbe, who was raised in Hawaii, competed in the 1928 Olympics, where he won a bronze medal, and the 1932 Olympics, where he won a gold medal. It was during this time that he also attended and graduated from the University of Southern California. Following graduation and still basking in Olympic glory, Crabbe married his college sweetheart and decided to take a stab at acting. Hollywood was only too happy to oblige. Crabbe, with his ideal movie star looks, is probably considered the most successful Olympian-turned actor. He would not only debut as Tarzan, but would star in over 100 films, including roles such as Flash Gordon, Billy the Kid, and Buck Rogers. A nice montage of Crabbe is found here.
Jesse Owens wasn’t the only hero from the 1936 Games in Berlin. American Glenn Morris set a new World and Olympic record in the decathlon, winning the gold medal and the hearts of America. Following a hero’s welcome home, the Colorado native worked briefly as a commentator for NBC radio before accepting the lead role in Tarzan’s Revenge. The movie was panned by critics, and after one other small film role, Morris left Hollywood. The remainder of his life was filled with sadness. His career with the Detroit Lions was cut short by injury. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following his time in World War II, and was rumored to battle alcoholism. He died quietly at a veterans hospital in California.
Who do you think was the best Tarzan? Here are some video clips to help you decide:
Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan
Herman Brix (Bruce Bennett) as Tarzan
Buster Crabbe as Tarzan
Glenn Morris as Tarzan
Swifter, Higher, Stronger.