Watching with Ron Ely, TV's original Tarzan
The 73-year-old actor and novelist talks about Tarzan as the show is released on DVD
Ron Ely seem to be enjoying his retirement. Most famous for playing Tarzan in the first TV incarnation of the story, he also played another great pulp hero, Doc Savage, in a 1975 movie, starred in a short-lived revival of the TV series "Sea Hunt" and even took over hosting duties for The Miss American Pageant from Bert Parks for a brief time. Off screen, he published two private eye novels, "Night Shadows" and "East Beach. According to the IMDb, his last screen appearance was over a decade ago (in, appropriately enough, the jungle girl show "Sheena").
The Warner Archive release of the first season of "Tarzan," featuring a buff, tanned and toned Ely in a loin cloth and little else, reminds us that he played the role closer to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs conception, as an erudite man raised in the jungle, educated in Europe, and now living back in his jungle home out of preference. The actor, now 73 years old, is just as well spoken as his character and he talked to Videodrone by phone to discuss the show, the role that defined his career, and his affection for "Survivor."
What are you watching?
I watch every new show that comes out. It's hard to name them all because they turn over so fast. Some I get attached to and then they disappear. Currently I like "The Good Wife," "Smash," "Awake," I like some of the reality shows. I like a show I would have definitely done twenty years ago, "Survivor." I would have loved to have done that.
They wouldn't have stood a chance against you.
Well, now, I was an actor playing a guy that could survive in the wild. I was not a guy who could survive in the wild, I don't think. I don't know. It would have been a fun experience, it would have been delightful to test yourself against that kind of circumstance.
Have they sent you a copy of the "Tarzan" series yet?
They have indeed and it is magnificent. I have not been able to see all of them but I have run a couple, just kind of spot checked, and they look really sharp and good. They've done a fabulous job in mastering these shows.
How did you get the part of Tarzan?
Actually, it's a short story. I came back from a trip to my mother's home in Texas on a Sunday night. There were messages there to call my agent. I talked to them Monday morning and they said, "It's about Tarzan." Now I had discussed "Tarzan" earlier, in the movie version of it, which I wasn't interested in, and they said, "This is a little different, at least go in for the meeting." So that's really what I was doing, I was going in for a meeting. I won't say just as a courtesy, but it partially was that. So then at the meeting they said, "Can we put you on film?" I said, "Yes," and they put me on film the next day, and then the day after that, which was Wednesday, I was told, "That's it, you're it," and on Friday I was on a plane to Brazil. I was as surprised as anybody when I found myself on a plane, flying in to Rio de Janeiro, and I finally thought, "What am I doing? What am I here for?"
How much of it was shot in Brazil? I was under the impression that it was shot in Mexico.
Mostly it was shot in Mexico. We started in Brazil, but the first show took 32 days to shoot and every director who tried to shoot there in Brazil was having the same difficulties because logistics were a problem and polished crews were a problem. After six months or so we only had six shows in the can, so it was really time to move someplace where we could do it a little quicker. Mexico was the obvious choice because they had developed a very strong film industry down there. We had a studio, Churubusco Studio, and we also had locales that were not too distant that matched anything that we had in Brazil.
I understand you did your own stunts on "Tarzan."
I did. There may have been a little too much emphasis put on that, which probably emanated from the Life Magazine story they did on me where they published a picture of me with bandages on. I think that was the end of the first season, they had bandages on me showing each injury. I practically looked like a mummy. Had they done that at the end of the second season, compiling it all, I would have looked like a mummy. The whole idea was to have a seamless look to the show, so the audience was never saying, "Wait a minute, is that him?" It's very hard to double a guy who's only got on, basically, a swimsuit. There's just too much identity there. So it came on me just as a matter of course.
Did you have to undertake any special training? Had you done anything like that before?
I was a swimmer and I was a boxer. I was a moderately good athlete. I could do just about anything to a certain level, not to an expert degree. For instance I wasn't a champion swimmer like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe were, those guys who preceded me in the role of Tarzan. They were Olympic champion swimmers. I was not that but I could swim and dive, I could do all that stuff. So I did, to the best of my ability. I think it lent an air of authenticity to the show.
Producer Sy Weintraub took the show back to the Burroughs conception of Tarzan as an articulate, educated man, very different from the famous Johnny Weissmuller version of the classic movies. Did you look back on any of your predecessors in helping you find your way into the role?
No, I did not look back. I took the role as if I had never seen it before, as if it was a new character handed to me, and I worked it from that thread on. The last Tarzan film I had ever seen would have been a Johnny Weissmuller film. Although Lex Barker was also a real good friend of mine, I never saw Lex on film as Tarzan. What I did with the character was, from the pages I had and the conversations about the show and all that sort of thing, I took that and I fashioned my character that way.
Some of these are awfully violent. The two-part "The Perils of Charity Jones," with guest stars Julie Harris and Woody Strode, is a real stand-out, but what I find most fascinating is the rage that drives Tarzan when he thinks that Jai has been killed. It's the first time we see Tarzan that ferocious, and the first time we see him angry and capable of killing someone. Do you remember this episode, and this aspect of Tarzan?
It occurred to me that that side of the character had been ignored, had been obfuscated by not having the right situation to show it. Well this was the right situation. This was the right context in which his anger, his feral qualities, would emerge. And I think it's important to that character that that quality always be there, that it's the snap of a finger that could move him into the more primitive aspects of his character. And like I say, the opportunity was rare. He was generally even-tempered and basically in control of the situation that was going on. That was one of the opportunities to get to the animal in the man, so to speak, that we seldom utilized.
A few years later, you made "Doc Savage." Your two most famous roles are both based on large than life pulp characters. Did you ever read the pulps yourself?
No. I was aware of the Doc Savage character, certainly, because of all the images on the paperbacks. Those would be hard to miss because any newsstand during the fifties and sixties, that character was very prevalent, and I knew that it had an enormous readership. But here again I had to close down any impressions I may have had of Doc Savage and go by the pages I was handed, by the script and by conversations with George Pal and conversations with Michael Anderson, the director, trying to determine the key aspects of the character. Granted, it's a superhero, and I was saying to myself, "Really? You're going to step into this pit again?" But it's a completely different character from Tarzan.
It's remarkable how much, in costume in the movie, you look like those paperback covers.
Really? Thank you. I'm glad to hear that, though I was trying not to imitate anything. It evolved in the way the show was shot, but some of the poses and some of the images were very similar. The torn shirt, that was almost obligatory.
It seems to me that anyone casting you in this kind of heroic role at that time would want to show off your physique.
Quite frankly, I was always mystified that I was chosen for "Doc Savage" or for "Tarzan." Inside, I felt different about myself. It’s only recently that I'm getting an awareness of what it might have appeared to other people. I thought of myself in entirely different terms so it was always a little surprising to me that people thought, I know this is going to sound silly, but that people thought I looked good. I thought I was just out there playing the character to the best of my ability. I never thought any of it would become an aspect of me.