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March 30, 2012

‘Tarzan’ memories: Ron Ely says it was a jungle out there

Posted in: Movies

This post has been corrected, as detailed below.

Ron Ely followed in the loincloth of famed Tarzan actors as Johnny Weissmuller, Elmo Lincoln, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott and Mike Henry when he took on the role of Edgar Rice Burrough’s jungle hero in the 1966-68 NBC series “Tarzan.” The first season of the series has recently been released on DVD by Warner Archive.

At 6’4,” with chiseled features and muscles to spare, Ely’s Tarzan was much closer to Burrough’s original creation, “Tarzan of the Apes,” which first appeared 100 years ago in All-Story magazine before being published as a novel in 1914. Ely’s Tarzan had been raised by the giant apes in the African jungle only to return to the Dark Continent after receiving his education. Though Tarzan still wore a loincloth, there was no Jane in the series. Comic relief was provided by Cheetah the chimp. Manuel Padilla Jr. was in several episodes as a young orphan boy named Jai who was befriended by Tarzan.

Ely, now 73, continued to work post-“Tarzan” in movies such as the 1975 feature “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze” and the 1987 syndicated reboot of Lloyd Bridges’ old series, “Sea Hunt.” He also hosted the Miss America pageant from 1979-81 and the 1980 game show “Face the Music.” And in the 1990s, he wrote two detective novels, “Night Shadows” and “East Beach.” He recently chatted over the phone about his “Tarzan” experience and what the future holds.

HC: You had some amazing guest stars on the show like the famed Australian actor Chips Rafferty.

RE: I think he did three shows with me. When I was injured to a degree that it was hard to work around, we always had those scripts that kind of bent toward the boy. In those we would use Chips Rafferty and in one we used Julie Harris.

HC: Speaking of injuries, I read you insisted that you do all of your own stunts.

RE: I never did insist. I know that [story] is out there , but it just evolved. It just happened. I wound up doing everything before I knew I was doing everything. There was so much different stuff. There was water work, there was high work, there was flying like trapeze work, swimming, just general fights. And there was animal work.

HC: What all happened to you?

RE: Let’s start with what didn’t happen, it’s a shorter list. Just in the case of the three years it took us to shoot the series, I can’t even count it all. I know that Life magazine at the end of the first season came out with a picture of me where they put a bandage over various parts of my body that had been sort of interrupted in the process, so to speak, and it was amazing. There was not much flesh showing after they did that. At the end of the second season I have always said if they had done the picture there would have been none of me visible. I would have been a complete mummy because it seemed that just about everything got pulled or tweaked or broken or twisted so badly out of shape it was unrecognizable. The value of doing [the stunt work] was that it was seamless for the viewer. The viewer didn’t have that moment of saying ‘wait, is that him?’ We just didn’t have a way to hide a stunt guy. He would have had to have been almost identical to me physically and that just wasn’t around at the time.

HC: Where did you shoot the series? It certainly didn’t look like a back lot.

RE: It started in Brazil. We shot six months in Brazil and then we moved the operation to Mexico. In Mexico, they had a little more sophisticated film industry there.

HC: And probably a shorter distance to a hospital!

RE: Well, yeah. That is true. And we did avail ourselves of that opportunity as often as it presented itself.

00302885 Tarzan memories: Ron Ely says it was a jungle out there

"Tarzan" (NBC)

HC: This may sound like a truly strange question, but did you get to use sunscreen in those days?

RE: Well, funny that you should mention it. I didn’t wear makeup. But I did wear a French suntan oil gel called Bain de Soleil. It was tinted so it had enough color to it. When I first started the show I was not brown like I was later on, it gave me enough shading that it didn’t give me a complete tan but it was better than nothing.

HC: Did you have several chimps playing Cheetah?

RE: I had one and a backup. Cheetah was my best friend. Any time I wasn’t working and was sitting set side, the chimpanzee would sit right there with me, right next to my chair or jump up on me depending if the chimp wanted something or wanted attention. We had really good handlers. Everything was done with kindness.

tarzan and supremes Tarzan memories: Ron Ely says it was a jungle out there

"Tarzan" series guest stars included the Supremes (Cindy Birdsong, left, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson), shown here with Ron Ely on the set in 1968. (NBC)

HC: Did you ever lose your loincloth doing your stunts?

RE: I must say, I did lose mine on one dive. It almost escaped me entirely. I was able to retrieve it around my ankles!

HC: You have written two detective novels. Was that something you always wanted to do?

RE: Well, I had a family late in life. We had had the second child when I went to do ‘Sea Hunt’ and I realized then having a family on location for an extended period of time, it didn’t work for them. They are sort of disjointed from their regular life and that wasn’t right. When I came back from that and I began to analyze everything and I just withdrew from [acting]. I sat back to spend time with the kids and the option then was do nothing or do something…. My third child is now in the final stages of his college career. He graduates in May, so I am free to go back into the [acting] business and my family has encouraged me do that, so I might very well do that.

[For the record, 4 p.m. March 30: A previous version of this post implied that Ron Ely is contemplating a return to writing. He said he was free to go back into the acting business.]

–  Susan King

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