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

March 30, 2012 | 12:15 p.m.

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


woola1 Tarzan memories: Ron Ely says it was a jungle out thereWoola: Meet the Lizard Lassie of Mars

‘John Carter’ set visit: Martian dreams in Utah

‘John Carter’: Stanton brings new mojo

Stanton: Marvel’s Mars was my ‘gateway drug’

Stanton to ‘Burroughs’ fans’: ‘Trust us’ 

‘John Carter’: Stanton’s Martian history

‘John Carter’ fan: My Martian fascination

‘John Carter’: Marvel comics’ ‘epic emotions’

‘Tarzan and His Mate,’ the ‘Avatar’ of its era?

Brad Bird: Hollywood afraid to copy Pixar


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

  1. david miles says:

    the nbc sixties tarzan series starring ron ely will it be released on dvd in the uk if so when

  2. GarySeven says:

    Funny, I was just wondering today what happened to Ron Ely. We hear from William Shatner, Lee Majors to some extent, and even lesser,…Robert Conrad. Heroes from my childhood. Now I know.

  3. guyneth Layton says:

    Ronnie the last time I saw Aunt Sybil and your sister was at my father's funeral in Odessa. The last time I saw you that I can recall was at a family reunion at Vivian's house in Tulia. I was about 14 and you 16 or 17 and not interested in younger cousins. I've lived just outside of Monterey in a little town called Marina for over 30 years and from time to time I used to hear you were in town. As I grow older and family grows smaller I find myself wondering about people and what happened to them. I don't know if you will really get this message or have any interest in communicating with me. I'm new to the internet.

  4. dear mr ely i can sure rember watching your series of tarzan and i think your tarzan series was really neat and it took a lot of will power and strength to make a show like that and cool to do your own stunts you and gordon,jock,mike was the best tarzans i think i have watched yours is the only ones i like having my favorite tarzans they don’t have any actors out that can fill yaws shoes yaw was really cool in series and the movies both so good luck in the future.i don’t know if you will even read this but if you do cool, sincerely virginia

  5. Fernando Viana says:

    Dear mr. Ely, I can say that watching your seires of tarzan an i think your tarzan seiries was great because you maybe was only to read every books of Edgar Rice Burrougs, while the anothers don´t to reading, for me you was best,

  6. negrandaluza says:

    Estimado Sr. Ely, coincido en que fue el mejor Tasrzan, no s`lo por las poezas sino por estar mas a tono con la epoca (dialogo, ecologia). Memorable, Los adultos de hoy que crecimos viendo la serie, coincidoimos en que su tranbajio dejo huellas, buena suerte en sdu empresa

  7. Jan says:

    I have watched Tarzan series since 1966. The first time I watched it I was stunned by your looks and have compared all men to you. I wish you were on the big screen more. You were amazing in the Tarzan series and if you read this, please know that you made a 16 year old girl very happy, and you set the standards for the men in my life. Thank you for being you. :)

  8. Joe says:

    Saw Ron on THRILLER the other night about a traveling waxworks dude from Europe who kills patrons. Ron's character was a police officer and I think this was prior to his Tarzan gig. Still worth watching.

  9. jai says:

    I loved watching all the re-runs as a kid in the 70’s and I was named after the child actor Manuel Padilla who portrayed Jai.

    I caught a lot of slack over the name when younger, but the girls always loved it later on when I grew up. Thanks for all the memories and for my namesake :)

  10. juarez says:

    i saw many tarzan´s movies,but the best tarzan was indeed ron ely. the most handsome as well. i saw all movies of mr.ely as tarzan. nowadays i am 47 and i can remember this marvellous time of my life. tarzan´s cry was amazing. congratulations dear mister ely.

  11. Reuben Horsman says:

    Enjoyed watching you on t.v. when i was young and glad you are going come back to acting. Looking at your movie “snake and mongoose”really enjoy racing show,look forward to your next,

  12. Terry Rideout says:

    best tarzan of all time Ron Ely.loved the series

  13. Masoud says:

    …My childhood most memorable movie..when I was 11-12…
    Now I am 50.. Yes ! still the best for me!

  14. Angel says:

    i would like to buy the complete tv serie on dvd.

    can anybody tell me how can i get this, please?
    I'm living in Mexico. and my uncle was a Tarzan's stoneman when was filming in Mexico.

    please email me angelvillalvazo@yahoo.com.mx

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

E-mail It
Powered by ShareThis