Jungle fever: Tarzan swinger Ely

Question: Who played the first Tarzan?


Answer: Assuming you mean the first TV Tarzan — this column has a strong small-screen bias, after all — that'd be actor Ron Ely, who was actually the 15th actor to go ape-man. (Elmo Lincoln was the first to discover jungle love in the 1918 big-screen feature Tarzan of the Apes.)

If there's one thing I can say about Ely, he earned his paycheck on the NBC series, which debuted in September 1966 and left the air three years later. The athletic 6-foot-4-inch actor refused to let a stuntman handle the risky shots, so all that beast battling, vine swinging and waterfall diving took a terrible toll on his body. Yet he worked through the pain like a man possessed, which he may well have been. "This Tarzan, it's the part I've been waiting for all my life," director James Komack quoted the actor as saying in a 1967 TV Guide story Komack wrote about working on the show. "It's my big chance. I've never had a part. I've never been in a quality series. It's a good feeling, so good that somehow I can't believe I will ever be seriously hurt."

Well, I guess one can argue that "seriously" is a relative term, but Ely's stitches, broken bones and torn muscles certainly qualify as big hurts in my book. In fact, the hazards of the series were bad enough that former pro-football player Mike Henry, who played the character on the big screen and was cast as the original TV Tarzan, walked away rather than face them. (It seems a chimp that was supposed to kiss him took a chomp out of his chin instead, prompting 18 stitches, the actor's resignation and an $875,000 suit against the producers.)

But such things didn't shake Ely. A puma scarred his right calf and a leopard tore up his left leg, plus a lion bit him on the forehead (five stitches there) and sanded down the tops of the actor's feet while dragging him across a field. ("[T]here is an ego factor involved," he admitted. "I honestly believe I can whip these animals.") And that was just the critters. He slipped a disc and severely strained his neck trying to carry the weight of a fellow actor and a capsized boat at the same time. He blistered his face and burned his arms and legs running down a flaming street. In Mexico, where the show relocated after flooding and other problems in Brazil, Ely missed a vine during a swinging sequence, fell 28 feet and landed on his head and shoulder, knocking himself unconscious. "To tell the truth, I was kind of embarrassed," he told an interviewer. "I wanted to get up and show [the crowd of spectators] I was all right. I still have a memory of the ground coming closer in my head. It's a very bad memory to have." Of course, the necessary surgery to wire his separated shoulder together wasn't anymore pleasant, but the producers displayed their pragmatism by saving the footage and rewriting the scene to include Tarzan being shot off the vine by a thief.

Because of hazards like that, Ely carried a $3 million insurance policy, paid for by the production company. But others suffered for the show, too. A trained elephant used in the show went berserk, rammed a woman and child and trampled a trainer to death before being shot. And a 10-year-old boy took a bite from Vickie the chimp, who played Tarzan's ape pal Cheetah, when she became jealous while Ely was shooting a scene with the lad.

One more gory tale, simply because I believe it further illustrates how tough the man was: Komack recalled how one day Ely showed up on the set with a torn hamstring, his leg turning black from the blood clot it caused. The actor insisted he could work and told the makeup man to cover the discoloration with makeup. Because the clot might kill him if it went to his lungs, Ely asked a doctor to shoot him up with an anticlotting agent. All of that meant, of course, that if he cut himself during the shot, he could easily bleed to death. "Why did he do it?" Komack wrote. "Because Tarzan would do it. And Ron Ely is Tarzan."

And that wasn't just the director's observation. It came from the man himself. "If it's something I feel I can do, I should do it myself," Ely said. "It's no good selling something that isn't the truth. I want to make the viewer believe I am Tarzan."

That he did. But man, did it hurt.