Edgar Rice Burroughs first introduced us to Tarzan in the novel Tarzan of the Apes. Some religiously followed the rich lore of Tarzan from the very first novel up to the 25th. Not long after, this famous literary character was adapted for both the silver screen and the small screens.
In honor of the character, let’s explore the history of the famous people who have donned the loincloth, before Alexander Skarsgård’s own take on the character in The Legend Of Tarzan which will arrive in theaters on July 1st.
The Silent Pictures
The first Tarzan movies were silent pictures, with the first appearing in 1918. Elmo Lincoln starred in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) which is said to be exactly lifted from Burroughs's novel. The young Tarzan is played by Gordon Griffith. Then Johnny Weissmuller played Tarzan in Tarzan , The Ape Man in 1932. He is accompanied by a chimpanzee sidekick named Cheeta. Incidentally, Cheeta would stick around until the '90s, appearing lastly in the Filipino Tarzan spoof Starzan. Only in this adaptation, Cheetaeh is not a chimp but a thin and mustached-guy named Rene Requistas. The more you know!
Tarzan’s silent adventures did not end there. Elmo Lincoln starred in The Romance of Tarzan also in 1918; Gene Pollar in 1920 in The Revenge of Tarzan; and Frank Merrill in Tarzan the Mighty in 1928. The first Tarzan sound film was Tarzan the Tiger in 1929 starring Frank Merrill.
The most famous Tarzan, however, was Johnny Weissmuller, who starred in over 12 Tarzan films and was known for the iconic Tarzan yell; so this list starts with him.
1. Johnny Weissmuller
First Appearance: Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932)
Last Appearance: Tarzan and The Mermaids (1948)
Weissmuller appeared in many Tarzan movies until 1942,which also marked the last production of Tarzan by MGM. It was also Weissmuller who first did the “Tarzan’s yell: "oha hohohoho” or something to that effect. He retired when he felt too old to wear the loin cloth and his voice was no longer the powerful Tarzan’s yell that could make the animals in the jungle cower in fear.
2. Lex Barker
First Appearance: Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1947)
Last Apperance: Tarzan and The She-Devil (1953)
Many film production companies made their own adaptation of Tarzan during the Weissmuller era, but Weissmuller's official replacement was the dashing New Yorker Lex Barker. Most of his Tarzan films were low budget, just like some of Weissmuller's. Although the third installment Tarzan's Peril (1951), was an attempt to upgrade the film where they filmed in real African locations and used local Africans in the cast.
3. Gordon Scott
First Appearance: Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955)
Last Appearance: Tarzan The Magnificent (1960)
From 1955 to 1960, bodybuilder Gordon Scott took on the role, after being scouted by the poolside. He was offered the role,"a 7 year contract, a loin cloth, and a new last name". Scott played in four Tarzan films produced by Sol Lesser. He also starred in two produced by Sy Weintraub, which were closer to Burroughs's original conception, contrary to the first four which had the "Weissmuller formula". The films produced by Weintraub were the most well-received; Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan the Magnificent (1960) were both box-office success.
4. Miles O'Keeffe
First Appearance: Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)
The Tarzan franchise went on hiatus until 1981 when MGM released their third remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man. O'Keeffe is best known for Tarzan because it was his breakout role. But the movie itself - though financially successful - was critically panned.
5. Christopher Lambert
First Appearance: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
In 1984, Christopher Lambert, (yes, the immortal from Highlander) also played Tarzan in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Although the film generated mixed-to-postive reviews upon its release, it was the first Tarzan movie that received four Academy Award nominations at the 57th Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Makeup.
6. Casper Van Dien
First Appearance: Tarzan and The Lost City (1998)
Tarzan and the Lost City was the last live-action adaptation of the Tarzan books to date. It's a follow-up to Greystoke, but it wasn't well-received and was also a box office bomb.
Worthy of mention:
Goldwyn voiced Tarzan in Disney's animated version. Let's face it, this is perhaps the best Tarzan adaptation ever. The adaptation became the first one to win an Academy award in 1999, Golden Globe in 2000, and a Grammy for Best Music, Original Song, for 'You’ll be in My Heart' by Phil Collins.
7. Alexander Skarsgård
Because of Tarzan and the Lost City's failure, it took Warner Bros. a decade to decide whether they still want to pursue another Tarzan film. Thankfully, the film gods smiled down on us, and granted us our one wish - to have Alexander Skarsgård (of True Blood fame) as the newest actor to don the loincloth.
Many would agree that Skarsgård is an excellent casting choice - likewise with Margot Robbie as Jane. His roles in True Blood and Generation Kill prove that he is not a newcomer in portraying characters with primal instincts.
Personally, I think this will be one of the best live-action Tarzan films, and I even wrote a piece back in December explaining why.
Now, if all goes well, we might expect to see more of Skarsgård's portrayal of the Ape Man. And with today's technology and resources, I've no doubt that there will be renewed interest for the literary character that Edgar Rice Burroughs bestowed upon us all.
'The Legend of Tarzan' will swing into theaters July 1st.