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100 Years of Tarzan

Updated on July 26, 2012

(Left to right) Elmo Lincoln, Johnny Weissmuller, Herman Brix, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Mike Henry, Ron Ely, Chris Lambert, Joe Lara

Tarzan's first appearance in All Story Magazine and the cover of the first Tarzan novel

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane

The Disney animated Tarzan

The Filmation Studios animated Tarzan

TARZAN: One Hundred Years and Still Going Strong

Tarzan was created 100 years ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs was born in 1875 Chicago, the son of a Civil War veteran and successful businessman George Burroughs. His mother’s name was Mary. He spent much of his youth on a relative’s ranch, which is where he developed his love for nature and animals, and his admiration for people who ‘rough it’. Unable to join the military as his father did, due to a minor heart defect, he attempted a series of unsuccessful business ventures, hoping to emulate his father’s success. After a period of drifting, he went to work for his father and got married. He had three children and wanted something better for them than just what he could supply on his workman’s wages. This is when he decided to supplement his income by writing.

He loved to read the Pulp Magazines and always felt he could do just as well or better than what he saw there, so began submitting his work. Tarzan of the Apes was the second story he sold, and he was paid $400 for it. It debuted as a serialized feature in All Stories Magazine, debuting in 1912. The story was so popular, it was later collected together as a novel and became a best-seller.

The Tarzan series became so popular that a second book, the Return of Tarzan (1913) was rushed out, becoming equally successful. 26 books in all were written by Burroughs over the next few decades, remaining popular until the final book Tarzan and the Foreign Legion in 1947. (Burroughs would copy this success with other heroes, including the popular John Carter of Mars books; the David Innes/Pellucidar/At the Earth’s Core series; and The Land That Time Forgot trilogy. He wrote several westerns, as well. The theme of the rugged man who tames a wild frontier is a repeated meme for all Burrough’s books.)

Burrough became so wealthy from his many books (and selling the film rights) that he bought a huge piece of land in California in 1919, on which he built his own ranch. He started renting out or selling bits of his vast acreage to people and by 1928, a whole town had formed. The people of the new town voted to call it “Tarzana”. The name Tarzana, California remains the town’s official name to this day. The town’s most famous attraction is the Tarzan Museum, owned by the descendants of the Burroughs family.

Tarzan would make his way from the page to film, radio, stage plays, comic books, television and computer games. He is one of the five most well-known fictional characters in the world (along with Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Frankenstein and Superman.)

When WW2 began, Burroughs became a war correspondent, despite being in his late sixties. He would continue to write until his death in 1950. He was the author of over 70 novels.

All about Tarzan…

Most people know the origin of Tarzan. He was the child of English aristocrats (the Earl of Greystoke and his socialite wife) who were stranded on the untamed African coast when mutineers took over the ship they were traveling on. The pregnant Lady Greystoke gave birth to a son, but died in child birth. The father was killed soon after by a huge gorilla (Kerchack). The ape’s mate (Kala) adopted the orphaned human child because she had recently lost her own baby. The child became known as Tarzan (meaning ‘white ape’) and was raised among the Apes, developing abilities equal to them. He learned to speak the languages of all the jungle animals. Finding a knife that belonged to his late father, Tarzan grew to become the king of the jungle.

As practically everyone knows, the great love of Tarzan’s life is Jane Porter (Parker in the films). Jane was from a well-off family in Baltimore Maryland. When she and her fellow passengers get shipwrecked off the African Coast, they are befriended by Tarzan, and very soon, Tarzan and Jane fall in love. For a time, Tarzan and Jane live together in civilization but Tarzan ultimately gets tired of the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the modern world and the pair return to the African jungles for further adventures. Eventually they would have a son named Korak.

Unlike the later film versions of Tarzan, the literary Tarzan was multi-lingual and spoke well. He didn’t converse in the pidgin-English that most people today associate with the character.

The character of Tarzan has appeared in almost 100 films and TV shows internationally over the past 100 years. The first-ever big-screen adaptation of Tarzan was the silent film Tarzan of the Apes (1918) starring Elmo Lincoln as the eponymous jungle lord. This film was the first movie ever to gross a million dollars at the box office. Lincoln returned in The Romance of Tarzan, which came out the same year.

Several more silent films followed; three in 1920 and one in 1921. {*That same year, the first Tarzan stage play Tarzan of the Apes debuted, with Ronald Adair as the titular hero.} There were three more silent films, the last one being Tarzan the Tiger (1929) starring aerialist Frank Merrill as Tarzan. Merrill’s acrobatic skills were worked into the script and introduced the public to the image of Tarzan swinging through trees on vines (Something never mentioned in the Burroughs novels.)

The Tarzan newspaper comic strip began in 1929. In 1932 came the Tarzan Radio Show, featuring the voice of James Pierce as the jungle hero. But something else was to debut that year, which would become the most lasting image of Tarzan.

The first sound Tarzan film was produced by MGM in 1932. To play the lead, the studio brought in Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller. Weissmuller was the Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps of his day, having dominated the 1928 Olympic swimming events. He held practically every world-record for swimming-times on the planet in his prime. By 1932, Weissmuller was working as a male spokes-model, to publicize a new line of bathing suits (The new swimsuits were rather controversial at the time, because most men used to wear the full-torso “tank top” swimsuits back then. The swim briefs modeled by Weissmuller were very risqué because they didn’t cover the upper-body.) Weissmuller was also a champion at yodeling and it was he who came up with the famous Tarzan yell.

To play alongside Tarzan as his lady-Love Jane was young ingénue actress Maureen O’Sullivan. Weissmuller and O’Sullivan had a great on-screen chemistry. (The character’s last name was changed to Parker and her land of origin was now England instead of America.) Added to the mix was comedy-relief chimpanzee Cheeta, Tarzan’s simian sidekick. (Cheeta was never in any of the Tarzan stories by Burroughs. He was added to appeal to the kids in the audience.)

Tarzan the Ape Man was released in 1932 and was a box-office hit. The public loved Weissmuller’s strong and silent portrayal of the eponymous ape-man. Weissmuller would become—and still remains—the most popular of all the screen Tarzans. However, one person didn’t love it and that was Burroughs himself. Burroughs didn’t like the mono-syllabic portrayal of his iconic hero. (Tarzan was multi-lingual in the novels.) However, he did like the royalties that came from the film’s huge success.

The following year, a serial featuring the character titled Tarzan the Fearless debuted, starring another Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe (Crabbe would go on to greater fame playing Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in other serials.)

In 1934, Weissmuller and O’Sullivan were back in the inevitable sequel to their earlier hit, called Tarzan and his Mate. This superior sequel is generally regarded as the best Tarzan film ever made.

A year after that, Burroughs himself got involved in the production of a serial that would depict a Tarzan closer to his literary version...The New Adventures of Tarzan (AKA Tarzan and the Lost Goddess) starring Herman Brix (AKA Bruce Bennett) The film was moderately well received. Brix did a good job, but like Crabbe, he was in the shadow of the more popular Weissmuller. Glen Morris would wear the loincloth in Tarzan’s Revenge (1938) and Brix would try again in Tarzan and the Green Goddess (1939) but the public didn’t seem to want anyone else as Tarzan other than Weissmuller.

Weissmuller would play the jungle hero 10 more times, finally bowing out after Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). Maureen O’Sullivan had left the series several years earlier, after Tarzan’s New York Adventure in 1942 and was replaced by blonde bombshell Brenda Joyce as Jane, who debuted in Tarzan and the Amazons in 1945. (Jane was now somehow American, as in the books.)

Johnny Sheffield had joined the series in 1939 (in Tarzan finds a Son) as Tarzan’s adopted son, unimaginatively named “Boy”. He, too, left the franchise in 1947 (His last appearance was in Tarzan and the Huntress) to star in his own Tarzan rip-off series Bomba the Jungle Boy.

The Franchise continued without Weissmuller. Brenda Joyce was joined by Lex Barker as the new Tarzan in Tarzan’s Magic Fountain. (1949). Barker would play the hero five times, exiting with Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953). (After Brenda Joyce left the series, the actress who played Jane would change with each film.)

Gordon Scott—a former cop and army drill sergeant turned actor—took over the role with Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1956). He would do two more cinematic films (Tarzan and the Lost Safari and Tarzan’s Fight for Life) and then a made-for TV film (Tarzan and the Trappers) which was intended as a pilot for a weekly show. Big, blonde-haired Denny Miller played Tarzan in a new adaptation of Tarzan the Ape Man, unconnected to the canonical franchise. It was not very well received. Gordon Scott made his fifth and last appearance as Tarzan in Tarzan the Magnificent (1960).

Jock Mahoney--who starred in two 1950s TV series The Range Rider and Yancy Derringer-- took over the role for two films; Tarzan Goes to India (1962) and Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963).

The final Tarzan of the long-running franchise was former professional football player Mike Henry, who had played for the Pittsburg Steelers and the LA Rams. He would portray the character three times; Tarzan and the Valley of Gold,(1966) Tarzan and the Great River (1967) and Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968) This was the official end to the 36 year long canonical film series.

Ron Ely starred in the weekly series Tarzan which ran on NBC from 1966-1969. Ely is also known for having starred in the title role of Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze (1975).

An animated Tarzan series produced by Filmation Studios aired from 1976-1982 under various titles, changing repeatedly as the jungle hero was made part of anthology with other heroes. (Tarzan Lord of the Jungle; The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour; Tarzan and the Super Seven; the Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure hour; the Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Hour.)

In 1981, Miles O’Keefe starred as Tarzan in a much-maligned adaptation of Burrough’s original novel called Tarzan the Ape Man. The film focused mostly on Bo Derek as Jane and had more nudity than any previous Tarzan film.

In 1984, Christopher Lambert (Of Highlander fame) starred in Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, which adapted in detail the early and later chapters of the original Burroughs tale, but cuts out the entire middle section of the book. Andie McDowell played Jane (although her voice was judged unsuitable during the editing process and so Glen Close was hired to re-dub Jane’s dialogue.)

Joe Lara would star as Tarzan in a 1989 made-for-TV movie called Tarzan in Manhattan. This is the first film in many years to use Cheeta the Chimp as a character (Not seen since the 1960s Tarzan series) Lara gives an odd portrayal of Tarzan in this campy film, but the strangest part is Kim Crosby’s version of Jane, who is a combination Private Eye/cab driver. The film was meant to be a pilot for a series about Tarzan and Jane solving crimes in NY but the world just wasn’t ready for Tarzan P.I.! Joe Lara would get a chance to redeem himself (which he did) in 1996 when he got the starring role in the weekly series Tarzan: the Epic Adventures. This time he played a more traditional Tarzan, however, the show added in many sci-fi elements, which was a turn-off to Tarzan purists.

Between the two Lara efforts, blonde-haired Wolf Larson starred in another TV series entitled Tarzan (1991-94). Tarzan was back to his mono-syllabic speaking style here. The low-budget series had a strong environmental message and Lydie Denier played Jane as a French environmentalist living in Africa, trying to save endangered species.

In 1998, a very wooden Casper Van Dein made for a very non-dynamic Tarzan in Tarzan and the Lost City. Jane March played Jane.

The following year, Disney Studios made a very popular animated musical version of the original Burroughs story called simply Tarzan, with Tony Goldwyn as the voice of Tarzan and Minnie Driver supplying the voice of Jane. Phil Collins provided the music for the film. In 2001, the movie inspired the Saturday morning animated series The Legend of Tarzan, and in 2006, the film was transformed into a hit Broadway play, also with music by Collins.

In 2003, there was yet another TV show called Tarzan, and by far the worst. This one starred an untalented male model named Travis Fimmel as a young Tarzan living in contemporary New York City. Sarah Wayne Callies played Jane as an NY Police Detective. The show was mercifully cancelled after only eight episodes.

Rating the Big-Screen Tarzans:

Elmo Lincoln: the original screen Tarzan didn’t have the good looks of some of the later versions but he really managed to capture the spirit of the literary Tarzan in a way few after him did.

Score: A

Frank Merrill: The man who originated the image of Tarzan swinging on vines, which has become one of the most iconic images of the character. Otherwise, he was an unexceptional and forgettable Tarzan.

Score: C

Johnny Weissmuller: The most popular Tarzan actor of all and the man whose image comes to mind whenever most people think of the jungle hero. His Tarzan yell was used for all the subsequent Tarzan actors. He made more Tarzan films than anyone else. He wasn’t a great actor (or even a good actor) but he made for a good action hero. There was a certain charismatic charm to his performance that made his Tarzan immensely likable. He also had great chemistry with O’Sullivan as Jane, which helped immensely.

Score: A

Buster Crabbe: He was better as Flash Gordon than as Tarzan but he filled the part well enough. He was the king of movie serials and one of the top action stars of the 1930s.

Score: B

Herman Brix (AKA Bruce Bennett): Hand-picked by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, Brix seemed to fit the bill perfectly. He embodied the literary Tarzan better than anyone before him. However, he lacked the charisma of Lincoln or Weissmuller.

Score: B

Lex Barker: He had a tough job following on the heels of the highly popular Weissmuller, which may be why he downplayed the role. He didn’t try to match Weissmuller’s screen presence and boyish charm. He was, perhaps, too laid back for his own good.

Score: B-

Gordon Scott: He was an adequate but not outstanding Tarzan. He was good in the action sequences but he wasn’t as infectiously likable as Weissmuller in the dialogue scenes.

Score: B-

Denny Miller: A bland and easily forgettable Tarzan. He only played the role once and that was enough.

Score: D

Jock (Jacque) Mahoney: An adequate Tarzan who appeared in two so-so films. He was not one of the stand-outs of the group but not terrible either. He was better playing The Range Rider.

Score: B-

Mike Henry: An imposing, rugged actor who played Tarzan more like James Bond than the King of the Jungle. He excelled in the action scenes. Mike Henry is also known for playing Lt. Col. Donald Penobscot on M*A*S*H.

Score: B

Ron Ely: The best TV Tarzan. He introduced a generation of kids to the jungle hero. He made a very good action hero and had that Weissmuller-like charisma.

Score: A

Miles O’Keefe: He didn’t come across too well in this oft-maligned film, since the hero was forced to play second fiddle to his love interest. Bo Derek’s bland Jane took too much time and attention away from Tarzan. Perhaps he’d have done better if he’d had more screen time and a better script.

Score: D

Christopher Lambert: The star of Highlander played Tarzan in a way that was closer to the literary version than anyone since Brix had done. He got a chance to exercise more of his acting range than most previous Tarzans. It’s a pity he had no chemistry with Andie McDowell and that the film sometimes got bogged down in soap opera, because otherwise, he did a good job.

Score: B+

Joe Lara: He was physically closer to the description of the literary Tarzan than any previous version. His performance in the made-for-TV film was too odd and campy, and the script seemed to be trying to turn Tarzan and Jane into Nick and Nora Charles. However, Lara vindicated himself well in the later weekly ‘Tarzan: the Epic Adventures’ series. (This series was made to cash in on the popularity of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.)

Score: B (I give him a C for the film but an A for the series. So it averages out as a B.)

Wolf Larson: Not a very impressive Tarzan. Bland and without any charisma.

Score: D

Travis Fimmel: The worst Tarzan ever. Who cast this guy? He may be a good underwear model but he was a lousy Tarzan. Setting the story in present-day New York didn’t help.

Score: F

So happy 100 years to one of the great iconic characters ever created.


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    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 4 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      I'll see you in Africa, Tarzan.

    • profile image

      pedja the wolf 4 years ago

      thank you all...i wait you in jungle of is kinda fun but wildlife is better...yours TARZAN...LORD OF JUNGLE

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Dahoglund; A class on Tarzan sounds like fun. I would have enjoyed that.

      Thanks for reading,


    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Tarzan is one of the heroes who's image overpowers that of the crater. Tarzan was discussed in a psychology class I had back in the 1960s.It was in the nature vs nurture debate. Tarzan was on the side of nature becausse he was able to learn language and other things from books left behind by his dead parents. The professor said he tried to read all the Tarzan book in one summer and left him a bit exhausted. sharing.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Colin; It's an honor to be included in your Hall of Fame. I greatly appreciate all your feedback, and your kind words. Thanks for another Facebook link.

      Always great to hear from you,


    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 5 years ago

      ...if you look to my profile introduction at the Hub you will notice your name has been included on my hall of fame - and yes you put a lot of time and effort and world class dedication and research into each one of your special hub subjects - and this definitive Tarzan tribute will be posted to my Facebook page with a direct link back here - lake erie time 3:09pm

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      ERB did make some poignant commentary about class and environment. Of course, some people think his writing was a bit racist in terms of stereotyping blacks and Arabs, but that's a different discussion.

      Thanks for the comment,


    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 5 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Burroughs was brilliant from the point of view of social commentary as well as a romantic visionary. It seems these elements just emerge without preplanning. So amazing!!! Thanks again.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Storyteller; Glad you liked it. I also enjoy looking at the beginnings of things to see how they got started. Origins are so interesting. Tarzan is such an iconic character, his story fascinates me.

      Thanks you for the comments,


    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Bruce; Glad you enjoyed the hub. The 2003 series was awful and I think the only reason it got passed the pilot stage was that the producers were hoping a 'Young Tarzan' story would capture the audience of 'Smallville' which was popular at the time, but setting it in NY and with such a no-talent model as the star doomed it to obscurity.

      Ely and Lambert were both good Tarzans and, of course, what Tarzan fan doesn't like Weissmuller? (Except for Burroughs himself.)

      The animated Tarzan was a lot of fun and the Broadway adaptation ran for several years.

      Always good to hear from you, Bruce,


    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 5 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Comprehensive view of Tarzan that I find fascinating! I had not expected to read anything like this today, but what the heck! It was fun and refreshing. I especially like the history in the earliest of days. Guess I like origins the very best- creative genius, motivation, etc. Thanks for a great read.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

      Wow is the best word to describe this hub. I am impressed with all the detail and research you put into this hub. Thankfully I have never even heard of the 2003 tv show...but 8 episodes sounds like about 7 too many. Looking at your mini-reviews of the tarzan....I am glad to see my favorite three being so highly ranked....Ron Ely is the one I grew up with....Weissmuller has the best movies....and I always liked Christopher Lambert's Tarzan. My kids love all the Tarzan animated movies....with the first being one that we watch about once or twice a month. Great music and great artwork. A truly impressive hub....job well done Rob.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Steve; Thanks for the bit of trivia about Mahoney. I'd forgotten all about him being in "Tarzan the magnificent." Ron Ely appeared as a villain in an episode of the 91-94 TV series, and he blew Wolf Larson off the screen in every scene. Ely was one of the best Tarzans ever.

      Everybody loves Weissmuller. I'm not sure what it was about his portrayal that made it so popular but he's still the standard that all other Tarzan's are judged against.

      "Tarzan and his Mate" was my favorite too and most people would acknowledge that it's the best Tarzan film.

      I'm going to look at your ERB hub today,

      Great to hear from you,


    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

      An excellent article on Tarzan Rob, well done. Writing about the death of "Cheeta" must have inspired you. I wrote a hub on Edgar Rice Burroughs last year.

      Tarzan and his Mate (1934) is my favourite Tarzan film and Weissmuller my fave Tarzan. Ron Ely WAS Tarzan to me as a kid, loved the 60's TV series which was rerun all the time in the 70's (along with Star Trek and The Avengers).

      Some trivia, Jock Mahoney was the villain in Tarzan the Magnificent and in the next film Tarzan Goes to India, Mahoney took over from Scott as Tarzan.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Flora; Everyone loves Weissmuller as Tarzan and he eclipses all the other screen Tarzans, but there were some other entertaining ones. Ron Ely from the TV series was probably the next most popular after Weissmuller. If you like Silent films, check out Elmo Lincoln, the original cinematic Tarzan.

      As for the Tarzan novels, they are rather formulaic but fun. ERB was not a polished writer but he was a great storyteller. Not everyone thought so, though. Rudyard Kipling didn't like the Tarzan books and said that ERB was 'Trying to see how bad a book he could write'. On the other hand, Jane Goodall named the Tarzan books as her favorites.

      There's a "John Carter of Mars" film coming out soon that might bring some noteriety to ERB's other works, aside from Tarzan.

      Good to hear from you,


    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

      I am only familiar with the Johnny Weissmuller films. I will look for the others you list in A or B ratings. I tend to not read the adventure genre unless I need to for class so I haven't read any Tarzan (gasp because I love to read!)

      I am familiar with The Land That Time Forgot. But I don't know E.R.B's other series.

      Thanks for this great history.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Seeker; I have a lot of memories of watching those old black and white Weissmuller films, too. He was one of my heroes as a kid.

      I liked Christopher Lambert as Tarzan, even if the movie was a little soapy, but as you say, Andie Mcdowell was totally miscast.

      I'd forgotten all about 'Daktari' and Clarance the cross-eyed Lion. Ah, memories.

      Thanks for sharing,


    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      What great memories this hub has brought back. My definite favourites was the black and white movies with Johnny Weissmuller - my Mum and Dad loved these films and so introduced us kids to them when they came on the tv. Ron Ely I remember very well and watched him weekly on the telly. Along with the TV show 'Daktari' with clarence the cross eyed lion, they were two of my favourite shows. I didn't see the gorgeous Christopher Lambert in his movie until after I saw 'Highlander', but I did like him in it. I liked Andie McDowell as an actress, but definitely not in this, it was a total mis-match, but the film was still very enjoyable.

      Many thanks for the great trip down memory lane. Voted up + awesome!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi food4u; I love Tarzan, too. He was my childhood hero. If you ever get a chance to catch up on some of the old films, they're fun, especially the Weissmuller ones. I've only read about three or four of the Tarzan novels but I enjoyed them.

      Thanks for reading,


    • food4you profile image

      food4you 5 years ago from Oklahoma

      Love, love, love Tarzan! I was not able to watch too many movies when I was younger, but I got a series of books. I read them through the night and into the morning hours. Tarzan is still going strong in my book!