By TOM WEAVER
Denny Miller has no regrets regarding
his appearance in Tarzan, The Ape Man some 40 years
ago -- even though in Gabe Essoe's book, Tarzan of the
Movies, he leads off the chapter headed "Tarzan, the
Worst!" Portraying one of literature's most recognizable
characters was no mean feat for the former UCLA star athlete,
but Miller recalls his foray into the foliage with great
affection. "I think that Tarzan was one of the real good
guys," he says. "He was on the side of right; he was clean-living,
he was respectful of women and animals, and all of nature.
It was a great opportunity. I still, to this day, 40 years
later, get mail from all over the world."
Many film reference books list Tarzan as your first
film, omitting Some Came Running .
DENNY MILLER: I was under
contract at MGM at the time -- it was the tail end of that
"stable" system that they used to use. I had a very small
part in Some Came Running with Shirley MacLaine,
Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra. I later told people they named
the movie after me, because I was the only one who came
running -- I came running to tell Dean Martin that somebody
was in town to shoot him! I had rehearsed my one line 7,480
times and I gave it to him in rehearsal, and waited and
waited for his response. And he finally looked up and said,
"I got lines?" [Laughs] He was very relaxed!
The Tarzan film was under the same
system: I was just there. I, as a matter of fact, recommended
a friend of mine, an actor named Bill Smith, who I thought
was darker-haired and more appropriately built and all that
stuff. But [MGM] didn't seem to think so.
So Tarzan was your second picture?
DENNY: Yes. I had done several
TV shows, one with William Bendix, Life of Riley,
where I played an athlete -- which I was, at UCLA. Then
I did one with Buddy Ebsen called Northwest Passage.
This was before I went under contract to MGM.
idea why MGM thought of you for the Tarzan part?
DENNY: I was in their stable,
so I was cheaper than some of the elephants [laughs]. And
I was athletic. They tested a bunch of us, and I won. They
said that this was going to be an "educated Tarzan" version
-- it was a remake of the original Johnny Weissmuller one
[Tarzan the Ape Man, 1932] where he meets Jane [Maureen
O'Sullivan], and they run off in the jungle together. On
the test, I came out of the jungle and spoke to Joanna Barnes,
who had been chosen for Jane -- I recited, unexplainably,
the 23rd Psalm! That was 20 times more than what I said
in the whole film! "Ungawa!" was popular, I remember. It
can mean stop, go, turn left, give me a McDonald's burger,
For years there's been a book out called Tarzan of the
DENNY: And I'm in the chapter
called "Tarzan the Worst." But, whether I'm "worst" or not,
it's nice to be first at worst: Since the Bo Derek remake,
I'm only second-worst by some people's standards. I've been
moved down -- or up! -- a notch, I'm not quite sure!
Now, I don't think that chapter says that you were the worst
DENNY: No, it didn't. Gabe
Essoe was a friend before he wrote the book and, no, he
didn't say that. But I've always used it to get a chuckle!
Any memory of what other actors might have been in the running
for the Tarzan role?
DENNY: I don't know who was tested
other than, I think, Bill Smith. I do know that they tested
different kinds of loincloths, including one that I thought
was really outrageous and nice -- but it rattled when I
walked! It was made out of shells and beads and stuff.
your reaction when MGM told you they were giving you the
role was to try to hand it off to William Smith?
DENNY: Well, not "hand it
off," but I thought that he was better. I've done that through
my 41-year career, if I know an actor who seems to be [better
suited]. I've been fortunate to play good guys, bad guys,
and do a lot of commercials along the way. I was the Brawny
Paper Towel giant for about 12 years, I'm currently in my
eighth year as spokesman for Gorton's Fish. A lot of the
guys that I started off with have gone way further than
I have, like Clint Eastwood and James Caan, but most of
them have dropped by the wayside. As you know, it's an unusual
way to make a living, and there are just more actors than
there is work. So I've been very lucky. My ex-wife says
I have several horseshoes hidden in some orifice of my body
[laughs], but I don't argue with her!
there ever any talk of dyeing your hair for Tarzan?
They liked the idea of a blonde Tarzan.
DENNY: I guess so. Buster
Crabbe never dyed his. It didn't seem to matter. I wouldn't
have stopped them if they had [wanted to dye it].
you have to have your body shaved?
DENNY: No, but they did put
VO-5 hairdressing all over me, they'd grease me up every
time -- I was very slippery to hold onto. Words of advice,
if you're ever in a parade on an elephant: They never stay
still, even when they're standing in one place, they sway
back and forth. And their hair is much like an SOS pad ...
bristles. So wear long pants -- loincloths don't work!
did MGM do to prepare you for the role?
DENNY: They gave me a gym
membership, and I went and worked out. I was always working
out at UCLA anyway, so it didn't matter. When the movie
came out, I naturally didn't go to any of the showings in
the Westwood area, where UCLA is located [laughs], because
of the catcalls and what have you from my teammates.
Any embarrassing moments
you'd care to recall?
DENNY: There were some funny
things that happened during the shooting of it. They were
concerned about my feet -- running around on the set, indoors
or out, there's lots of nails and sharp things. So they
took molds of the bottoms of my feet and then they made
rubber soles of my feet and glued them on my feet. And in
the first shot, I swung out over the camera and dropped
down from the vine in front of the camera and I hopped a
little bit. I heard "Cut!" and I looked back, and where
I had hopped from, my glued soles were three feet behind
me [laughs]! That's the last time we bothered with those.
had an old mechanical crocodile from the Johnny Weissmuller
days -- it must have been 20, 25 feet long. The machinery
in it didn't work, so they put it on a wire and pulled it
across this man-made lagoon or lake on the back lot of MGM.
Well, I had been told we were gonna do a love scene, so
I had spaghetti and meatballs for lunch. Then they said,
"We've decided to have a croc wrestling scene," and I said
okay. So I swam and I felt ill, so I just swam right around
the bend past the crocodile. I could hear everybody yelling,
"Where the hell you going? What's going on?" I went around
the corner and "fed the fish" and came back, and they said,
"Oh. Sorry! Well, let's try it again..."
I got my rubber knife and I figured,
"I'm not feelin' too good, so I'll just go all out." I went
down to the bottom, which was only about five feet deep,
and I came roarin' up and I landed on the top of the crocodile
and I stabbed him a couple times and I thrashed around and
everything. I finally got tired and I stopped and stood
up in the water, and when I looked to the shore, people
were falling down laughing. I went stumbling to the sidelines,
and they told me that when I jumped on the crocodile's head,
the thing was so stiff, it tipped up and the tail came out
of the water! And then it sunk like a submarine [laughs]!
They said, "We won't be able to use that!"
In one scene, there was an elephant
lying down with an arrow in its side. They had a trained
elephant lying on the ground, and on its side was a rubber
socket that flared out so they could glue it on the elephant's
side; they could stick the broken arrow in this socket and
not hurt the elephant. I was told that, when I pulled out
the arrow, I was supposed to press down on the flange around
the socket so that that thing didn't come off too. So I
did. Do you know the difference between a cocktail lounge
and an elephant fart? One's a barroom and one's a barrr-rrrroom
[laughs]! The elephant farted, but I went on with the scene!
I turned to Jane, and Jane was gone; I turned to Cesare,
Cesare was gone; I looked around, the guys on the camera
were gone! And the elephant trainer was already up, prodding
the elephant to get him out of the area. We did that one
over again, several times, and I didn't press as hard the
was your salary when you were at MGM?
a week. More money than I ever thought I'd make.
memories of Cheetah?
DENNY: Cheetah was a kick
-- he was smarter than all of us. One time, though, he bit
me on the hand -- and the trainer said, "If he ever bites
you, punch him." And I did, I punched him in the nose to
get him off from munchin' on the meaty part of the palm
of my hand. But it wasn't his fault: I was supposed to be
going away from camera, and he was sent in to grab my hand.
After he grabbed my hand, the trainer called him back but
I held onto him -- they wanted it to look like Cheetah was
trying to change my mind and get me to go back to Jane.
Naturally, he's gonna want to go to the guy who feeds him
all the time, and I wouldn't let him go in the scene. And
that's why he said, "Well, screw you, I'll bite your hand."
I punched him, and he got up in the rafters and he wouldn't
come down. They had to get a BB gun to scare him into comin'
back down again. That happened one time on a sound stage,
and also he got up in a tree one time in a back lot scene
and it took a little bit of doing to get him back down.
How many Tarzans are left
DENNY: Bruce Bennett is still
around, Gordon Scott, Ron Ely (who was Tarzan on television),
Mike Henry (who was a Ram linebacker)...
Ely and Mike Henry don't seem to be in any hurry to swing
-- pardon the pun -- down Memory Lane.
DENNY: No, they don't, they've
taken it negatively and said that it's not been good for
their careers one way or another. Recently Ron has kind
of come out -- he's writing now, and I think he uses it
to promote his books.
But for me, it's really been a joy.
I got a letter from somebody from Africa one time, in broken
English, saying, "Mr. Miller, Please not to sending Bwana
McBoing Boing any more of your 8x10s, for I'm finding them
in his toilet." I figured, that's great, I finally made
it, I'm in a toilet in Africa [laughs]!
I don't know if that was a comment
on the film or the photograph -- or both, who knows?
you were getting ready to play Tarzan, did they show you
any of the old Weissmuller movies?
DENNY: All of them! Oh,
that was one of the most fun things: They'd get a projectionist
and I'd go down in the basement, to the projection rooms,
and I'd sit there by myself and watch Tarzan movies, all
the way back to Elmo Lincoln!
And Elmo Lincoln was marvelous,
he really looked the part with the long hair and the big
barrel chest. He was not quite as athletic-looking as some
who followed, but he was marvelous. (Back in those days,
they didn't care much about the protection of the animals,
and they actually killed a few lions, I think.) But, yes,
I watched, oh, many of them, if not all.
who IS the best Tarzan?
DENNY: I think the most impressive
film I saw was Greystoke, it looked like they spent the
most money on it and it was the most authentic-looking.
I think, if Johnny Weissmuller had been in Greystoke, that
would have been my favorite. Although I think Christopher
Lambert is a good actor, I didn't think he was big enough
for the part, physically. But he was marvelous, his eyes
and his facial expressions and all that. I think, because
I "grew up" with Johnny Weissmuller and he did (by far)
more than any of the others, I liked him the most. But Gordon
Scott did six or seven and rode on rhinoceroses and giraffes
and stuff, and they were good films. So I guess I have three
favorites: The movie Greystoke and Christopher facially,
and otherwise, acting-wise, Johnny Weissmuller because I
"grew up" with him and Gordon because of the quality of
his films and the brute strength of him.
producer, Al Zimbalist -- was he ever around?
DENNY: Yes, always. And his
son as well. They were small of stature, dressed very nattily
in suits and ties all the time, and they walked very similarly.
They were always in the background of the goings-on, from
the tests on. Joseph Newman, the director, was quite nice
and amiable, and Robert Douglas was kind and considerate.
Joanna Barnes I've bumped into on several occasions; I see
a lady you might know, Anne Francis, quite often, and Anne
used to live in Montecito; Joanna lives there with her husband,
who is an architect, I believe. Then Joanna showed up at
one of the Dum-Dums [conventions held by devotees of Edgar
Rice Burroughs] in L.A. a couple of years ago, and she was
marvelous and looked marvelous, and we got along just famously.
big Watusi guy -- what was his story?
DENNY: From what I heard,
he was a guitar player in a cocktail lounge in LA Very pleasant.
He didn't bring his instruments along to play at any time
that I remember, but he was very relaxed. The pygmies were
all from a gymnastic team at Manual Arts or Jefferson High
School in Los Angeles, with skullcaps on.
they were not pygmies, of course, they were just kids.
DENNY: Right, kids. Agile
kids -- most of them were athletes. It was like going to
the circus, it was like being in the circus, getting to
ride on elephants and playing with chimpanzees and lion
cubs. I was like a kid at the circus, it was delightful
to me. And, like I mentioned, it's really been one of the
joys of my acting career.
On the second day of production, MGM was already announcing
that they were going to make a sequel.
DENNY: Oh, really? They had
the rights to do two, I believe, but when they saw the final
cut of this, I think they decided not to do it. And that
was the end of that.
to Gabe Essoe's book, which was written in 1968 I think,
you had never seen the movie at that point.
DENNY: I hadn't seen it for
quite a while, and then I finally got up enough nerve to
hide in the back of some theater. I used to get very uneasy
when I watched myself, so I didn't watch myself. I got hung
up on my physicality -- I would say, "Oh my God, I don't
walk like that, do I?" I'd have the same reaction when I'd
watch film of a UCLA basketball game. Now I can watch and
be amused, and think back and see the difference between
what I thought was going on visually, outside of me, and
what was going on emotionally, inside of me. There was always
a difference -- to me, anyway.
you did see Tarzan when it came out.
DENNY: Oh, yes.
At the studio, or in a real theater?
DENNY: I think it was in
a real theater. I broke into a sweat when a few of the catcalls
came out ... but there weren't very many people in there
[laughs]! There was a bunch of empty seats -- more than
there were with fannies in 'em!
Tom Weaver is the author of Science
Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster
Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland