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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Rise & Fall of the Action Hero Part 1

Movie heroes have been around for decades but it wasn't till the 1980s that the use of the term 'Action Hero' took hold in a big way. Prior to that, cinematic male ruggedness and heroics were found in the jungle, at sea, or most popularly, out on the open prairie. One of the first action heroes, Tarzan accentuated beefcake idolatry for all the shirtless champions to follow in his (bare) footsteps. Errol Flynn set the template for the action/adventure genre with swashbuckling derringdo. Westerns and their quick draw men of law and order defined the classic hero archetype that justice will be served. One thing that nearly all of the big screens most famous action heroes share is a competitive spirit and a desire to succeed not only on the big screen, but off it as well. After dozens of years of erosion, the essence of the Action Hero has all but evaporated. Nowadays, the bastion of heroism lies in cinematic reminiscing of the old guard--predominantly from the 80s period. This series of articles takes a look at as many of the big guns as possible--how they looked, how they changed, and why they're not what they used to be.

Johnny Weissmuller is from the classical school of Tough Guys who paved the way for the rest that followed. An Olympic Gold Medal champion swimmer (among other accomplishments), Weissmuller donned the loincloth for 12 jungle adventures as Tarzan, the earliest example of big screen beefcake of the Talking Era. His famous yell is synonymous with the brand. When a lot of folks think Edgar Rice Burroughs, they think Tarzan; and when they think Tarzan, they are reminded of Weissmuller and his signature yodel. Weissmuller wasn't the first man to play the Lord of the Apes (that would be Elmo Lincoln in 1918), but he became the most identified with the role. His first was the 1932 hit TARZAN, THE APE MAN. Containing strong violence and even nudity in their day, Tarzan films (particularly the first sequel, TARZAN AND HIS MATE from '34) brought about the enforcing of the PCA (Production Code of America). When his Tarzan tenure ended, other actors would take up the jungle king mantle, some more successfully than others. For Weissmuller, he remained in the tropical wilderness, but kept his clothes on, for 13 action pictures as Jungle Jim at Columbia.

Gordon Scott is the second top rated Tarzan actor and the twelfth to play him. The first actor in a color Tarzan (TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI [1957]), and the only one of the bunch to play the role as both the inarticulate man of the jungle and a more fluent, educated ape man; the latter of which pleased the character's creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs. A former Army drill sergeant and life guard, Scott replaced Lex Barker in the role. He vacated the jungle after six pictures to head to Italy to make a slew Sword & Sandal movies. Two of Scott's Tarzan pictures are considered some of the best of the series.

Jock Mahoney (who had appeared opposite Scott in TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT [1960]), a Marine fighter pilot, veteran stuntman and western actor, took over after previously losing the role to Lex Barker. Tarzan #13, Mahoney was the oldest actor to play the role. He did two Tarzan films--TARZAN GOES TO INDIA (1962) and TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES (1963); both of which were shot on location. Mahoney got seriously ill while making the latter film in Thailand to the degree it was a challenge to finish the movie. After a scene that required him to swim in the far from sanitary Klong River, Mahoney contracted a multitude of illnesses including Dengue fever, amoebic dysentery, tertiary Malaria, and pneumonia. Between takes he spent his time in an oxygen tent with a 104 degree temperature. Pushing his masculine dedication to its limits, Mahoney nearly died in a bravura, if stubborn effort to complete the movie while he was deathly sick. Losing some 40 pounds in the process, he got the film done, but was unable to continue as Tarzan.

Pittsburg Steelers/LA Rams Linebacker Mike Henry stepped into the role for the spy influenced TARZAN IN THE VALLEY OF GOLD (1966). Henry was the fourteenth actor to play the iconic ape man. He did three films back to back in less than a year (each released in '66, '67 and '68) and suffered similar trials to Mahoney in getting his string of films in the can. 

Interestingly enough, the Tarzan movies shot on location were often as harrowing to make as what ended up on screen. Mike Henry called it quits at three pictures after a slew of disasters and setbacks. Various infections, food poisoning, and 20 stitches after a monkey ripped his jaw open were some of the problems Henry encountered during the shooting of TARZAN AND THE GREAT RIVER. After a typhoon destroyed the sets for TARZAN AND THE JUNGLE BOY and a typhoid epidemic rolled through, the pace with which the crew had to work meant Henry would have to start on his planned Tarzan TV series immediately afterward. Deciding he'd had enough, Mike Henry turned down the television role which was then taken up by Ron Ely. 

The Tarzan property continued to have marketing power in the printed form after the film and TV interpretations ran their course, ending in 1970. The original Weissmuller hit from 1932 was remade on two occasions--the first in 1959 with UCLA basketball player Denny Miller playing Tarzan for a single go-round; and again in 1981 with football player, athlete Miles O'Keeffe. Trained for the role by Jock Mahoney, O'Keeffe never speaks a word of dialog in the entire picture. 

Another early action hero was Buster Crabbe (sometimes billed as Larry "Buster" Crabbe), the King of the Cliffhangers. Like Weissmuller Crabbe was an Olympic swimming Champion. Crabbe played Tarzan one time in the serial TARZAN THE FEARLESS (1933); also released as an edited down feature. Crabbe starred in a few other Tarzan style jungle adventures till he got his most famous role as Flash Gordon in a highly successful serial in 1936. FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS (1938) and FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940) followed. Wedged between his Flash endeavors was the 12 chapter serial as BUCK ROGERS in 1939.

Errol Flynn may have played good guys onscreen, but offscreen he was the bad boy of Hollywood. His playboy lifestyle kept him in the news till his clean-cut image was inevitably eroded by his womanizing and life in the fast lane. Still, his contribution to the Action Hero style of filmmaking can't be minimized. Flynn made his name in swashbucklers, a film style that was pioneered by silent era star Douglas Fairbanks. CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) was Flynn's American debut and he was off to the box office races. It was the first of eight pictures he did with Olivia De Havilland; she the distressed damsel in need of rescuing that was a vital plot device in action movies till that began to change in the 1970s. Errol's influence was quite sizable elsewhere, too; having inspired Stan Lee in some of his comic creations like Spiderman and Ironman. Alex Raymond was likewise inspired by Errol's heroics and good looks. The success of CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), and the even bigger 1938 hit, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, made sure many more buckles would be swashed for years to come.

Guys like Flynn weren't overly beefy, but brought a level of athleticism and charisma that made up for the impressive physiques often seen in the Tarzan's of the time period. The machismo of the jungle adventures eventually made their way into costume epics of ancient Greece and Rome. 

Bodybuilding champion Steve Reeves was crowned, among other titles, Mr. Universe in 1947. Cecil B. DeMille was seeking a Samson for his SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) and was really interested in obtaining Reeves for the part. Unfortunately, after failing to impress in two auditions, the role eventually went to Victor Mature. The Gods had their eye on Reeves, though. Several years later Reeves would be in Italy making HERCULES (1957:US release in 1958) after the producer's daughter saw him in ATHENA (1954). Reportedly he'd been looking for his Herc for five years till he found Reeves. This was the first such picture about the mythological hero. Reeves did over a dozen Italian fantasy and adventure movies before retiring in 1968, settling back home in California to raise horses. He did one sequel to HERCULES and the rest were pseudo strongman movies and historical epics. He's still revered today for his contributions to muscle building and fitness. His films are still held in high regard among fans; some of which are considered classics of the genre.

A worldwide smash, HERCULES spawned an entire industry of Fusto (hunk) and gladiator movies that highlighted action, intrigue, betrayals, sword fights, chariot races, superhuman feats of strength, and battles with all sorts of monsters. These masculine tales of heroism were often chastised as juvenile, or even junk movies with little quality to them. However, films like these brought in big box office that ensured the more respected, artistic, and pretentious films got made. Meanwhile, other bodybuilders were imported from the US to appear in these pictures. Italy quickly manufactured their own stars like Sergio Ciani (Alan Steel;see insert), Adriano Bellini (Kirk Morris), Renato Rossini (Howard Ross), and Pietro Torrisi (Peter McCoy).

After reportedly losing out on becoming Tarzan, Brooklyn born bodybuilder Lou Degni was the second American to find fame in Italy as a peplum star. Changing his name to Mark Forest, and putting his impressive physique to better use, he did a dozen muscleman and gladiator pictures. His first was THE REVENGE OF HERCULES, aka GOLIATH & THE DRAGON (1960). Forest played Maciste on seven occasions, but in English dubbed versions, he was often referred to as Hercules. Like many, he was part of the Mae West Revue and remains one of the genres favorite stars. Retiring from movies in the mid 60s, Mark Forest turned his attention to his love of opera, and becoming a voice trainer. He was a rare breed of action hero who was macho on the outside and tender on the inside.

Gordon Mitchell (Chuck Pendleton), another Mae West alum, was one of the most famous bodybuilders in Italian fantasy films. His first such role was a Maciste movie in MACISTE IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS (1961). Maciste was Italy's homegrown superman; a worldly traveler who popped up in different time periods righting wrongs. Having a face better suited to villains, Mitchell essayed a lot of bad guy roles, and brought a viciousness to them few others possessed. The muscleman stars were all part of a clique during their theatrical reign in Italy, too. Mitchell had a gym built upstairs in his home in Rome. Guys like Steve Reeves, Mickey Hargitay, Gordon Scott, Dan Vadis, Ken Clark, Brad Harris and Richard Harrison would all work out there. Apparently most of the peplum actors had reputations for chasing women, married or otherwise, during their European tour of big screen dominance.

The aforementioned Gordon Scott was, like Mitchell, an intense actor who really threw himself into his roles. A huge man, Gordon Scott wasn't cut or defined like a lot of other stars, but his massive frame looked natural. Scott was one of the most rugged of the bunch. Like Reeves, he played a variety of historical characters adding the likes of Zorro and Buffalo Bill to the mix. He only played Hercules once in HERCULES & THE PRINCESS OF TROY (1965), a failed pilot for a potential Herc TV show. Setting himself apart from most, Scott would perform his own stunts, oftentimes dangerous ones. His wild chariot stunt in MACISTE AT THE COURT OF THE GREAT KHAN (1961), aka SAMSON & THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD is one example. Gordon Scott was one of, if not the best actor to appear in these movies. Like many, he retired from the limelight in the late 1960s.

Eventually this style of Macho Movie played itself out. Some of the big guys would slim down a bit and put some clothes on to try their hands in sagebrush sagas. Westerns took over globally in a big way by the mid 1960s--at least where Europe was concerned. They'd always been popular, but by this time, they were on a roll that would stay strong till the end of the 1970s. 

Around this time in the early to mid 60s, spy pictures had become extremely popular with the release of DR. NO (1962), the first film in the wildly successful James Bond series. Sean Connery became loved by the ladies and envied by men with his cool demeanor, suave moves, and cold cunning in dealing with his enemies. He wasn't all that muscular but had charisma to spare. Passing up a return engagement in another Tarzan picture (again with Tarzan!), Connery got the role that made him famous. He played James Bond 007 a total of seven times; six of which were for Eon and one for Warner Brothers. 

Naturally Italy did their own spy films in typically bandwagon fashion. Connery's brother Neil did some Italian 007 clones. Some of the muscle stars followed suit like Gordon Scott and Ken Clark. The spy genre even melded with the western for the groundbreaking TV series, THE WILD, WILD WEST (1965-1969). 

In that show, Robert Conrad was James West, a government agent who, along with his partner Artemus Gordon, went after an assortment of wacky villains. Conrad was a wild card both on and off camera. He always did his own stunts; many of which were ahead of their time in just how dangerous they were. One stunt nearly killed Conrad in an episode intended for season three, but moved to season four. After over-extending himself when another stunt guy moved away from his mark, Conrad fell some twelve feet from the chandelier he was swinging on, landing head first on a concrete floor painted to look like wood. The choreography and stunt work on WWW has a smoothness and fluidity to it no other show had. It was also unique in utilizing kung fu for the duration of season one. Martial arts occasionally cropped up in other seasons, but mostly it was American style boxing and acrobatics.

The Western was, probably more than any other style of action picture, crucial in defining the American hero onscreen. Over the years this paragon of righteousness has been tested, tweaked and changed while other macho brands have largely remained the same. One actor was the personification of the western regardless of the genres evolution over the years.


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