Ron Ely discusses the TV series Tarzan, which is available on DVD through Warner ArchiveOne might think that after the advent of DVD and Blu-ray, practically every movie and TV show known to mankind would already be available for home viewing.
This is definitely not the case, but Warner Archive is doing its best to fill in the gaps, releasing a slew of previously unreleased titles every week. The 1966 series Tarzan was one such series until recently, when Warner Archive released Tarzan: Season One Part One and Tarzan: Season One Part Two on DVD. The show starred Ron Ely as the title character, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke, and took a much different approach to the jungle dweller, first created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I had a chance to speak with the actor over the phone about his role in the series, which ran from 1966 to 1969. Here's what he had to say.
I read that before the series came together, you were set to play a Tarzan impersonator on another show. I was curious how long the gap was between that series that didn't come together and Tarzan?
Ron Ely: Actually, it wasn't a Tarzan impersonator. I don't know where these ideas come from, I've heard it before. They had talked to me about doing the Tarzan movie, a couple of years before. I wasn't interested, my agents weren't interested in my behalf. They said, 'We're going to avoid this, because this will be you forever. This will end your career as an actor.' So we avoided it. Then when the series came together with NBC, it had a different feeling. It was a different entity, so when that came to me, that had more interest. The more I found out about it, and the way they wanted to do it, it became very interesting, and I completely forgot about the business of being stamped with that character, and having that impact on a career. I certainly was not wrong. It did have that impact.
This version seems to be the closest to the book than the previous versions. Was that one of the things that drew you to it, to bring this kind of gravitas to the character?
Ron Ely: I did, absolutely. Everyone involved in it was very serious about doing it, and doing it really well, and doing it with the utmost quality possible. That was everybody, every single person I talked to in advance of doing the show, imparted that to me. They were in it, 100%, to do it the best way they possibly could. It's hard to walk away from something like that.
I also read that you refused to have a stuntman for the fight scenes and the vine-swinging scenes. Were there any really serious injuries that forced the production to shut down at all?
Ron Ely: Well, actually (laughs), there are a bunch of questions in there. The business about me doing all of the stunts on the show, which I did do, was not a key aspect of my doing the character. It evolved. It just happened. As I have said to others, the design of it wasn't ego, it was simply to keep it as seamless as possible, so the audience was never rocked out of that new reality I had, saying, 'Oh, that's not him. There's somebody else doing that.' There were so many things that I was somewhat proficient at doing, that I could do them, maybe better than the average guy, but not at an expert level. I've often said that I'm a good swimmer, but I'm not an Olympic champion swimmer, like Johnny Weissmuller. When people said, 'Well, what were your qualifications for doing it,' I was just a decent athlete, and I was willing. Yeah, I had a high fall. The initial report was that killed me, that I was dead. I went head first into the ground from a very high position, and busted my shoulder, my wrist, and I had a concussion, but it didn't kill me, I'm happy to report.
That's good to hear. This only ran for two seasons, but this was back when seasons ran much longer. I believe the first season was 33 episodes, and the second season was 26 episodes. Can you talk a bit about the production schedule, and how grueling that was? Were you shooting basically the whole year?
Ron Ely: Yeah, Brian, it was a very grueling schedule. The ordinary hour-long show, at that time, shot each episode in six days. The first episode we shot in Brazil, I think it was 32 days. We had been in Brazil for six months, and I think we completed five or six shows, so we had to move. We moved to Mexico, which had a more sophisticated film industry, or, I should say, that was more in sync with the American film industry, at that point. We were able to cut that time down by about half. It took about three years to get all of the shows actually shot and done.
Wow. That's amazing. There were also a number of notable guest stars on the show, like Nichelle Nichols and Russ Tamblyn. I was wondering if you had a favorite guest star who came on and was really memorable for you?
Ron Ely: Well, I did have some because they were close friends of mine, like Jock Mahoney and Woody Strode. I would always look forward to any kind of a part that they could do, because I always wanted them there. They were great supporters. In terms of the people I didn't know who came on to work the show, there were some like Ethel Merman that were really a hoot. They were really fun and glorious people to know and to spend time with. People Neville Brand, people who had these strong characters that they had done for years. They bring a persona with them, and they don't bend from that persona much to facilitate a character. Their persona is bigger than the character they're going to play, and they use it. I enjoyed that. That was great fun. It livened up things for me, every time a new guest star would come in like Julie Harris or Maurice Evans, a New York stage actor. You couldn't imagine a setting more out of place for Maurice Evans. He was perfect, and he enjoyed it. He talked to me a lot about doing Tarzan on the stage. He could see that as viable, and something that would be attractive. As I look at it now, I'd like to see that done. I'd like to see someone do that, because it could work.
I read that you're actually writing crime novels now. Do you have any coming up, or are you setting any of these up for movie or TV adaptations?
Ron Ely: Not at this time. I have other books to publish, but I'm sort of in a holding pattern now, trying to get my son finished with college and done with that. Then I'll devote more time to myself and my various careers. Right now, I'm just slowly coming to the end of a long period of colleges and school sports, when I really stepped out of the business just to be with my family. I've been away from the film business for an extended period of time, and in that period of time, I started writing.
To wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who is curious about the show, who have never seen it before, about why they should pick up this great new DVD set from Warner Archive?
Ron Ely: I would simply say that again, 'great' and 'new.' For years, people have been after me, contacting me... first it was the VHS copies of the Tarzan show, and then the DVD. Now, after all this time, Warner Archive has remastered the entire series in HD, and it is brilliant. It is really sharp, and it is really nice to say. If you've ever had an inclination to own the show, go get it, because it's sitting right there, and it's beautiful.
Great. That's my time. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you, Ron
Ron Ely: My pleasure, Brian.
You can watch Ron Ely as Tarzan in Tarzan: Season One Part One and Tarzan: Season One Part Two, which are currently available through Warner Archive. CLICK HERE and CLICK HERE for information on how to order these DVD sets.