From the Archives: Buster Crabbe, Athlete, Hero of Serials, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Buster Crabbe, swimming hero of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and later a hero of scores Hollywood B-movies and adventure serials, died Saturday in Scottsdale, Ariz.

There was a certain irony in his death coming on a Saturday, for as the most celebrated of cliff-hanger serial heroes, Crabbe had escaped fictional death on the screen virtually every Saturday afternoon for decades.

Still handsome and active at 75, Crabbe apparently had been in good health and was "enthusiastically" making plans for a personal appearance in Nashville to benefit arthritis victims five minutes before he collapsed and died, his wife, Virginia, said.

She said he had "a little heart problem" for several years but never complained of "any pain anyplace."

Crabbe was perhaps best known as Flash Gordon, but he also starred as Tarzan, Buck Rogers and various other derring-do characters in the cheap second-billed films of the 1930s and '40s.

Although the movies increased his fame and brought him moderate fortune, he was sardonic about the industry and self-deprecating about his own acting talents.

"Some say," he once commented, "that my acting rose to the point of incompetence and then leveled off."

But he was a superb athlete, with dashing good looks and an natural flair for melodramatic physical gestures — all of which made him the John Barrymore (or Marlon Brando) of B-pictures.

Born in Oakland, Calif., as Clarence L. Crabbe in 1908, he was raised on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii, where he developed into a magnificent swimmer, surfer and all-around athlete.

As he recalled years later, simply carrying a surfboard to the water’s edge was a feat of strength. "That was back when we had 150-pound redwood slabs for surfboards," he said. "They didn’t have fiberglass in those days."

In high school he won 16 letters in football, basketball, track and swimming. Later at the University of Hawaii he won the light-heavyweight boxing championship. Crabbe transferred to finish college at USC, where he spent a year in law school before going into the movies.

Crabbe competed in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam but failed to win either gold medals or much notice.

But 1932 was a different matter.

He was then working as a stock clerk in Silverwood’s clothing store for $8 a week. He took time off to compete across town in the Olympics — and set a record in winning the 400 meter freestyle gold medal.

"I beat (the Frenchman) by one-tenth of a second," he said in a 1977 interview. "That one-tenth of a second changed my life. It was then they (the publicity-conscious Hollywood film moguls) discovered latent histrionic abilities in me."

Before he wound up his competitive swimming career, Crabbe had broken five world records and held more the 50 world and national swimming championships. In 1971, at 63, he set a world record of 6 minutes, 37.1 seconds for the 400 meters in the senior men’s freestyle. His gold medal winning time (also a world record) in the 400 meters 39 years before was 4 minutes, 48.4 seconds.

Crabbe’s first movie role was as "Lion Man" in an epic called "King of the Jungle."

He tried out for the role just before the Olympics began, one of 20 barrel-chested types auditioned.

"Johnny Weissmuller already had made a couple of Tarzan pictures at MGM," he recalled. "He didn’t just qualify physically as a Tarzan. He (also) qualified mentally. You know, 'Me Tarzan, you Jane.' Anyway, Paramount found a story about a guy raised by lions.

"Just before the Olympics we went down to be tested. They . . . gave us G-strings, then took some pictures. Then they had us all throw a spear and pick up a papier-mache rock. About three days after the Olympics they called me back. I finally got the part. It paid $100 a week, which was a lot more than I was making at the clothing store."

All told, Crabbe made at least 175 movies, including nine Saturday serials of 13 chapters each.

Crabbe, who styled himself as "King of the Serials," remarked that he made only one "A-picture," the rest falling at least one letter lower in the alphabet. He claimed that he made more "talky" serials than any other actor.

"Only William Desmond made more serials — 10 silent serials," Crabbe said "I did three 'Flash Gordons,' two 'Tarzans,' a 'Buck Rogers,' plus 'Pirates of the High Seas,' 'Red Barry' and 'Sea Hound.' "

He explained why he never developed much as an actor like this: "We knocked off 13 (serial) chapters in five to six weeks, and that didn't allow for much dramatic skill."

Crabbe, who also made 65 Westerns, starred in the Billy Rose Aquacade swimming extravaganza at the 1940 World's Fair and later toured for five years with his own show called Buster Crabbe's Aquacade.

In 1956 he took a fling at television, starring in a series called "Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion." In later years he played a few bit roles in movies and once played the part of Buck Rogers' father.

He also hosted a radio show about health, wrote a book on physical fitness for older people and worked as an executive of Cascade Industries, which builds "Buster Crabbe" swimming pools.

Crabbe and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last week. He also is survived by a son, Cullen Held Crabbe, a daughter, Susan Fletcher, and seven grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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