Redefining a Legend : Valley actor puts his personal stamp on latest film incarnation of Tarzan.


Casper Van Dien took the role of Tarzan to heart.

The star of “Tarzan and the Lost City” hung pictures of Johnny Weissmuller and Gordon Scott in his house. He bought his furniture at a store called Greystoke. He recorded his 4 1/2-year-old son doing the distinctive Tarzan yell for his outgoing voice-mail message.

And after returning to Los Angeles from filming in South Africa, where did he move? To the hills of Tarzana.

“I ham it up a little bit,” admits the 29-year-old actor.

The film, which is a sequel of sorts to Warner Bros.’ 1984 film “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” opens in theaters Friday.


“Tarzan and the Lost City” isn’t as dark in tone as “Greystoke,” but picks up, more or less, where that film left off. “Greystoke” followed Tarzan out of the jungle and into civilized life in England. “Tarzan and the Lost City” sees him return to Africa to save a jungle city from pillage. Both films were produced by Stanley Canter.

Van Dien, whose first major motion-picture role was as a brash recruit in last year’s “Starship Troopers,” joins a long list of actor-athletes who portrayed the Lord of the Apes. From Olympic swimmer Weissmuller in the 1930s and 1940s, to drill sergeant-turned-lifeguard Gordon Scott in the 1950s, to pro football player Mike Henry in the 1960s, Tarzan has always been the embodiment of physical fitness.

That description fit Van Dien, said “Tarzan” executive producer Greg Coote. “Starship Troopers” producer Alan Marshall told him that the movie “recruits” were put through a marine training camp. “Alan said he’s unbelievable. He’s fitter than the Marines. He ran the legs off those guys.”

Van Dien, although not an Olympic or professional athlete, taught sailing and lifesaving for many years; he runs, rappels, climbs rocks and plays everything from football to beach volleyball for recreation. In addition, he worked out for two hours a day--from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.--to stay in shape for the role.

Van Dien was in Vancouver, British Columbia, when he found out he got the part and had to be in South Africa in five days. During a brief stopover in Los Angeles, he made a run to Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.

The author who created Tarzan incorporated in 1923. Though he died in 1950, the business that bears his name--still operating out of a bungalow-style building on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana--retains the copyright on all his work. Much of that Valley neighborhood was once Burroughs’ estate, “Tarzana Ranch,” and in about 1930 the area adopted the name officially.


Danton Burroughs, grandson of the late author, is the director of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. He remembers Van Dien’s visit and was impressed that the actor’s interest ran deeper than the script for “Tarzan and the Lost City.”

“He had tremendous energy,” Burroughs said. “He was just a very savvy, very nice, likable guy. I think he’s an excellent choice to play Tarzan.”

Burroughs loaded up Van Dien with books and documentaries, which the actor devoured in an effort to learn not only about the character but also what has given Tarzan a lasting mystique.

Burroughs has been less-than-happy with some previous incarnations of his grandfather’s 1911 creation, which is trademarked. Tarzan was, after all, the son of English aristocrats before he was raised by apes. His childhood in the jungle gave him heightened instincts, augmenting his intelligence. At least that’s how Burroughs wrote it in the first book and its 26 sequels.

Many of the films depicted Tarzan as less lord, more ape. The Weissmuller movies in particular, Burroughs said, showed Tarzan to be a bit of an oaf. Although he believes the definitive Tarzan will be the animated feature now in the works at Disney, he liked “Greystoke” and has high hopes for “Tarzan and the Lost City.”

“Tarzan is not a big, strong dumb guy,” Van Dien said. “The way Burroughs wrote it, if he was dumb, he would die. The appeal has always been that Tarzan shows how the human race could survive because of our intellect.”


Beyond the Burroughs books, Van Dien also watched videos about Jane Goodall’s research to learn about ape movement. In South Africa he learned conversational Zulu. He would have done all his own stunts, said producer Coote, if insurance issues didn’t prevent it. But it wasn’t all fun and games. He was charged by a baby elephant, nearly choked by a python and bit by a monkey in the course of filming.

“I’m running around naked in a loincloth,” he said, “and the jungle is very sharp. I’m jumping off 10-foot rocks and logs.” Still, he shook off the scratches, bites and bruises. “I’ve never looked physically better in my life. And they were paying me to play this hero of mine. I was living this fantasy.”

Even beyond Tarzan, Van Dien leans toward the obsessive. To play James Dean in the unreleased indy film “James Dean: Race With Destiny,” he lost 25 pounds. He writes upward of 500 pages of notes for every film role, including the upcoming vampire thriller “Revenant,” and the John Carpenter action flick “Meltdown.”

“In five, 10 or 15 years, I don’t want to say, ‘I wish I’d learned something about it,’ ” said Van Dien. “I don’t want to be a bum. When they see a movie, I want people to know I worked my butt off.”

He sleeps only four hours a night (sometimes six), which gives him time to read and write while his two children are asleep. He shares custody of Bo, 4 1/2, and Gracie, 18 months, with his ex-wife, Carrie Mitchum, granddaughter of the late Robert Mitchum.

Van Dien, who grew up in Ridgefield, N.J., started premed studies at Florida State University but moved to Los Angeles at 20 to pursue acting. He quickly got TV guest spots and then parts in genre pictures such as “Night Eyes 4” and “Beastmaster III.” But with “Starship Troopers” and “Tarzan” under his belt, he may be ready to leap--or swing--from obscurity to matinee idol.


“Tarzan has one of the hugest fan bases in the whole world. Little kids come up to me right now and say, ‘That’s the new Tarzan,’ ” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”


“Tarzan and the Lost City” opens Friday at Pacific Galleria in Sherman Oaks, AMC Promenade in Woodland Hills, Pacific Winnetka 20 in Chatsworth, UA Movies in Granada Hills, Century Cinemas in North Hollywood, Universal City Cineplex, AMC Burbank, Mann Valley West in Tarzana and Independent Americana in Panorama City.