Gordon Scott, an actor known for his portrayal of jungle superman Tarzan in six films and later roles in westerns and sword-and-sandals gladiator movies, died Monday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of complications from several heart surgeries. He was 80.
Scott had spent the last five years living with friends Roger and Betty Thomas in Baltimore. Betty Thomas said that since October, the former film star had been in failing health and was in and out of a nursing home and several hospitals.
An unknown hotel lifeguard in the 1950s, Scott managed to beat out 200 other would-be Tarzans from across the world who had auditioned for the part by climbing trees, jumping into pools and swinging from ersatz vines for six hours.
He was an impressive physical and athletic specimen, standing 6 feet 3, weighing 218 pounds and gifted with 19-inch biceps.
In 1953, he was awarded a seven-year contract by producer Sol Lesser, becoming the 11th Tarzan in replacing Lex Barker as the “Jungle King,” who was created by novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs.
After his first film, “Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle” (1955), Scott married co-star Vera Miles. The couple divorced four years later.
The film was followed by “Tarzan and the Lost Safari” (1957), “Tarzan’s Fight for Life” (1958), “Tarzan and the Trappers” (1958), “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” (1959), with co-stars Sean Connery and Anthony Quayle, and “Tarzan the Magnificent” (1960).
“He was an absolutely wonderful Tarzan, who played the character as an intelligent and nice man who carried himself well, much as my grandfather had originally written it,” said Danton Burroughs of Tarzana. “He also gave a wonderful rendition of Tarzan’s call which didn’t have so much yodel in it.”
But Scott, having had his fill of Tarzan, moved to Italy in 1960 and appeared in films such as “Hercules” and “Buffalo Bill, Hero of the Far West.”
His last film, “The Tramplers,” made in 1966 with co-stars Joseph Cotten and James Mitchum, was released in 1968.
Scott supported himself later by attending autograph shows and film conventions and living off residuals.
“He was always a big spender and loved to party,” his brother, Rayfield Werschkull, said. “If he had one weakness, it was women. They were always hitting on him.”
In a recent interview with the weekly Baltimore City Paper, Scott said that being an actor “is one thing I never thought about doing, but once you’re in it, it spoils you for anything else if you’re successful at it. The money’s so easy, you meet beautiful people. My God, that’s the ideal situation -- kind of a fantasy world. It’s the best way to travel too. First class, and you get to see a lot of interesting places.”
Born Gordon M. Werschkull on Aug. 3, 1926, in Portland, Ore., he took up bodybuilding as a teenager. He attended the University of Oregon for a year after high school and was drafted into the Army in 1944, serving as a drill sergeant and military policeman until 1947.
After the war he moved to Las Vegas, where he became a lifeguard at the Sahara Hotel. He changed his last name to Scott after landing the role of Tarzan.
He had at least three marriages, family members said, and is believed to have had at least three children.
In addition to his brother, known survivors include two sisters, Janice McKeel of Salem, Ore., and Betty Lou Hyatt of Sisters, Ore.
Plans for a memorial service to be held in Oregon in June were incomplete.