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Battle of the Tarzans: Which actors Alexander Skarsgård is competing with to be the ultimate king of the jungle

Battle of the Tarzans: Which actors Alexander Skarsgård is competing with to be the ultimate king of the jungle
Alexander Skarsgård, right, as Tarzan, with Samuel L. Jackson, in "The Legend of Tarzan." (Jonathan Olley)

Alexander Skarsgård, has a big loincloth to fill. The star of the new film “The Legend of Tarzan,” is only the most recent of a slew of actors to swing from the trees with Jane.

Along with the likes of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein (fine, Frankenstein’s monster), Tarzan is one of the most enduring fictional characters in Hollywood history. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle hero first appeared in his 1912 novel “Tarzan of the Apes,” and made the leap to the big screen almost immediately. Since then, the muscled ape man has unleashed his signature yell in scores of films – from cheapie serials to animated adventures to big-budget blockbusters.

Here’s a rundown of some of the most notable Tarzans to swing into theaters:


ELMO LINCOLN

Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan in 1918.
Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan in 1918. (America Movies Classics)

Although he’s hardly a household name, Lincoln was the very first actor to play Tarzan in a trio of silent films beginning in 1918, just six years after Burroughs first debuted the pulp hero. Slightly doughy, but still hyper-masculine, Lincoln wasn’t in line with Burroughs’ vision for the character and his run as Tarzan was short-lived. Oddly, he later appeared in small, unbilled roles in “Tarzan's New York Adventure” (1942) and “Tarzan's Magic Fountain” (1949). 


JOHNNY WEISSMULLER

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane in the 1936 movie "Tarzan Escapes."
Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane in the 1936 movie "Tarzan Escapes." (AMC / Associated Press)

Weissmuller is probably the actor most synonymous with Tarzan, having played the character in no less than 12 MGM films in the 1930s and 40’s, beginning with 1932’s “Tarzan the Ape Man.” Many modern moviegoers may have never actually seen his performances, but it was his stint as Tarzan that gave us that distinctive yell and the whole “Me Tarzan, you Jane” shtick. His was a somewhat brutish Tarzan, emphasized by his Olympic swimmer’s physique.

With the Production Code not yet in effect, a handful of the Weissmuller films courted controversy, with costar Maureen O'Sullivan sporting a near-nude outfit as Jane, and swimming in the buff in “Tarzan and His Mate.”


BUSTER CRABBE

Buster Crabbe as Tarzan in 1933.
Buster Crabbe as Tarzan in 1933.

Crabbe is best-known to movie buffs for playing two pulp heroes who are very different from Tarzan – the sci-fi/fantasy legends Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. 

Like Weissmuller, Crabbe was a gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer, and they both seemed destined to play a role in the Tarzan mythos, but while Weissmuller would spend a decade in the get-up, Crabbe would only play the part once.

Due to some contractual vagueness, producer Sol Lesser was able to whip up the quickie serial “Tarzan the Fearless,” while MGM was still in production on “Tarzan the Ape Man.” He settled on Crabbe to play the role of Tarzan in a style that largely aped Weissmuller’s. The 12-chapter serial was released in 1933, alongside a 71-minute feature version culled from the first four chapters.


CHRISTOPHER LAMBERT

Christopher Lambert in 1984's ''Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes."
Christopher Lambert in 1984's ''Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes." (Beitia Archives )

More than a dozen actors  took on the role between the Golden Age of Weissmuller and the 1980s, but none quite captured the public’s attention.

Frenchman Christopher Lambert was virtually unknown to U.S. audiences when he was cast in 1984’s serious-minded ''Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.” After decades of kiddie-friendly adventures, the film was an attempt to restore the Tarzan mythos to a more serious state, with the lean, stoic Lambert taking the character to a more introspective and somewhat less physical place, in line with the film’s downbeat and more realistic take on the material. Lambert also emphasized the character’s animal qualities; he shrieks and hisses more often than he speaks or yells. 

Model-turned-actress Andie MacDowell made her film debut as Jane Porter, although her too-strong Southern accent was re-dubbed by Glenn Close.

Tellingly, “Greystoke” was the very first Tarzan feature to receive Oscar attention. It earned three Academy Award nominations, including supporting actor (Ralph Richardson, posthumous), adapted screenplay and makeup.


TONY GOLDWYN

Tarzan and Jane in Disney's 1999 film "Tarzan."
Tarzan and Jane in Disney's 1999 film "Tarzan." (Walt Disney Co. )

With the exception of the largely forgotten 1998 film “Tarzan and the Lost City,” featuring Casper Van Dien in the title role, the ape man kept a low profile on the big screen following “Greystoke.”

After a decade of success with princesses and fairy tales, Disney closed out the millennium with a new take on “Tarzan” in 1999, and the animated ape man – voiced with confidence by “Scandal” star Tony Goldwyn -- was able to soar to new heights. This Tarzan cut an extremely athletic figure, swinging on vines and “surfing” down giant branches in a style more akin to Tony Hawk than actual chimps.

For younger audiences, the Disney version likely remains the most recognizable Tarzan, but Warner Bros. is surely hoping that Skarsgård will become the face, and physique, of Tarzan for the 21st century.

MORE:

Djimon Hounsou talks about his key roles from 'Amistad' to 'Tarzan'

Can Alexander Skarsgard swing into movie stardom with 'The Legend of Tarzan'? Does he even want to?

Blockbuster summer: Fan favorites like 'Ghostbusters,' 'Star Trek' and 'Tarzan' crash the superhero party

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