Film Star and Olympian Herman Brix

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Herman Brix, 100, an Olympic shot-put medalist who became a screen Tarzan in the mid-1930s, went on to act in more than 100 other films under the name Bruce Bennett and was effective as a doomed gold prospector in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," died Feb. 24 at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif. He had complications from a broken hip.

Mr. Brix was a star on the University of Washington football team and won a silver medal in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, throwing the shot 51 feet, 8 1/8 inches.

He was competing for the Los Angeles Athletic Club and doing film stunt work when he befriended Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the athletic star of silent pictures who encouraged the strapping blond athlete to make a screen test.

At first, Mr. Brix appeared in cheapie serials that showcased his physique -- "The New Adventures of Tarzan," "The Lone Ranger" and "Hawk of the Wilderness." He was one of several Olympians to make the transition to Tarzan stardom, including Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe and Glenn Morris.

To many Tarzan aficionados, Mr. Brix was among the best of the nearly 20 actors to play the vine-swinging Lord of the Jungle and truest to Edgar Rice Burroughs's idea of a young British lad of refinement left to survive in the wilds.

In the book "Tarzan of the Movies," Gabe Essou wrote that "Brix's portrayal was the only time between the silents and the 1960s that Tarzan was accurately depicted in films. He was mannered, cultured, soft-spoken, a well-educated English lord who spoke several languages, and didn't grunt."

Burroughs hand-picked Mr. Brix for the 12-chapter serial, "The New Adventures of Tarzan," made in 1935.

Filmed on a low budget in Guatemala, the new Tarzan film had its hazards. "There was only a single sharpshooter up in the trees to keep the croc away from me," Mr. Brix told the Christian Science Monitor in 1999.

He performed his own stunts, including swinging from real jungle vines. At one point, the crew placed a 200-pound weight on the vine to test its strength before Mr. Brix leaped from the vine into a small pool of water.

But Mr. Brix approached the scene with a bit more verve than a dead weight. "I ran for the rope, which of course gave it an extra push," he told the Monitor. "I swung way too far out and dropped way beyond the pool. . . . I still have the scars from that fall."

Changing his screen name to Bruce Bennett in 1940, Mr. Brix had leading roles in World War II action films such as "Atlantic Convoy" and "Sabotage Squad" and became a dependable secondary leading man in several "women's pictures," such as "Mildred Pierce" as Joan Crawford's ex-husband, as well as "A Stolen Life" with Bette Davis, "Nora Prentiss" with Ann Sheridan and "The Man I Love" with Ida Lupino.

For a while, he was seemingly everywhere, from "Three Stooges" shorts to supporting roles in prestige projects such as George Stevens's "The More the Merrier."

He co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in the war drama "Sahara" (1943), the suspense film "Dark Passage" (1947) and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948). The last provided him among his meatiest roles, as a lone prospector named Cody who wanders into a camp headed by an insanely greedy and paranoid Bogart. Mr. Brix beat out Ronald Reagan for the part.

Harold Herman Brix was born May 19, 1906, in Tacoma, Wash., near where his father owned logging camps. He appeared in high school musicals while maintaining an active athletic career.

"All I knew about shot putting was that my [older] brother could do 44 feet," he once said. "I decided I wanted to beat him. . . . So I got a shot and went to work and made up my mind to do 45 feet."

At the University of Washington, where he majored in economics, he played in the 1926 Rose Bowl game against a University of Alabama team that featured future cowboy star Johnny Mack Brown. The Washington Huskies lost, 20-19, in a famous upset of the day.

After the 1928 Olympic Games, Mr. Brix held world indoor and outdoor records in shot putting. But he broke his shoulder filming the 1931 football movie "Touchdown," thwarting his entry into the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

The injury also prevented him from being considered for the leading role in "Tarzan the Ape Man," a big-budget 1932 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production that made Weissmuller a star.

Mr. Brix went on to work opposite Bela Lugosi in the serial "Shadow of Chinatown" before finding steady work at Columbia and later Warner Bros. studios. He moved into grittier roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, playing a detective in William Castle's "Undertow" and a forensic scientist who helps solve a crime in John Sturges's "Mystery Street."

He was sympathetic as an aging baseball player in "Angels in the Outfield" (1951) and then moved into a series of western and military roles, including "Love Me Tender," a 1956 Elvis Presley film set during the Civil War.

Mr. Brix also starred in "The Alligator People" (1959) and "Fiend of Dope Island" (1961), the second of which he also co-wrote about a crazed marijuana farmer and gun runner on a small Caribbean island.

Soon after, Mr. Brix pared down his movie work and became a master salesman for a vending business and a real estate investor. He enjoyed parasailing and skydiving, leaping out 10,000 feet over Lake Tahoe when he was 96.

His wife of 67 years, Jeannette Braddock Bennett, died in 2000.

Survivors include two children; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company