Gordon Scott; Him Tarzan In '50s, Only Better-Spoken

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

Gordon Scott, 80, a screen Tarzan of the late 1950s who became a muscular star of Italian "sword and sandal" productions, died April 30 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He had pneumonia.

Before becoming a screen Tarzan, Mr. Scott had been an Army drill sergeant, judo instructor, truck driver and Las Vegas hotel lifeguard.

Talent agents at the hotel pool had spotted his muscular 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame and 19-inch biceps. They whisked him to Hollywood, where Mr. Scott beat out 200 contestants to replace the previous bearer of the loincloth, Lex Barker.

Mr. Scott appeared in six Tarzan films from 1955 to 1960, including "Tarzan's Hidden Jungle," which co-starred his then-wife, Vera Miles; and "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure," with a young Sean Connery playing a villain.

William Hillman, an assistant professor at a Canadian university who runs official Tarzan tribute sites, said of Mr. Scott: "There have been so many bad Tarzan films, but his stand out pretty well. They had pretty fair production values, and he was a good-looking Tarzan. He's well-regarded by most fans."

Hillman described Mr. Scott as a transitional figure who tried to break out of the formulaic use of "me Tarzan" pidgin English into a more literate lord of the jungle.

The youngest of nine children, Gordon Merrill Werschkul was born in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 3, 1926.

After high school, he became an Army drill sergeant during World War II. He held a series of odd jobs before his biceps were noticed poolside at Las Vegas's Sahara Hotel in 1953.

Tarzan producers insisted on a name change because "Werschkul" reminded them of former Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller.

On the set, Mr. Scott was eager to do his own stunt work but was less than thrilled to wrestle a python, as one script called for. "You know, serpents have those teeth that slant back," he recently told the Baltimore City Paper. "It's hard to pull them off you. That was a big one, I think it was 19 feet, weighed about 200 pounds.

"But it was funny -- they kept it in a warm box to make it kind of lethargic, so it wouldn't wake up, but they kept taking the shots over and over again, so it kept waking up a little bit more. By the time we got the shot, it was a really angry snake. But we got some good shots."

It's unclear whether Mr. Scott was dropped from the Tarzan series or, as he claimed, he wanted to avoid typecasting. At the time, he told a reporter he did not get the respect he felt he deserved.

"In Beverly Hills, people think I'm just another actor who needs a haircut," he said.

He soon went to Rome to join his former weight-training companion Steve Reeves, a former Mr. America and Mr. Universe. Reeves had made a fortune starring in European-made sword and sandal epics, based on mythology and known for their poorly dubbed dialogue and cheap special effects.

The two strongmen played Remus (Mr. Scott) to Romulus (Reeves) in "Duel of the Titans" (1961). Mr. Scott went on to portray Goliath ("Goliath and the Vampires"), Julius Caesar ("A Queen for Caesar") and Hercules ("Conquest of Mycene"). He was spy Bart Fargo in "Danger!! Death Ray" as well as Zorro and Buffalo Bill in other Italian-language productions.

Mr. Scott's film career ended abruptly in the late 1960s, and he returned to the United States, trailed by a reputation as a ladies' man who seldom paid his bills, according to a 1987 article in the Toronto Star.

Mr. Scott later made a living on the autograph circuit and selling knives. He lived with a series of obliging friends and "Tarzan" fans, most recently in Baltimore.

He had a troubled marriage to Miles, who apparently was under the impression that she was his first wife. She was his second or third, by varying accounts. He was seldom in contact with his surviving family, which includes a brother and two sisters. He had a son with Miles, and it's unclear how many other children he might have had. He was estranged from nearly everyone.

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