Reports of the death of Buster Crabbe have been greatly exaggerated.
In 1947, for example, he was reported to have gone down in a hail of machine-gun bullets in the service of world Communism.
The party papers in Italy and Yugoslavia had the whole story. Crabbe, the Olympic gold medalist of 1932 and hero of the "Flash Gordon" serials, had become fed up with reactionary forces in Washington, D.C. His friends Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power and Alan Ladd had already gone to prison in allegiance to the Cause -- Cooper after the rousing speech before a crowd of 90,000 in Philadelphia in which he said, "In our days it is the greatest honor to be a Communist."
Crabbe, undeterred, had organized a movement in the Army to expose the evils of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But, the Communists reported, when he and his friend Spencer Tracy tried to tell President Truman the news, they were turned away. Crabbe's martyrdom at the hands of the reactionaries was inevitable, and The People's of Zagreb reported:
"On June 3, on Broadway, on the corner of 7th Avenue, Crabbe was riddled with bullets from a submachine gun from a closed car. The tragic death of Crabbe provoked terrific unrest in Hollywood. At the funeral of Buster Crabbe 150,000 men were present, and the coffin was carried by Comrades Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, George Brent and Al St. John."
Thirty-three years later, Buster Crabbe still fails to find that hysterical news account -- a yellowing footnote in cold war agitprop history -- very funny. He is 72, and a card-carrying Ronald Reagan man. He wears a Rolex watch and a turquoise and silver string tie bolo and has a Flashy shock of gray and brown hair. He looks, even now, like he could eat Leonid Brezhnev for breakfast.
"I read about my funeral in the newspaper, like everybody else," Crabbe said yesterday. "The Communists said it took 43 bullets to knock old Flash Gordon down. I guess I should be flattered."
A year or two later, however, Crabbe had been wiped out again: this time by his own countrymen. By about 1949, reports that Buster Crabbe was alive were considered greatly exaggerated.
He had made 175 movies in all, including three full-length "Flash Gordon" serials (1936, 1938 and 1940), "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (1939), numerous Tarzan-style jungle epics, and 40 Billy the Kid westerns. He had promoted Wheaties, and he had given up a law career, abandoned his native Hawaii, and worked a double shift in the movie-serial mines.
The result, fame-wise, was that he couldn't get a cab.
"Sure, there were long lines for my pictures back in the '30s," Crabbe explained. "But even then, I wasn't immediately known. For one thing, pictures took longer to build in those days. Also, my hair was bleached for the Flash Gordon stuff. If I went out on the street, men would whistle at me. But without the yellow hair, you couldn't tell it was Flash. By the beginning of the Fifties, nobody on the street recognized me at all."
On or about the year 1950, however, human nature changed.
"Television came in," Crabbe recalled, bemused. "I got a call from New York, from WOR. They really wanted the big movies, but they couldn't afford them.However I had done all those quickie westerns and serials, and they were available. So I went to New York and we started running them, with me on the show. After only six months I'd get in a taxi and the driver would say, 'Hey, Flash Gordon, huh?' It was just amazing."
Crabbe, who grabs your arm like it was an ax handle, still weighs within three pounds of his Olympic gold medal trim and is still married to his original wife of 1933 (Adah Virginia Held), continues to be amazed at what has happened to him.
"I was set to be an attorney, you know," he said, grabbing the nearest arm. I grew up in Hawaii, where my whole life was set up for me: go to law school, return, practice, play golf, ride surfboards.But I got waylaid. l
"I transferred to USC to finish college, and the Olympics came up in 1932, and I was sitting in the Olympic Village when these scouts from Paramount came in, looking around. You see, MGM had Johnny Weismuller, the best Tarzan of them all, and he'd already made two movies which were doing well. Paramount wanted their own. So they took 20 of us athletes over the studio for a screen test.
"First, we go to the commissary, and there's Gary Cooper, going to work in these big boots of his. He and Tom Mix, they were my heroes. There were stars all over the place, because Paramount had Cooper and Cary Grant and Mae West and Bob Preston and Carole Lombard and her husband William Powell. Lombard and Powell went on their honeymoon on the beach where I worked in 1929, and I remembered them as big tippers.
"After that they take the 20 of us to wardrobe and issue each guy a G-string, and put us in front of a camera. Nobody knew what to do. The director said, 'Here, throw a spear.' So we each threw the spear. 'Here, throw this big rock.' So we each picked up this papier-mache rock and tried to make our muscles bulge throwing it. Then we went back to the Olympic village and forgot about it.
Seven days later, Crabbe won the gold medal, edging out the Frenchman by one tenth of a second in the 400-meter freestyle. Paramount came back and collected him.
"That one tenth of a second changed my life," Crabbe said. "I had finished a year of law school, but I was only making $8 a week in my part-time job after school. The studio offered me $100, so I said, why not. They thought they would cast me in a jungle picture called 'King of the Jungle.' It was either me, or Randy Scott. I figured Randy was too skinny. There was one other guy, too, who was an Olympic fencer. His right arm was beautiful. But his other arm was nothing much. What Paramount did to resolve this dilemma was to gather 25 secretaries in a room and show them our screen tests. They voted 24-to-1 for me. If it wasn't for that, I'd be a lawyer today."
As it happened, "King of the Jungle" was the only "A" movie Crabbe ever made.His very next film had Randolph Scott as the lead and Crabbe as a minor character with one speaking line. The line was, "Yeah, boss." Crabbe got to say it twice. It was a western, and everybody else had heavy coats on and steam coming from their mouth. Crabbe's part, however, called for him to be bare-chested.
"I figured that after that, they'd fire me. I was looking forward to it. But no, the next year they signed me for $200 a week. I figured, okay, I'll learn the trade. I studied Melvyn Douglas, trying to see how he did it, because I thought he was good. But they never gave me the chance to try. It was one 'B' movie after another."
And always with his shirt off.
Did the people working on the "Flash Gordon" sets realize the nature of their contribution to the burgeoning genre of science fiction? Because a lot more was flashed in that serial than just Gordon. The beauteous Dale, especially when portrayed by the beauteous Jean Rogers, kept slippping out of his nightie and into the pseudo-Asian hands of Ming the Merciless. Meanwhile, the beauteous, raven-haired Priscilla Lawson, as Ming's daughter Aurora, kept running her pseudo-earthling hands through Flash's golden hair. Whenever Ming could, he attached Flash to some metaphorical castration-ray machine. Tune in Next Week.
Crabbe says he never minded working with his shift off. "Except that when they put me in clothes, I felt funny in front of a camera. Like my hands were sticking out. 'What do I do with my hands?" I asked one director. 'Smoke a cigarette,' he said, 'that's what everybody else does with their hands in the movies.' That's when I started," Crabbe said, lighting another cigarette.
"But what people always want to know is was 'Flash Gordon' fun to do," he continued. "It wasn't. We go up at 7 a.m., then an hour in makeup, then work till 12. Then an hour for lunch. Work al afternoon. Dinner. Work some that night. Back on the set the next morning.There was no rule then abot mandatory 12 hours between calls. We had 85 set-ups a day under open arc lights and floodlights, and it was tough. We ground them out."
He has seen "Star Wars" three times, "Close Encounters" twice. He intends to see "The Empire Strikes Back" again. He thinks they are very good. Very enjoyable, very well made. "One thing, though. I never played Flash Gordon flip, because I thought that would be wrong. I did it straight. Dramatic."
Clarence Linden Crabbe never did get to be a lawyer, but he did get to do a lot of other things. For a while he lived in Rye, N.Y., and was a stockbroker on Wall Street. He had a TV series called "Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion," in which his hawk nose protruded handsomely out of a starched uniform for several seasons. He marketed swimming pools, and still does. ("This hot weather is great for the chemical business. Makes the algae bloom. You've got to add a lot of pool chemical to kill the algae.") He has been active with the Boy Scouts of America, and was recently the co-author of "The Arthritis Exercise Book." Asked if he suffers from arthritis, Crabbe reacted sharply. "What? No. Not at all. A touch of bursitis, perhaps. Not arthritis."
Look, Buster. You write a book about arthritis, people are going to ask you . . .
He also has endorsed a few products. By the way, what is that moderately priced chrome-plated filter gizmo utilizing activated charcoal and porous membranes to remove particles as small as 0.3 of a micron from regular old tap water? The gizmo has been sitting in front of him during the entire course of this informative and entertaining chat. He hasn't even mentioned it, and now it's time to go.
"We know everybody is really more interested in Mr. Crabbe," said an attending employe of the Peerless Faucet Co., hurrying to keep pace with Buster Crabbe's robust stride. "But you should know that he is, in fact, the official Peerless Home Water Filter Spokesperson.