Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Cry for Gordon Scott

An e-mail from Dave Dowling to William Connolly, posted on the Spaghetti Western Web Board, reports that actor Gordon Scott passed away on the morning of April 30 (10:50 a.m. EST) in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"Gordon had been hospitalized for several months recovering from heart valve surgery, among other things," Dowling writes. "Unfortunately, following surgery he had infections and was kept in ICU from time to time. Just recently the infections reoccurred and he (physically) fought to remove his IV whenever he could. In short, Gordon chose not to prolong his life. I spoke with Gordon about 6 times over the past 9 months, most recently in March. He was in good spirits then, despite still being in the hospital, and experiencing much weight loss. He was 80, father of 5, and penniless."
Born Gordon Werschkul in Portland, Oregon in 1927, Scott had held down a broad variety of jobs -- including fireman and military judo instructor -- prior to being discovered by producer Sol Lesser while working as a lifeguard in Las Vegas. He replaced Lex Barker in the coveted role of Tarzan in TARZAN'S HIDDEN JUNGLE, during the filming of which he fell in love with and married his leading lady, Vera Miles. Miles was pregnant with their first child at the time Alfred Hitchcock wanted to cast her in the lead of VERTIGO; he was furious and replaced her with Kim Novak, subsequently casting her in the supporting role of Janet Leigh's sister in PSYCHO. Scott, on the other hand, rose in stardom, making three more entertaining Tarzan features for Lesser and another feature culled from episodes filmed for an unsold Tarzan tele-series. When Lesser sold his interests in the Tarzan character to producer Sy Weintraub, Scott had the best fortune of his career, starring in the well-named TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959, featuring Sean Connery in a supporting role) and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960, featuring John Carradine and Jock Mahoney). Only the sentimental could seriously argue that Johnny Weissmuller was a superior Tarzan to Gordon Scott, who -- in addition to being 6' 3", handsome, with a massive build -- was also the superior actor.

Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott in DUEL OF THE TITANS.

Evidently Scott and Weintraub didn't get along, and Scott was subsequently replaced in the Tarzan role by the leaner, almost-ten-years-older Jock Mahoney. Scott's friend Steve Reeves arranged for Scott to star opposite him in the Sergio Leone-penned saga of Romulus and Remus, released here in the States as DUEL OF THE TITANS. My childhood memory of the publicity campaign attending this release was the closest thing to having two demigods descend from Olympus: "Giant Against Giant!" Movies simply didn't get any bigger. Remember, this was before King Kong had met Godzilla, and the spectacle of two colossal men engaged in battle on the widescreen was virtually unprecedented. It turned out to be a good movie too, in which Scott gives what may well be the performance of his career as a hero who, poisoned with jealousy of his brother, turns villainous.

Scott's introduction into Italian filmmaking sustained him through the remainder of a sadly dwindling career, but he made good films there. He assumed the role of Maciste in (renamed for America) GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES and SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD (directed by Riccardo Freda, a worthy follow-up to his best Tarzan movies), and THE LION OF THEBES, CONQUEST OF MYCENAE and the unfortunately named but fabulous ZORRO AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS. He drifted into Italian spy pictures just before the end of his career, making his last screen appearance in 1967.

I've heard gossip about Scott's Italian years that describe him as the wildest of a wild pack, and gossip of more recent vintage that held that alcoholism, reckless living, and a preference for a footloose lifestyle had conspired to harm Scott's career and destroy his personal life. Certainly the beer-bellied, ballcap-wearing man seen at autograph shows over the past 10-15 years bore no resemblance to the mythic figure Scott had formerly been. I wanted very much to devote an issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG to an in-depth interview with him, as I considered him a great star, but somehow we could never get a proper commitment, perhaps because he was unsure where he was going to be from one month to the next. I still want to do my Gordon Scott issue someday, but now it will have to be in the manner of a career appreciation.

Hollywood rise and fall stories are a dime a dozen. If the story of Gordon Scott seems especially tragic, it is because he achieved such incredible heights of heroism on the silver screen and left us with such indelible memories of intelligent virility and confidence. He was a Tarzan that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have recognized as his own, and been proud of.

I blogged about Gordon Scott last year, and I can only hope that someone showed him my words of appreciation. I remain ever hopeful that the best of his films will someday make it to DVD -- if Paramount is reading this, you own the TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, so what's the holdup?

Sadly, Gordon Scott is now gone... so bring on the Gordon Scott!

3 comments:

  1. What a wonderful write up this is. Gordon Scott is quite possibly my favorite of the sword & sandal actors. He appeared to have done many of his own dangerous stunts in his films. Truly one of the best of that group. He wasn't in LION OF THEBES, however. That was Mark Forest. Scott was in a pirate picture called THE LION OF ST. MARK, though. Very easy to confuse those two. Once again, this was a tremendously good read.

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  2. Of course all six of the Gordon Scott TARZAN films are now available on DVD exclusively online from www.wbshop.com as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

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  3. I was a personal friend of Gordon. He was a great guy but would never talk about why he quit acting. I always wondered if it had something to do with the IRS upon his return from Europe. He was always an enigma to me. I think he had remorse over his failures in his private life as well. Or maybe he didn't like growing old. We had allot of fun drinking though! I'll miss my old pal. May he rest in peace...

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