Life with Tarzan

First, it was just a phone call. The next thing you know, he's swinging by for a long, long visit.

Published May 13, 2007

Gordon Scott, an actor who played Tarzan in the movies in the late '50s and early '60s, died on May 4 in Baltimore. He was 80.

The Associated Press obituary gave a terse account of his life: Grew up in Portland, Ore., became a bodybuilder, caught the eye of a Hollywood producer, got married, hollered and swung through a half-dozen Tarzan flicks, got divorced, made some gladiator pictures, quit the movies, spent 40 years in retirement, died of complications after heart surgery.

This is how the AP obituary ended:

His later years were spent in Baltimore, in a row house owned by Roger and Betty Thomas. "My husband has been a fan of his since he was a child, " Betty Thomas said. "When we were in Hollywood about eight years ago, we looked him up. We invited him for a visit. He came and never left."

Beg pardon?

Tarzan came and never left?

* * *

Betty Thomas answers the phone sounding weary. It is Monday, three days after Scott's death. Reporters have been coming by all weekend. She has told the story several times. Yes, she'll tell it again.

"He was my husband's idol ever since he was a small boy," she says. "Anything that Gordon Scott played in, he watched."

She is an actress herself, she says without pausing. Sure enough, the Internet Movie Database lists Betty Willey - her screen name - as an extra in the 1997 snuff film Screen Kill. She says she appeared in John Waters' Cry-Baby and the Baltimore-based TV show Homicide: Life on the Street.

Betty says she and her husband were in Hollywood a few years ago, vacationing and looking for acting jobs for her. Roger Thomas passed the time in souvenir stores, hoping to add to his collection of Gordon Scott memorabilia. He has all of Scott's movies on video, Betty says.

Roger spread the word that he would like to hear from Scott, should anybody see him. That didn't seem likely. Scott had made his last film in 1967 and hadn't done much publicly since.

The Thomases went back to Baltimore. After about a month, the phone rang. Tarzan was on the vine. He and Roger chatted and hit it off.

"They got to talking regular on the phone to each other," Betty says.

Scott was living in Arizona. After a while, he said he'd like to pay a visit.

* * *

Betty, who prefers not to divulge her age, is a retired nurse. Roger, 62, is retired from a job Betty is unclear about. It had something to do with the tar on roofs.

She is asked if Roger will come to the phone. No, she says. Too soon. He hasn't talked to any reporters.

So she keeps going.

They went to the airport to pick Scott up on March 16, 2001. (Tarzan comes to visit, you remember the date.) They were looking for a virile man - "You know, Gordon Scott" - so they didn't recognize the 74-year-old slumped in the wheelchair.

Turns out he didn't need the wheelchair; he got around fine. Betty isn't sure how to explain why he used it. She's not sure what to make of a lot of things.

They took him back to their row house on Pontiac Avenue in Baltimore - Balmer, she pronounces it. They showed him the banner that read, "Welcome home, Gordon." They didn't mean it the way it sounded. She thought he'd stay a few days.

They put him in the back bedroom, away from the traffic noise up front. He liked it there, she says. Their dog, Babe, took to sitting outside his door, waiting for him to open it. He came out sometimes and visited.

"We got to be very good friends," Betty says.

A few days went by. Then a few weeks.

Scott liked to sit and watch old movies - his and other people's. He gave Betty tips on acting.

He never talked about his family; after his death, family members would say they hadn't heard from him in years.

Months passed. Tarzan - John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, adopted son of Kala the ape-mother - was still in the back bedroom.

He paid rent once in a while, contributed a few dollars for this and that.

Betty has anxiety attacks sometimes. When she felt one coming on, she would knock on his door and he would open it and put his arms around her and everything would be fine.

They had their disagreements, Betty says. Lord Greystoke didn't like it when the air conditioning was broken.

One year. Two years. Three . . .

"He just stayed," Betty says. "I never mentioned anything to him and he never mentioned anything to me."

* * *

Can Roger come to the phone? Please?

This time, Betty puts him on. Right away you can hear the loss in his voice.

"I'll be honest with you," he says. "From childhood up, he was everything in the world to me."

Roger says bigger kids used to bully him. He saw Gordon Scott's bare, bulging chest on the screen and thought, "If I could be like that, they wouldn't bother me."

"He represented an ideal," Roger says.

When he finally met his hero, he wasn't disappointed. He and Scott had coffee and talked every day. Scott was laid-back, Roger says, but when he didn't like something, "he didn't chew his words twice."

Scott told him, "Look, Rog, you're no fan. I consider you more a brother or a son."

Tarzan did the jungle yell for him, too. More than once.

Mike Wilson can be reached at (727) 892-2924 or mike@sptimes.com.


Hollywood swinger

A dozen or more actors, including Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, have played Tarzan in the movies. Here are the films Gordon Scott made as Tarzan:

- Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955)

- Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957)

- Tarzan and the Trappers (1958)

- Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958)

- Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959)

- Tarzan the Magnificent (1960)

Source: Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)