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Gordon Scott - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2006

Gordon Scott on (re)Search my Trash

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Let me get one thing clear up front:

Gordon Scott was never a great actor, he was a bodybuilder first and foremost, and it can't be denied that he got most of his acting jobs thanks to his impressive physique. Still, having said that, he had a certain acting talent that made his career last for a whole 12 years. Not much, you might say, but in Gordon Scott's time, this was almost incredibly long for a bodybuilder.

And while Scott may not have been much of an actor, his career followed the typical trail of an American B-actor: he started out as the star of a movie series, later he tried to translate his success on the big screen into a TV-series (unsuccessfully in Scott's case), and when his career in American movies was done for, he moved to Europe - Italy to be exact - for career recovery, where he was welcomed with open arms and was a smashing success ... until Italian genre cinema too took a turn into a direction where clean-cut heroes like him were no longer needed ...


But let's start at the beginning:

Gordon Scott was born Gordon M. Werschkul in Portland, Oregon in 1927. Even in his youth, Gordon's father educated him and his brothers in physical fitness, so it should come as no surprise that Gordon eventually took up studying physical education at the university of Oregon - albeit only for one term, then he joined the US-army. Before he was discharged in 1947, he had served as both a drill-instructor and an MP. After his discharge, Scott took a variety of civilian jobs like cowboy, fireman, farm machinery salesman and finally lifeguard. During all the time he steadily worked out so he soon had the body of a bodybuilder.


Rumour has it that Gordon Scott was discovered by a couple of talent scouts in 1953, when he was working as a lifeguard, and his perfectly shaped body and especially his 19-inch biceps rather naturally made him a perfect choice for Tarzan, a role in which he would have plenty of opportunity to run around shirtless and show off his arms and chest. Plus, his clean-cut features made him perfect for heroic roles like the King of the Jungle.

Fact is, Tarzan producer Sol Lesser had just parted ways with his then-current Tarzan Lex Barker [Lex Barker bio - click here] and was looking for a replacement - and ultimately, Gordon Scott was chosen from a group of 200 applicants to do the job.


Scott's first appearance as Tarzan was in Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955, Harold D.Schuster), which was pretty much a routine Tarzan-film with no big surprises. In all, Sol Lesser's Tarzan films - especially those for RKO - were no film classics compared to the initial Johnny Weissmuller-Tarzans Tarzan the Ape Man (1932, W.S.Van Dyke) and Tarzan and his Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway) [Johnny Weissmuller-bio - click here], these films were just formula movies, and when Scott took over from Lex Barker, the formula had pretty much worn out and the film is just a tired, almost sub-standard jungle adventure. More interesting than the actual film might be the fact that Scott got to know, fell in love with and married his co-star Vera Miles (who plays Tarzan's love interest - not Jane - in the film) during filming it, a marriage that lasted until 1959.


Ultimately, Tarzan's Hidden Jungle would be the last Tarzan film to be shot in black and white (well, sort of anyways) and the last Sol Lesser produced for RKO. For his subsequent two Tarzan films - Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957, H.Bruce Humberstone) and Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958, H.Bruce Humberstone), Sol Lesser hooked up with MGM (which also produced the first 6 Weissmuller Tarzans) and would be able to shoot in colour - and actually, these films were a big improvement over their predecessors, especially Tarzan and the Lost Safari, which was partially shot in Africa. They might not have been great movies as such, but they were more solid than anything RKO put out in a long time (speaking only of Tarzan-films, of course).


Eventually, Sol Lesser decided to take the series from the big to the small screen, took the leads of Tarzan's Fight for Life - Gordon Scott as Tarzan, Eve Brent as Jane and Rickie Sorensen as their son - and had them do a couple of pilots for a projected TV-series. Somehow though the series never took off the ground, and eventually the pilots were re-edited into a feature film called Tarzan and the Trappers (1958, Charles F.Haas, Sandy Howard) and sold to Europe. In the USA the film did not premiere until 10 years later - and then of all places on television !


After the TV-pilots, Sol Lesser not only left the Tarzan-franchise (after 25 years of involvement and no less than 5 different Tarzans) but the film industry altogether - at the tender age of 68.

Surprisingly though, that didn't mean the end of Gordon Scott's career as Tarzan, he stayed with the character for two more films for Paramount - Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959, John Guillermin) - featuring a young, pre-James Bond Sean Connery as a  villain - and Tarzan the Magnificent (1960, Robert Day) - with Jock Mahoney and John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here] as bad guys. These films looked a slice better than the typical Lesser-productions, they benefited from higher budgets and featured a certain freshness that had long been absent from the Lesser-films, but overall they too were far from the series' former greatness.


Eventually though, Scott's career as the Lord of the Jungle came to an end - interestingly Jock Mahoney, who plays the villain in Tarzan the Magnificent, would take over the Tarzan-role in 1962's Tarzan Goes to India (John Guillermin) - and Gordon Scott had to find out that for a man of his built and with his credentials it wasn't all that easy to land a decent job, at least not in Hollywood. Hollywood these days was experiencing some major changes (and has been doing so for the last 10 years and would for at least 10 more) since B-movie production like in the 1940's (when actors like Gordon Scott would have been in high demand) had broken down and television had pretty much taken over, with most established Hollywood studios desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to find their direction.


So Gordon Scott did what many actors in a similar situation - including Lex Barker, Richard Harrison [Richard Harrison bio - click here!], and even Clint Eastwood - did as well: He went to Italy for career recovery.

In Italy, the situation was quite different from that in the USA, here TV didn't have such a strong foothold yet and thus the film industry was booming. The Italians were cranking out genre pictures by the dozen and they would always welcome American actors to take the lead in their films for international appeal - which was good news for Gordon Scott . Plus back in the early sixties, the production of sword and sandal epics (the so-called peplums) was booming in Italy following the success of films like Le Fatiche di Ercole (1958, Pietro Francisci) starring Steve Reeves - and all these films had one thing in common: They starred at least one bodybuilder (like for the Tarzan-films, running through the scenery shirtless looking good was one of the main requirements for peplum actors). Now there was a bill that Gordon Scott could easily fit, he was a moviestar from America, he was a bodybuilder, plus he had the necessary clean-cut heroic features to be convincomg as a larger-than-life hero. True, he wasn't the greatest actor, but compared to the many musclemen who came after him, he didn't fare too bad either.


Scott's first peplum was Romolo e Remo/Duel of the Titans (1961, Sergio Corbucci), an adaptation of the myth of the foundation of Rome in which Gordon Scott plays Remus opposite Steve Reeves' Romulus - allegedly Reeves was supposed to play both roles but declined and instead suggested his personal friend Gordon Scott for the role of Remus [Steve Reeves bio - click here]. The film was one of the more serious peplums of its time inasmuch as it didn't have a superhuman muscleman thrown into some fantasy world saving whatever (and whoever) there is to save, instead it stayed as close as the genre allowed to its source. Nowadays, the film is considered one of the best (if most underappreciated) peplums of the 1960's.

It should also be noted that while Steve Reeves as Romulus is the actual hero of the film, Scott as Romulus' brother Remus who eventually turns evil has the meatier role - and he isn't at all bad as the baddie ...


However, from Remus of the myth, Gordon Scott took a step down for the next character he portrayed: the neo-mythological superhero Maciste.

Maciste was maybe the archetypical muscleman character of Italian cinema history: He was created in 1914 as a supporting character of the silent film Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone), but the character (and Bartalomeo Pagano, the actor who played him) proved to be so successful that he was given his own series that lasted until 1927. In the 1960's, when after the success of the Hercules-series muscleman-epics were on the rise again, someone dusted off the old character and before the decade was half over, a few dozen Maciste-films were made. (Interestingly enough, in the English language versions of his films, Maciste hardly ever goes by his own name but is rechristened Goliath, Samson, Son of Hercules or even Hercules.) The interesting thing about Maciste-films (as opposed to the Hercules-series) was that while Hercules was firmly rooted in Greek mythology, Maciste moved around in time and space with the greatest of ease, his adventures spanning the centuries and taking place in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America alike - which however did not necessarily mean that the films weren't all following pretty much the same formula ...


Gordon Scott played Maciste in two movies, both made in 1961, and while Maciste alla Corte del Gran Khan/Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World/Goliath and the Golden City (Riccardo Freda) took our muscleman hero to China (mainly because the production company Panda Film wanted to make good use of the sets left over from the bigger budget film Marco Polo [1961, Piero Pierotti]) but was otherwise pretty routine stuff, Maciste contro il Vampiro/Goliath and the Vampires (1961, Giacomo Gentilomo) really went over the top when Maciste was pitted against vampires. As could be expected, this blend of horror and sword-and-sandal movie was a piece of trash and could hardly be taken seriously - but for the open-minded and young-at-heart it provided great entertainment as well ...


Over the next 3 years, many more peplums followed, including Una Regina per Cesare/A Queen for Caesar (1962, Piero Pierotti, Victor Tourjansky), a highly fictionalized film about Cleopatra (Pascale Petit) in which Scott merely has a cameo as Julius Caesar, a gladiator film called Il Gladiatore di Roma/Gladiator of Rome (1962, Mario Costa), two appearances as muscleman Goliath, Goliath e la Schiava Ribelle/Goliath and the Rebel Slave/Arrow of the Avenger/The Tyrant of Lydia against the Son of Hercules (1963, Mario Caiano) and L'Eroe di Babilonia/Goliath, King of Slaves/The Beast of Babylon against the Son of Hercules (1963, Siro Marcellini), Ercole contro Molock/The Conquest of Mycene/Hercules against Moloch (1963, Giorgio Ferroni), a film in which despite the title Scott does not play Hercules but a mere mortal who has chosen the Hercules name as an alias, Il Colosso di Roma/Hero of Rome and Coriolano: Eroe senza Patria/Coriolanus, Hero without a Country/Thunder of Battle (both 1964, Giorgio Ferroni).


In 1965, American producers Albert Band and Joseph E.Levine (both of whom had been involved with peplums before) had the idea of producing a Hercules-television series based on the tried and true peplum formula and even involving some talent from Italy. And they chose Gordon Scott - who despite his many appearances in muscleman-epics had never played Hercules before - to play the lead. Unfortunately though - just like the proposed Tarzan-series starring Gordon Scott before it - the Hercules-television series never got past its pilot, Hercules and the Prisoner of Troy/Hercules vs the Sea Monster (1965, Albert Band).

The reason for the pilot to fail might be that by the mid-1960's the market was so (over-)saturated with peplums that even the Italians stopped producing them, and the slightly older (and better) peplums could even be seen on TV by then and were often more exciting than Hercules and the Prisoner of Troy, so why bother watching the TV-series ?


As mentioned above, peplum-production died down in the mid-1960's, and for quite a number of reasons actually: First and foremost, the market was totally over-saturated, which led audiences craving for something else, plus the peplums released in the mid-60's were often done so cheaply they failed to convince even the least disciminating audience, the plots of the films grew more and more repetetive (and more and more stupid), the bodybuilders Italian producers discovered all over the place to play the leads in these films got worse and worse when it came to acting - and the shining, musclebound, often superhuman hero of the peplums suddenly had to make way for another type of hero (and another type of actor and film) who couldn't be more different: the cynical loner-antihero of the Spaghetti Western - remember, Sergio Leone's Per un Pugno di Dollari/A Fistful of Dollars was made in 1964.


With the demise of the peplum many bodybuilder actors vanished from the movie industry just as quickly as they once appeared out of nowhere. 

Gordon Scott fared a little better than his competition: Since he had some modest acting talents, and a certain international reputation, he could/would also be cast in roles that didn't require him to take his shirt off, and he had proven so even while he primarily played in peplums: In Il Figlio dello Sceicco/Son of the Sheik (1962, Mario Costa) he played the title role, he starred in the pirate movie Il Leone di San Marco/The Lion of St.Mark/The Marauder (1963, Luigi Capuano), he could be seen as Zorro in Zorro e i Tre Moschettieri/Zorro and the Three Musketeers (1963, Luigi Capuano), and he played Buffalo Bill in the film Buffalo Bill, l'Eroe del Far West/Buffalo Bill, Hero of the Far West (1965, Mario Costa), a film that was closer to traditional American B-Westerns than the more current Italian variety.


In 1966, Scott would make what would be one of his most interesting films, Gli Uomini dal Passo Pesante/The Tramplers (Albert Band, Mario Sequi), a gritty Western/family drama that also stars Jim Mitchum and Franco Nero and veteran actor Joseph Cotten, who basically steals the show as embittered patriarch.


In 1967, Gordon Scott had two more appearances in James Bond-style espionage flicks, Il Raggio Infernale/Nest of Spies/Danger! Death Ray (Gianfranco Baldanello) and Secretissimo (Fernando Cerchio), two cheaply made and insignificant but at times quite charming actioners - but basically, he had to realize that at age 40, his career as action hero was over, and consequently he retired from the movie industry for good to follow his dreams elsewhere - though it's not quite clear what he did after his film career has come to an end.


In all, Gordon Scott may never have been too great an actor, probably not even the best Tarzan, and more often than not he was chosen for his roles due to his physique rather than his talent ... but at the same time he played in many a fun film a filmfan like me wouldn't want to miss for the world. Sure, none of them was a classic, but then again, one can't watch classics all of the time ...


Update May 2007: It has just been reported that Gordon Scott died on April 30th 2007 from complications following heart surgery. Our condolences are with his family.


© by Mike Haberfelner

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In times of uncertainty of a possible zombie outbreak, a woman has to decide between two men - only one of them's one of the undead.


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