Olympics to Hollywood: Buster Crabbe

Johnny Weissmuller wasn’t the only swimming Olympian to play Tarzan. There was also Clarence “Buster” Crabbe.

Crabbe and Weissmuller knew each other before their Hollywood days and were competitive.

Crabbe developed his swimming (and surfing) prowess while growing up on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. His athleticism didn’t stop there. He was even the light-heavyweight boxing champion at the University of Hawaii, according to his Los Angeles Times 1983 obituary.

Buster Crabbe at the 1932 Olympics

Buster Crabbe at the 1932 Olympics

Crabbed competed on the United States Olympic team with Weissmuller at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.  Crabbe won a bronze medal for the men’s 1500 meter freestyle.

But in 1932 Crabbe’s luck changed. He competed again at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and this time won a gold medal for the men’s 400 meter freestyle.

“I beat ( France’s Jean Taris) by one-tenth of a second,” he said in a 1977 interview cited in his 1983 obituary. “That one-tenth of a second changed my life. It was then they (Hollywood scouts) discovered latent histrionic abilities in me.”

A talent scout for Paramount Pictures picked 40 of the athletes at the 1932 Los Angeles games for screen tests, and Crabbe was the one signed to a contract. Crabbe perused an acting career rather than becoming a lawyer as he originally planned, according to his 1983 obituary.

Outside of the Olympics, he reaped 16 world and 35 national swimming records, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

His first role was a Tarzan-like role as Kaspa the Lion Man in “King of the Jungle” (1933).

Crabbe in "Tarzan the Fearless" (1933)

Crabbe in “Tarzan the Fearless” (1933)

“Just before the Olympics we went down to be tested,” Crabbe said. “They had us all throw a spear and pick up a paper-mache rock. About three days after the Olympics they called me back. I finally got the part. It paid $100 a week, which was a lot more than I was making at the clothing store.”

Crabbe’s early roles were uncredited and was Joel McCrea’s student double in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932).

While Crabbe played Tarzan, it was a 12-chapter serial format, rather than full-length feature films like Johnny Weissmuller. The serials were later edited by producer Sol Lesser into the 1933 feature film “Tarzan the Fearless.”

In total, Crabbe acted in approximately 180 film and TV roles from 1932 to 1982. He played recurring roles as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Billy the Kid, and rancher Billy Carson. Crabbe was also on the TV series “Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion” as Capt. Michael Gallant from 1955 to 1957.

Crabbe in a western role

Crabbe in a western role

Though he had a long acting career, Crabbe didn’t take himself very seriously. As the “King of Serials,” he said he only made one A-movie and the “rest falling at least one letter lower in the alphabet.”

“Some say, that my acting rose to the point of incompetence and then leveled off,” he’s quoted in his Los Angeles Times obituary.

Though retired from sports, physical fitness was still important to him. At age 72 in 1980, he said he still swam two miles every day, partly to help with arthritis, according to a May 8, 1980, Associated Press Article “Buster Crabbe still fit at 72.”

Crabbe was once again involved in the Olympics. He traveled lecturing on physical fitness to raise support for the upcoming 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and served on the organizing committee for the upcoming summer games. However, he passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 1983 prior to the 1984 Olympic games.

Don’t miss our other Olympic spotlights:

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com