CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Even Tarzan found it impossible to swing his way through the snow-blanketed mountains of West Virginia on Tuesday in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's stormy passage through the Appalachians.
Actor Denny Miller, who played the title role in MGM's "Tarzan, the Ape Man" in 1959, was among hundreds of travelers waiting out the storm in Charleston Monday night and Tuesday, until highway conditions improved.
In addition to his role as Tarzan, Miller appeared in 110 episodes of the television western "Wagon Train," in which he portrayed scout Duke Shannon, and was a character actor in scores of other television shows, ranging from "Hawaii Five-0" to "Gilligan's Island," and 20 movies. He has also appeared in more than 200 commercials, including 14 years in a yellow slicker as the Gorton's seafood fisherman.
"I thought about getting some tire chains and putting them on, but there's just not enough room for them in the wheel wells of my Prius," said Miller, who spent Monday night and part of Tuesday in a motel off the Kanawha City exit of the West Virginia Turnpike. "We saw the signs for Bob Evans and the Cracker Barrel and all the motels and decided this was the place to stop."
Miller and his wife, Nancy, were en route to a Tarzan Centennial Conference at Bridgewater College, in Bridgewater, Va., from a similar event in Louisville, Ky., when they learned about heavy snow awaiting them in the Beckley area, and decided to let discretion be the better part of valor.
"The publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs' story 'Tarzan of the Apes' in All-Story magazine back in 1912 started it all," said Miller, who is scheduled to be a guest speaker, along with John Ralston Burroughs, the author's grandson, at the Bridgewater College event, which starts Thursday.
"Over the years, 22 guys have played Tarzan in a total of 54 movies," Miller said. "I was Tarzan No. 12, and I'm now the oldest living Tarzan actor."
Miller came by his Tarzan role, and his acting career, by accident.
Both he and his younger brother, Kent, played basketball at UCLA under coach John Wooden. One summer during his collegiate career, Miller and some other UCLA athletes were offered jobs as furniture movers. One day, while loading office furniture into a truck in Hollywood, "a guy yelled, 'Hey, you!' at me from a parked car," Miller said. "I walked over to him, and he asked to see my hairline. I thought he may have been looney-tunes, but I brushed the hair out of my face and said, 'How's that?' The guy handed me a card that said, 'Talent Scout,' told me to call him, and drove off."
Miller put the card in his sock drawer and forgot about the incident until his boss at the furniture company, who had been receiving repeated calls from the talent scout, ordered him to call the agent back.
"He wanted me to come in for a screen test," he said. "It turned out to be one that didn't require memorizing a scene -- all I had to do was answer such stupefying questions as 'How old are you?' and 'Where do you live?' while on camera."
Miller apparently answered the questions correctly. When the test was over, he was offered a seven-year deal as a studio contract actor.
"I'd never even thought about acting -- I was going to be a basketball coach," he said. "It was hard to explain my change in career plans -- and my new contract with a major studio -- to the theater arts majors in my fraternity house."