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Sandy halts Tarzan actor’s cross-country swing in Charleston

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."

While Miller is sometimes credited as the first blond Tarzan, he maintains that actor Buster Crabbe, "who was kind of blond," deserves that honor.

To land his role as Lord of the Jungle, Miller had to pass a second screen test, this one involving a recitation of the 23rd Psalm.

"I think I ended up saying fewer words in the movie," he said. "'Ungawa' seems to cover a lot of things in Tarzan's world. But the movie was so much fun. It was like being in a circus. I got to ride elephants and play with chimps and swing from vines."

One day while shooting the jungle movie, "a set of those big studio doors swung open and a stretch limousine comes up to the set," he recalled. "It was [Jordan's] King Hussein, who loved the Tarzan films and books. We got his autograph."

While Miller had the loincloth-friendly athletic looks and the vine-swinging abilities of other cinematic Tarzans, "I just couldn't do the call," he said. "I had to do it when we were filming, but someone else's voice was dubbed in. My Tarzan yell sounded like a wounded yak."

Miller said his favorite movie experience took place while filming "The Party" with Peter Sellers in 1968, under the direction of Blake Edwards.

"I played the role of Wyoming Bill Kelso, the biggest jerk of a TV star in history," he said. "It was a fun role, but the best part was getting to work with a comic genius like Peter Sellers. Most of the movie was unscripted, and Blake Edwards pointed to Sellers and told the rest of us to follow that guy and see where it took us. We did just that for the 12 best weeks in my acting career."

Miller's most recent movie role was as a miner in "Hell to Pay," a 2005 western featuring Lee Majors, James Drury and Stella Stevens and a host of other veterans of the oater genre.

"These days, I'm trying to use Tarzan as a platform for promoting exercise and fitness," said Miller, who can still fit into the loincloth he kept from his stint as Lord of the Jungle. "There are something like 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring each day, and more than half of them don't exercise."

A physical education major whose physician father served on the President's Advisory Committee on Youth Fitness during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Miller is the author of several fitness books, including "Toxic Waist? Getting to Know Sweat," and "Me Tarzan, You Train -- Without Pain!"

Miller's self-deprecating humor comes through in a memoir of his career as a character actor. It's title?

"Didn't You Used to be What's His Name?"

In addition to presentations by Miller, Bridgewater College's Tarzan Centennial Conference will include a screening of the remastered 1918 film "Tarzan of the Apes," with live musical accompaniment, and a live production of Burroughs' only stage play, "You Lucky Girl."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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