BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Crocodiles. Yes, it was definitely the crocodiles that scared him the most, says Herman Brix, one of the few "Tarzans" approved by the legend's creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs. "There was only a single sharpshooter up in the trees to keep the croc away from me," the actor remembers with chilling clarity even after all these years.
Mr. Brix, who also worked under the name Bruce Bennett, was a silver medalist in the shot put at the 1928 Olympic Games. When he was tapped in 1935 to play Tarzan, the nobleman raised in the jungle, it was for a particular reason, he says.
"Burroughs was very concerned that Hollywood only wanted the jungle man," he says.
Brix says the author had bigger issues on his mind with the character. He wanted to make a movie that would show the whole Tarzan. "This was a man who had mastered both the jungle and civilization. It was a very compelling idea for its time," he says thoughtfully as he enjoys a large Cobb salad sandwich during an interview last week. "And it still is today."
According to the Edgar Rice Burroughs Bibliograph Society, the part of Tarzan requires a complete performer who has the physique of someone raised in the wild and the nobility of Lord Greystoke, Tarzan's alter ego. The society says Brix was that complete man, the "most fearless, educated, and best actor who ever portrayed Tarzan."
Today, Brix. who has already watched his grandchildren go to college, says that the world in which he thrived as an athlete and worked as an actor is nearly gone. "The Olympics of my day were 100 percent amateur, nobody ever made any money at all," he says.
While he doesn't blame the individual athletes who seek funding to continue training, he says "today, especially with pros competing, [the Olympics are] nothing more than an extension of professional sports, with everybody looking for a way to make money."
The multifaceted actor who often helped dress sets and hang lights in his early movies says that group success was paramount to the athletes of his day.
"We all watched each other's events and cheered each other on," he says. He recalls the day he lost the gold to a teammate from the Midwest.
"He was a farm boy, not very sophisticated, and he would get nervous. I told him to imagine he was back on his farm in Kansas and that he was showing his mom and dad what he could do. Darned if he didn't throw that gold medal right out from under me," he says with a laugh.
Hollywood was not unlike the world he knew as an Olympic competitor, he says, with everyone pitching in to make things work. There was no special-effects crew or high-tech equipment, he says, recalling an elaborate system of mirrors they had to erect to bring sunlight into a long, dark tunnel in Guatemala they wanted to shoot in.
There were no stunt doubles, either. One of the most difficult stunts he ever tried required him to jump off a cliff into a five-foot-wide pool below.
The stunt involved rescuing a damsel in distress, and, being a Tarzan movie, he had to perform the deed by swinging down on a jungle vine. Before Brix tried it himself, the crew attached a 200-pound weight to a rope and let it swing. They plotted the pool underneath the end of the rope's arc.
The only problem, Brix says, was once he got into the act, he couldn't resist the flourishes that made Tarzan who he was.
"I ran for the rope, which of course gave it an extra push. I swung way too far out and dropped way beyond the pool." He rubs his legs with a rueful laugh, and says, "I still have the scars from that fall...."
Today, of course, that sort of risk by the lead performer would be unthinkable. "The insurance company would never allow it," he says. And the film unions would never allow an actor to help with lights or scenery.
"It's all so tightly regulated, so professional and commercial now," he sighs, remembering his wild days of wrestling lions and grappling with live boa constrictors in the depths of a Guatemalan jungle.
Certainly this man who portrayed the English child raised by apes learned something from inhabiting a man who tamed the animal within.
*Herman Brix starred in two Tarzan films: 'The New Adventures of Tarzan,' (1935) and its sequel, 'Tarzan and the Green Goddess' (1938). An animated Disney film version of the Tarzan legend opens today in theaters.