Since Edgar Rice Burroughs first created him for a pulp magazine in 1912, Tarzan has always been a hot property in the world of entertainment. By the 1960’s, this mighty jungle warrior had conquered books, magazines, radio, comic strips, comic books, and (of course) the cinema: all that was left to conquer was the world of television. Tarzan accomplished this feat in 1966 when an hour-long adventure show based on his exploits debuted on NBC.
The Tarzan television series portrayed the character in a new light. Unlike his movie incarnations, this Tarzan did not have the Cro-Magnon “me Tarzan, you Jane” speech style. In fact, there was no Jane at all, and no discovery of Tarzan deep in the jungle. Instead, the series took place after Tarzan had been rescued from the wild and had returned home to England. The series began with Lord Greystoke (a.k.a. Tarzan) deciding to return to the jungle after finishing school. With the help of his pet monkey Cheetah and an orphan boy named Jai, Tarzan took back his mantle as king and protector of the jungle.
Every week, Tarzan and his allies faced various threats from outsiders threatening Greystoke’s adopted land. The usual culprits were animal poachers and renegades either trying to steal something from the jungle or to use it as a hiding place. If any other threats were needed, viewers could count on the occasional “animal on the loose” plot, featuring a deadly creature like a leopard or a puma. These threats were pretty imposing, but Tarzan managed to keep them all in check as he swung from vine to vine and dispensed his unique brand of jungle justice.
Adding to the fun of these action scenes was the fact that lead actor Ron Ely did the majority of his own stunts. It was a costly choice, since Ely suffered frequent minor injuries—in fact, he racked up a grand total of 17 injuries in the first season alone. Just the same, his presence in the action scenes added a unique, realistic touch. The only thing Ely didn’t lend to his role as Tarzan was the famous ‘Tarzan yell’: in place of his voice, the producers dubbed in a recording of the classic Johnny Weissmuller undulating call.
Tarzan did quite well when it debuted in 1966. In fact, its success led to an interesting celebrity cameo in the show’s second season when The Supremes guest-starred as a trio of missionary nuns (!). The series officially ended after its second season in 1968, but was resurrected in rerun form on CBS during the summer of 1969. Since then, it has been a perennial favorite in syndication, as the once and future Jungle King continues to add new cartoons and films to his mighty trophy case.
USA / NBC / x50 minute episodes / Broadcast September 1966 – September 1968
Ron Ely as Tarzan
Manuel Padilla Jr. as Jai