Ron Ely's tall frame and athletic build won him the title role NBC’s 1966 Tarzan series. While that show is fondly remembered, Ely is perhaps even better known as the star of the 1975 film Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze.
In addition to a number of other action/adventure titles, both the film and the television series are available through the Warner Archive, the manufacture-on-demand service. In celebration, Spinoff Online had the opportunity to speak with Ely during WonderCon Anaheim. The actor discussed the joys and disappointments of the cult classics, nearly breaking his neck on the set of Tarzan and his brief brush with the Man of Steel.
Doc Savage was a labor of love for producer George Pal, who also adapted The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. He secured the rights years before production in the hopes of creating a James Bond-style franchise with the pulp hero. The eventual film was directed by Michael Anderson, who helmed the Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days.
Asked what Pal saw in the character, Ely said, "He is a unique man who had abilities and talents with a supporting group." In Doc Savage's adventures, he is assisted by the Fabulous Five, a team with various skills and backgrounds. "He is a leader who leads from the front," the actor continued. "He didn't just assign, he leads the charge."
Ely recalls Pal as a "sweet, wonderful man" who eventually apologized when the final film didn’t meet their original vision. "It became cartoonish," the actor said. "It lost the fabric between Doc and the Fabulous Five." According to Ely, most of Doc's adventure scenes are played straight, but Anderson wanted to inject a tongue-in-cheek quality, which manifested mostly in the casting of the Five and the tone of their scenes.
He also noted a change in studio management occurred as the film went into post-production, and the money earmarked for special effects and music evaporated. The final film features special effects that pale in comparison to Pal's earlier groundbreaking work. The music relied heavily on John Philip Sousa compositions that often clashed with the on-screen material.
"[Pal] was heartbroken," Ely said.
Over the decades, the film attained a cult following because of, and in spite of, its campy qualities. Still, Ely remains proud of Doc Savage. "It's really fun, [but] it has some faults," he said.
In addition to portraying the Man of Bronze, Ely worked out many of his fights with stunt coordinator Dar Robinson and double Tony Epper. The climatic fight aboard the boat was, according to the actor, intended to show that Doc can always counter an attacker's movement and style. The fight shifts between several different fighting disciplines, but the rhythm he and Robinson envisioned was lost in the final film. He declined an opportunity to re-cut the scene at the time and wishes the raw footage could be found and a new edit compiled.
Known for doing most of his own stunts, having a double on the film was a new experience for Ely. In fact, it was mandated. "They wouldn't insure me unless I had a committed double," he recalled. "I didn't know I was doing anything extreme until Doc Savage." His days on the Tarzan TV series made him a risky prospect for Lloyds of London, who often insured productions against the actor's injuries.
Ely recalled one such injury while working on Tarzan. Shooting scenes of the Lord of the Jungle swinging across the vines one afternoon, the actor and director discussed finishing for the day. Once the director called a wrap, one of the effects people began securing the set for the next day. "He took the vine and tired it around the tree," Ely said. At the last minute, the director decided to shoot one more take, asking the actor to spin as he swung. "When I flew, [the vine] didn't go and it flipped me."
"I fell a long way. I busted up my shoulder and my wrist ... my neck, my head ... and that's why I'm a little weird today," he joked. At midnight, while waiting for surgery, the director, producers and Ely discussed what to do with the footage. The team added a scene of the episode's bad guy shooting at Tarzan.
The shots would appear in subsequent episodes, but Ely noted that "it was so real, it looked fake."
Playing these larger-than-life characters also had a curious off-screen effect on the actor. One night after a long day shooting Tarzan, Ely received a call from the hotel lobby; a crewmember needed to speak with him immediately. "The cat is loose!" cried the crewman. Confused, Ely learned the production's leopard broke free from its pen. Eventually, the pair went back to the set and helped the overnight security wrangle the confused creature. He found the leopard just as confused as the rest of the crew. He took the animal by the chain and led it back to the pen. "They believed I'm Tarzan," he laughed. "I didn't dare fail from that point on. I couldn't afford to fall in front of them!"
Later in his career, Ely played a retired Man of Steel in an episode of the 1990s Superboy TV series. He found the role interesting, as it was more an "elder statesman" part than he-man. He also appreciated the care actor Gerard Christopher brought to the younger Superman.
Finally, asked whom he might cast as Doc Savage today, Ely said, "I haven't seen him yet." To get it right, he thinks a modern actor would have to be "serious, but not [dour] ... more cerebral than physical."
Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, Tarzan Season 1: Part 1 and Tarzan Season 1, Part 2 are available from the Warner Archive.