Buster Crabbe was an Olympic swimmer that used his career as an athlete to start up a career in the entertainment industry. Over the course of his acting career, Buster became known for performing in a variety of serials. Some of the iconic roles that Buster played over the course of his career include Tarzan and Buck Rogers. Towards the end of his life, Buster became a successful businessman after the acting gigs that he was being offered started drying up. Join Facts Verse as we explore how Buster Crabbe got his big break in Tarzan the Fearless.
Buster Crabbe Was Born to Play a Jungle Man
Buster Crabbe was born on February 7, 1908, in Oakland, California. The future star’s father was a real-estate broker, and the family moved out to Hawaii while Buster was still young. It was while growing up in Hawaii that Buster became passionate about swimming. He graduated from high school in Hawaii and then returned to California for schooling. For college, Buster attended the University of Southern California and swam on the school’s swim team.
By the time that Buster Crabbe came of age, he was so good at swimming that he was able to become an Olympic swimmer. Buster competed in the Olympics twice. The first time that Buster competed was in the 1928 Summer Olympics, which were held in Amsterdam. Buster won a bronze medal, which was enough to inspire him to compete again. During the 1928 Summer Olympics, Buster was still in college. By the time that he competed in the 1932 Summer Olympics, he had graduated. The 1932 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. Buster was a good deal more successful this time around than during his first competition.
Buster Crabbe ended up winning a gold medal at the 1932 Summer Olympics. This victory made Buster a bit of a celebrity, and it wasn’t hard for him to use this newfound celebrity status to start up a career in Hollywood. It was as a direct result of Buster’s victory at the 1932 Summer Olympics that he was cast as the character of Tarzan in 1933’s Tarzan the Fearless. Tarzan the Fearless was a 12-part film serial, though it wasn’t the first featuring the character of Tarzan. A year prior to the film serial’s release, 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man had featured an actor by the name of Johnny Weissmuller in the role of the titular character. Tarzan the Ape Man was the product of a different studio, and the Buster Crabbe-starring Tarzan the Fearless was an attempt to cash in on that serial’s success.
The Role of Tarzan Got Buster’s Foot in the Door
Like Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer that had won a gold medal. Johnny Weissmuller-starring Tarzan films continued to be produced until the late 1940s, but no more Tarzan films resulted for Buster Crabbe after Tarzan the Fearless. Still, playing the character of Tarzan got Buster’s foot into the door of the entertainment industry, and it would be the start of an impressive career.
Tarzan the Fearless proved that Buster Crabbe knew how to play Tarzan-type characters well. The actor’s work as Tarzan led to Buster playing several more men of the jungle on the big screen. In 1933, Buster played the lead in an adventure film by the name of King of the Jungle. In 1941, he played the lead in another adventure film, this time by the name of Jungle Man. As one might infer from the names, both King of the Jungle and Jungle Man were further attempts by studios to cash in on the success of the character of Tarzan. However, these films came up with their own heroic protagonists for rights reasons.
In 1933’s The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, Buster Crabbe got to grace the screen alongside Golden Age legend Betty Grable. The two would get to star alongside each other on the big screen yet again thanks to 1939’s Million Dollar Legs. In 1936, Universal Pictures cast Buster to play the lead in a film serial. This film serial was based upon the comic-strip character Flash Gordon. Though Buster had essentially lost the role of Tarzan to Johnny Weissmuller, he was able to keep the role of Flash Gordon to himself for several years.
Buster Crabbe appeared in a total of three Flash Gordon film serials for Universal Pictures by the time the 1940s came around. In 1940, Buster was given the chance to perform as a swimmer at the second year of the New York World’s Fair. Johnny Weissmuller had originally been scheduled to perform, but had to drop out. Though Buster and Johnny competed with each other a significant amount over the course of their respective careers in the entertainment industry, they also shared the screen together a couple of times! If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! Also, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!
What Buster Did During World War II
Over the course of the 1940s, Buster Crabbe was a very busy man! He was cast to play the lead in a series of films based upon Western legend Billy the Kid. A staggering 42 of these films were produced from 1940 to 1946, though 23 of them changed the name of the “Billy the Kid” character to “Billy Carson” so as to avoid legal trouble. Buster Crabbe only played the character of Billy in 36 of the 42 films. The original actor to play the character was named Bob Steele.
Buster Crabbe’s time playing Billy the Kid overlapped with World War II. Buster was well into his 30s by the time that America got involved in the war, and the actor was also married with kids. Because of this, he wasn’t drafted to fight overseas. However, he was asked to star in a handful of training films. In addition to Buster Crabbe, these training films also featured Al St. John, who played Buster’s on-screen sidekick throughout the Billy the Kid series of films.
After World War II came to an end, Buster Crabbe continued working in the entertainment industry. In 1946, he was given the chance to grace the screen alongside the aforementioned Johnny Weissmuller. The two had both made a name for themselves as men of the jungle. However, 1946’s Swamp Fire was the first film in which the two jungle men were given the chance to face off! The film proved a success. Buster and Johnny went on to share the screen once again in 1950’s Captive Girl. 1952 saw Buster act in his very last film serial. The film serial in question was 1952’s King of the Conga, in which Buster played yet another jungle man. Over the course of the 1950s, Buster Crabbe would make the transition from film serials to children’s television.
Buster’s Transition to the Small Screen
Early in the 1950s, Buster Crabbe was given his own local children’s show in New York City. The program went by the name of The Buster Crabbe Show. In addition, archival footage of Buster’s time in serials was often used on an NBC children’s series by the name of The Gabby Hayes Show. In 1952, the performer began hosting a television program by the name of Sports Final with Buster Crabbe. After flirting with television success numerous times, Buster Crabbe finally found his calling on the small screen when he was cast to play the titular role in 1955’s Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion. The series lasted from 1955 to 1957 and also featured Buster’s real-life son in a supporting role.
Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion was a modest hit. However, by the time that the series was over, Buster Crabbe was past the peak of his career. One of Buster’s last notable roles was in an episode of the 1979 television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The episode paid homage to Buster’s time portraying the character of Flash Gordon. Another of Buster’s final appearances in the media came as a result of a commercial for Continental Airlines. Like the aforementioned episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, this commercial paid homage to Buster’s time as Flash.
After Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion came to an end, Buster decided that he no longer had a future in the entertainment industry. Instead, he believed that his future was in the world of business. He became the successful owner of a company that built swimming pools, though he still continued to show up on the screen every once in a while during his later years as a businessman. In 1965, Buster was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame for the contributions that he had made to the sport.
Buster Suffered a Personal Tragedy in the 1950s
Buster Crabbe was only married one time over the course of his life, and that marriage lasted for half of a century. Buster’s first and only wife was a woman by the name of Abah Virginia Held, and the two were married from 1933 to 1983. Over the course of their marriage, Buster and Abah had three children. Two of those children were daughters, and they were named Sande and Susan. The third child was a boy, who was named Cullen. Tragically, Sande passed away in 1957 after suffering from anorexia nervosa. Buster Crabbe ended up passing away himself in 1983, though the cause of his death wasn’t an eating disorder. Instead, the thing that did Buster in was a heart attack. At the time of his death, the beloved performer was 75 years old.
Though Buster Crabbe only got the chance to portray the character of Tarzan one single time, it proved to be his big break. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Buster Crabbe’s daughter died as a result of anorexia, and that the Tarzan star was an Olympic gold-medal winner? Comment down below!