Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Great TV Episodes: The Deadly Silence

TARZAN
“The Deadly Silence”
October 28 & November 4, 1966
NBC
Writer: Lee Erwin and Jack H. Robinson (Part I); John Considine and Tim Considine (Part II)
Director: Robert L. Friend (Part I); Lawrence Dobkin (Part II)

Sy Weintraub deserves credit for bringing adults back to Tarzan.

Before the Production Code went into effect, Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan were a Tarzan and Jane that you knew were definitely getting it on when MGM’s cameras were pointed the other way. They steamed up the screen in TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932) and the way-ahead-of-its-time TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1933), films that poured on as much sex and sadism as the studio thought it could get by with.

But as time went by, and MGM sold off the cinema rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories and characters to RKO, Tarzan became just another matinee hero like Roy Rogers and Flash Gordon, catering to kiddie audiences that enjoyed the buffoonish comic relief of Cheeta the chimp as much as the cheap sets, stock villains, and serial-type action. Always a consistent moneymaker, the Tarzan series even survived the loss of Weissmuller, who jumped to Columbia to make Jungle Jim programmers. Lex Barker took over as the Jungle King in five tepid adventures, and then hotel lifeguard Gordon Scott, a bodybuilder with no acting credits, swung into Barker’s loincloth for a couple more.

Even though Tarzan movies had become more juvenile, some of them were still entertaining, since the character and premise are so strong, it’s difficult to completely mess it up. But the films were becoming repetitive, and it seemed that something needed to be done to get audiences thrilled again about seeing Tarzan on the big screen.

Sy Weintraub had the answer. When he bought the screen rights from Sol Lesser, he seized on the idea of making Tarzan for mature audiences again. The result was 1959’s TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE, a tough, intelligent action picture for adults pitting a nasty gang of diamond thieves, including Anthony Quayle and a pre-007 Sean Connery, against Tarzan, still played by Scott, who was now allowed to be the silver screen’s first fully articulate Tarzan. No more “Me Tarzan.” Burroughs’ original concept of an Ape Man who was educated in civilization was finally being played on film.

Scott next starred in another terrific adventure, TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, before going to Europe to make movies. Legendary stuntman Jock Mahoney, who played Yancy Derringer on television, as well as the main heavy in TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, was tagged by Weintraub to play a slightly older and leaner King of the Jungle in two films.

Then television came calling. Weintraub served as executive producer of TARZAN, which premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966 (the same night as STAR TREK). His new leading man was Ron Ely, a lanky Texan who had bounced around television for years, including the co-lead in the shortlived THE AQUANAUTS. Handsome, athletic, and brave enough to tackle most of his own stunts, Ely was a natural Tarzan, and his square-jawed likeability and sense of fair play made him popular with both kids and adults.

Facing tough competition on Friday night against THE WILD WILD WEST on CBS and THE GREEN HORNET on ABC—both fantasy series competing for the same young viewers—TARZAN went to South America in search of natural production values no other network series could equal (except I SPY, which filmed all over the world). Weintraub took Ely and his crew to Brazil, where he could capture jungle terrain, roaring rivers, waterfalls, and animal life that couldn’t be duplicated on a Burbank backlot.

Unfortunately, after five months of production in Brazil, TARZAN could only complete five one-hour episodes, thanks to torrential rains that interrupted filming, crude shooting conditions, and Ely’s penchant to get hurt on the job while doing stunts (he performed one episode wearing a sling after he fell several feet from a swinging vine—footage captured on-camera and used in the episode).

TARZAN relocated to Mexico with Leon Benson (SEA HUNT) replacing Jon Epstein (THE RAT PATROL) and Don Brinkley (MEDICAL CENTER) as producer. Not only did Mexico offer similar terrain as Brazil, but the move also allowed TARZAN to film interiors at Churubusco Studios to help speed production along. Benson produced only five episodes there, but one happened to be a two-parter that also provided Ely with perhaps his finest hour(s) as Tarzan.

Aired early in TARZAN’s first season, “The Deadly Silence” benefits mightily from a terrific guest cast, particularly none other than Jock Mahoney, who had already appeared in one of the Brazil episodes, as one of the jungle king’s most intimidating and sadistic rivals. Lee Erwin (FLIPPER) and Jack H. Robinson (HOGAN’S HEROES) wrote Part I, which plops Mahoney’s The Colonel into an African village that he holds in sway with his bullwhip and total lack of morality. The Colonel and his two men storm into villages and demand all their grain and cattle. Communities that don’t pay up are burned to the ground. By the time Tarzan catches up to the Colonel, he is holding hostage a village led by Metusa (Robert DoQui, later in NASHVILLE, COFFY, and ROBOCOP), who fears the Colonel will do to his people what he has already done to Metusa’s father and brother. Despite pleas from his wife Ruana (Nichelle Nichols, who filmed this before joining the cast of STAR TREK as Lieutenant Uhura) and from Tarzan, Metusa refuses to fight back against the Colonel.

Even though the Colonel is only one man, Mahoney’s performance sells the idea that an entire tribe would be hesitant to rise up against him. A veteran of two wars who claims to know “a thousand ways to kill a man,” including a two-finger jab that supposedly brought down a sumo wrestler, the Colonel is a sadist and a sociopath, played by Mahoney without a hint of camp. Dressed in a blue suit with a red shirt collar that makes him stand out among the browns and the greens of Mexico, Mahoney was one of the few actors doing television at the time who could conceivably be a physical match for Ron Ely, who never appeared wearing anything more than a tiny loincloth.

Tarzan does manage to capture the Colonel after a fracas decently directed by Robert L. Friend (RAWHIDE), but victory is shortlived after the killer escapes on his way to jail with the aid of Sgt. Marshak, who served under the Colonel in wartime and remains loyal to him. Marshak is another casting coup: the great Woody Strode, who had not only guest-starred in a previous TARZAN episode, but played a memorable villain opposite Mahoney in the fun TARZAN’S THREE CHALLENGES. So Weintraub and Benson not only assembled two great guest stars in Strode and Mahoney, but also men with ties to the Tarzan franchise.

Part I ends on an anxious cliffhanger with Tarzan left deaf after being bombarded while underwater by grenades tossed by the Colonel and Marshak. The scene where Tarzan desperately claps his hands together and is unable to hear the sound is played by Ely with the perfect level of panic and fear—two emotions we aren’t accustomed to seeing in our jungle king, not to mention the lead in a 1960s action/adventure TV show. Some scenes are sloppily directed by Friend—for instance, the noticeably wobbly rubber spear tips and explosions that blow several inches away from where the grenades are tossed—but he and Ely nail this one.

It’s unusual for each half of a two-parter to carry different writer and director credits, but Lawrence Dobkin (STAR TREK’s “Charlie X”), a busy actor as well as director, sat in Friend’s chair for “The Deadly Silence, Part II.” Interestingly, the teleplay is credited to brothers John and Tim Considine, both better known as actors who had previously penned a script for COMBAT! and two for MY THREE SONS, on which younger brother Tim was starring as Fred MacMurray’s oldest son Mike Douglas.

Part II is basically a riff on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME with the Colonel, Marshak, and a second confederate named Chico (Gregory Acosta) chasing a hearing-impaired Tarzan through the jungle. Sparks fly among them after Chico is killed in quicksand and the Colonel orders a hesitant Marshak to leave behind Jai (Manuel Padilla Jr.), Tarzan’s young friend who is wounded by a ricocheting bullet. Marshak, who has followed the Colonel unblinkingly through one war and who-knows-how-many killings, feels a tinge of conscience about leaving an unconscious Jai to be eaten by animals, but reluctantly acquiesces to the Colonel’s commands.

Dobkin was a good choice to handle an episode that’s mostly action, and he really earned his stripes with a knockdown dragout fight between Mahoney and Strode, two of the most physical actors ever to work in Hollywood. Comfortable with one another from their on-screen skirmishes in TARZAN’S THREE CHALLENGES, the two men really go at it, though it is something of a disappointment that Tarzan isn’t allowed to finish off the villain himself.

More than three years later, audiences got the chance to pay admission to see the episode again when National General Pictures released TARZAN’S DEADLY SILENCE to theaters with a G rating—a not-uncommon practice of the day. DEADLY SILENCE was one of four Tarzan “features” to star Ely, although I believe only DEADLY SILENCE and TARZAN’S JUNGLE REBELLION (comprised of the two-part episode “The Blue Stone of Heaven”) played in American theaters.

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2 comments:

Grant said...

I haven't seen this show in forever, but I know it had a lot going for it.

I'm curious about that TV Guide blurb, "ENTER TARZAN (GROAN)." Is the article inside a pretty "scathing" one? If so, the show didn't deserve it.

thingmaker said...

Thanks. You reminded me of this show and I did remember the "Deadly Silence" 2-parter as pretty good.
I scanned the titles and tried "The Ultimate Duel" which turned out to have Henry Silva as a... misguided... scientist with a super computer.
Episode had a lot of rather cool action, Tarzan riding a "zebra" and absolutely no Jai or Cheeta!
It's hard to be more than luke-warm about this series if you are a fan of the ERB novels, but decent portrayals of Tarzan on film... Rare.
I will be poking around watching more episodes and it's all thanks to you.