Taking a short break from Lou’s fishing trips, I will now tell of his brush with fame as the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales of Tarzan. By October of 1936, Sol Lesser, “a one-armed movie factory releasing through 20th Century-Fox,” had acquired the world film rights to future Tarzan productions. He planned on releasing a series of movies that included “Tarzan’s Prisoner,” “Tarzan’s Folly,” “Tarzan’s Secret,” “Tarzan’s Revenge” and “Tarzan’s Last Call.” His problem was that previous actors who had portrayed the Ape Man were unavailable. Johnny Weissmuller, who had appeared in a dozen Tarzan dramas, was under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Buster Crabbe, another Tarzan actor, was off doing horse operas for Paramount. Both Weissmuller and Crabbe had been world champion swimmers, so Sol Lesser trained his eye on athletes, focusing on the football and baseball fields.
When Lesser spotted film of Lou Gehrig waving his bat and yelling at the Giants in the last game of the World Series, he thought the American League MVP might make a perfect Tarzan. Lou’s massive chest and slightly-bowed legs (giving him a simian appearance) seemed an ideal replacement for the two swimmers. He sent agents to New York with orders to obtain measurements of Lou’s chest, biceps and legs, along with recordings of his voice. One studio man declared this was necessary since they had never seen him without his baseball pants and shirt. If these specifications checked out, they were to wave a contract under the nose of Christy Walsh, Lou’s own agent.
As Gehrig and Walsh prepared for the long train ride to Hollywood, reporters asked if he were afraid of animals. His response was typical Lou: “No! At least I am not afraid of tigers. I have faced many of them in twelve years of baseball. But those lions, well, we will have to wait and see.” Photos of Lou in nothing but a leopard-skin cloth were expressed to the West Coast, the blushing ballplayer admitting, “I guess the public is entitled to a look at my body.” When asked how he planned to portray a new Tarzan, Lou smiled and offered a suggestion, “Maybe they will have an ape slinging coconuts at me and give me an old-fashioned war club to belt them back.”
When New York newsmen noted previous Tarzan stars had been swimmers, they inquired if he could swim. Lou replied, “Sure.” When asked which swimming stroke he preferred, Lou said simply, “Anything that will keep me up!” A female star would have to portray Jane, so someone inquired who he would like as a leading lady. Thinking of Eleanor, he responded diplomatically, “I could act much better with my wife in my arms.” When pressed, Lou admitted that he was a big fan of Irene Dunn. Yet another journalist yelled out, “Do you think you have as much sex appeal as Johnny Weissmuller?” Embarrassed by the question, Lou said simply, “I will leave that up to you fellows and the ladies, if I get the chance,” then ended the interview and headed for the door.