An author recalls the influence of movie hunks and a family mystery.
Those lips, those eyes, those thighs. And let’s face it — I’d like to face it — that loincloth. Yes, I’m talking about Tarzan of the movies, but not just any old Tarzan. Today we’re gathered to celebrate Mike Henry (pictured), the hunkiest and hairiest slab of beefcake to ever play Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vine-swinging ape man. The 13th actor to grease up as Tarzan, he’s the one who swung straight off the screen and into my heart. Or at least my loins, which felt “funny down there” whenever I looked at him.
I was 9 years old.
I’m thinking about Mike Henry and that first flush of — love? lust? — because he was just on Turner Classic Movies the other day, in what I consider his greatest work: Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, the first of the three Tarzan movies he would make from 1966 to 1968. (For just a second, I thought, Wow! TCM is celebrating Pride with a Mike Henry festival! Yay!) All these years later, there he was, my Proustian madeleine with a monkey, squeezed into to the tightest 1960s suit I’ve ever seen. I didn’t need a loincloth to know it was my Mike; I’d recognize that butt and those thighs anywhere, even covered in caramel-colored worsted, as they dodged bullets, raced up steps in a bullfighting arena, and pushed a giant replica of a Coke bottle (I’m not kidding) down on the villain. Movement was Mike’s strong suit; words were not. This Tarzan spoke in full sentences — something about working with the Mexican government — although not very convincingly. But who cared when the words were coming from the general area of a lantern jaw so chiseled it could have cut sheet metal?
Like so many ’60s drive-in Adonises, Mike Henry was plucked from the football field and plopped down on the back lot. A former NFL linebacker (whatever that is), he was huge — 6 foot 3 and all muscle. His chest hair alone must have weighed a few pounds. Dark, deep-set eyes, dark hair Brylcreemed to his skull, shoulders like a Frigidaire. You can have your Ron Ely, your Christopher Lambert and Miles O’Keeffe, your lithe blond pretty boys like Travis Fimmel, other model-slash-actors who’ve taken up the jungle call in more recent incarnations. My Tarzan was a man. My “type” before I discovered I had a type.
Did I mention I was 9 years old?
Was it the character of Tarzan I was attracted to: a muscular “older man,” holding a jungle boy’s hand and leading the way? Could I be that boy, little Mowgli to his Big Mike? Just the two of us, camping out, making fires, swimming in the lagoon … without Jane? I got a library book featuring all the movie Tarzans — Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney, Johnny Weissmuller — but no, it was just Mike that got me going.
Soon I started paying attention to all the older, shirtless men who showed up every Saturday afternoon at the Ritz. (On-screen, I mean.) Tarzan soon became the “gateway” drug that led to James Bond, at least as embodied by Sean Connery. Are we sensing a theme here? Hairy chests, chiseled jaws, dark good looks, semi-clothed. (Sean Connery in Darby O’Gill and the Little People just didn’t cut it.) Often in danger but using their quick wits and their quadricep, to save themselves and the world. I watched Goldfinger and Dr. No (which I started calling Dr. Yes!) time and again, reveling in every frame. I didn’t want to be James Bond any more than I wanted to be Tarzan, but I definitely wanted to be one of the Bond girls. Even Lotte Lenya. Anything to be in physical contact with him.
Every night, after I fed the goldfish I’d named Pussy Galore and Oddjob, I prayed that I would dream about Sean Connery. I prayed that he would kiss me and let me give him a massage. (Seems like he was always getting massages, when not evading certain death.) After putting my little palms together in prayer, I would then put them inside my pajama top, to turn myself into one of the busty women that Bond so often had to rescue.
That was it, I realized; the common denominator — besides the muscles and the hair. I wanted Mike Henry or Sean Connery to rescue me. To save me. I wanted them to be my Daddy, long before the term “Daddy” had been invented. Fathers, yes. Daddies, no.
Nine. Years. Old.
I needed to be rescued.
In that year of living dangerously, of falling in love with matinee idols (i.e., any responsible adult) and hiding out in the dark of a movie theater, my mother had died. Mysteriously and suddenly. No one would tell me how. Did she kill herself (as the whispers around me suggested) or was she murdered — by my very own father (as other family whispers would later make me think)? I thought that maybe, if I played secret agent like James Bond, I could find out. He used all sorts of spy gadgets to catch people, so I asked for and actually got a Topper Toys Secret Sam attaché case for my birthday. Embedded in the cheap cardboard and plastic was a hidden camera, so I used that to take secret photos of my father and his new girlfriend, Rita, to catch them in the act. But the act of what: conspiring to kill my mother so they could be together? That had already happened.
In some of the black-and-white photos (which I actually took to be developed at the local drugstore), I could almost imagine my father looked like Sean Connery. He had a permanent 5 o’clock shadow, like Sean; he had the same sort of folds of skin on his cheeks; he had a “Yankee” accent from Vermont that I could close my eyes and pretend was the Scottish burr that Sean had. And when I got close enough, I could frequently smell the alcohol on my father’s breath. Of course, I didn’t know what Sean Connery actually smelled like, but I could imagine, after these martinis that were shaken, not stirred. On Sean, it was sexy. On my father, it was just sad, the symbol of a life that hadn’t turned out the way he wanted.
I wouldn’t get the answers I needed about my mother’s death until my adult years, no matter how much I kept looking as a kid. I continued going to the movies, week after week, thinking some ’60s detective like Matt Helm or Flint would show me what I needed to do. Hoping some man on the screen would take me away to a happier place. I guess they did, for two hours at a time, every Saturday afternoon. I kept going back to see the “trilogy” of Mike Henry’s Tarzan movies, finishing up with Tarzan and the Great River and Tarzan and the Jungle Boy, each one worse than the last. I read that Mike Henry had gotten bit on the chin by Dinky the Chimp during filming and suffered from “monkey fever delirium” for three weeks; he sued the production company, and that’s why he never made another Tarzan movie. My immediate thought is that I could have nursed him back to health. I was 11 by then.
My father is long gone, but almost unbelievably, Mike Henry is still with us, at age 83. Mike, if you’re reading, give me a call. I’m old now too, but still interested.
Kim Powers, senior writer for ABC’s 20/20, is a two-time Emmy winner and author of the novels Capote in Kansas and Dig Two Graves as well as the memoir The History of Swimming. His latest novel, the heavily autobiographical coming-of-age story Rules for Being Dead, comes out August 4.