Big Man, Big Credentials
As World War I was coming to a close, a giant of a young man was graduating from tiny Freedom High School in Owen County. His name was James Pierce, but his classmates called him “Babe.” Unfortunately, very little is known about this portion of Pierce’s life, but it is known that he played basketball in high school. Freedom participated in the 1916 sectional at Bedford where they were defeated by Linton 43-21. IN 1917, Freedom beat Mitchell in the first round of the Bloomington sectional, then lost to Salem in the semifinals. Freedom’s coach in Pierce’s junior year (1916) was Q. Austin East, who went on to become the district court judge in Monroe County. East’s brother Ed was a famous radio entertainer, comedian and actor in the 30’s and 40’s, the first of several connections between Pierce and celebrity. Ed East’s career closely paralleled Pierce’s, as “Babe” would become famous in the same era.
The decade of the “Roarin’ 20’s” would see Pierce go from Hoosier athlete to Hollywood’s silver screen. After graduation from Freedom, the big guy attended Indiana University. He played basketball his freshman year (1917-18), but excelled at two sports that were not available to him in high school-football and track.
As an All-American player his senior year (1921), he was described this way in the Arbutus, the Indiana yearbook. It will be many another season before there comes to Indiana University a varsity football center of the size and caliber of “Babe” Pierce. For four years he has been a line bastion. Combined with tremendous weight, he possessed speed and was a savage tackler.
On the same team with Pierce, this year, was a little known sophomore running back named Kermit Maynard who along with his brother Ken, would also make their mark in Hollywood, but as cowboys. The brothers were born in Vevay, Indiana before the family settled near Columbus.
Johnny Weismuller probably comes to most people’s minds when the subject of Tarzan is broached, but of the seven men who portrayed the “Apeman,” three were Hoosiers-Elmo Lincoln (Rochester), James Pierce (Freedom), and Denny Miller (Bloomington), with Lincoln and Pierce initiating the role.
Elmo Lincoln was born Otto Elmo Linkenhelt. Having gained some medical knowledge from his veterinarian father, Otto was able to travel westward across the nation, along with his brother as a “first-aid man” and barber, eventually ending up in “Tinseltown.” On a hot day, while working as an extra in a movie, he removed his shirt to cool off. D.W. Griffith, an early silent film era producer and director observed him and was impressed with his physique. Soon thereafter, Griffith began casting Lincoln in warrior-type movies. In 1916, an insurance agent from Chicago purchased the movie rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book, Tarzan of the Apes
. Due to impediments caused by World War I and others circumstances, the actor originally courted was not available and Elmo Lincoln was cast in the 1918 silent film classic, thus becoming the very first Tarzan.
Back at I.U., in “Babe’s” senior year, the football team played Notre Dame. For sports nostalgists this game is important. George Gipp (remember Ronald Reagan’s characterization) had injured his shoulder early in the game (most likely due to the ferocious tackling of Pierce) and Knute Rockne’s lads trailed I.U. 10-0 entering the fourth quarter. Gipp returned to the Irish lineup and scored one of the two touchdowns and Notre Dame won the game 13-10, their only close game of the season. Gipp’s touchdown would be his last, as he played sparingly in Notre Dame’s last game of the season at Northwestern.
The great George Gipp died in a Chicago hospital, a few days later, of pneumonia and strep throat. These unfortunate circumstances, at the end of this particular season, would help to provide the fodder for what would become the epitome of all halftime football speeches.
The next season, Notre Dame in a game against Army was about to let an undefeated season slip away. Just prior to sending his team, who had played like “lackadaisical leprechauns” out for the second half, Rockne contributed this classical comment in urging his boys to, “Go out there and win one for the Gipper!!!” (Writer’s note: I’m not Catholic, but every time I’ve watched this movie, and Pat O’Brien as Knute Rockne graces the screen with these words, it has sent chills down my spine!).
Before leaving I.U., Pierce established the school record in the discus throw. The Arbutus again honors him this way. He was a veritable Greek in the art of casting the disc.
After graduation, “Babe” left for Tucson where he became assistant football coach at the University of Arizona. Soon thereafter, he was selected to take the reins of the basketball program. His two year record was an outstanding 27-5. His .844 winning percentage still stands as the all-time best at a school with an excellent basketball tradition.
While in Tucson, “Babe” began dabbling in amateur acting and in 1923 decided to move to the Los Angeles, California area. He was coaching football at Glendale High School when he was invited to a party at Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzania Ranch. It was at this gathering while being introduced to Pierce that Burroughs exclaimed, “There’s Tarzan!” and then proceeded to talk “Babe” into playing the Apeman.
During the filming of Tarzan and the Golden Lion,
Burroughs stated, “I have seen some of the work during production and am convinced that it is going to be the greatest Tarzan picture ever made. We have found a man who really is Tarzan, and whom I believe will be raised to the heights of stardom.” However, the critics did not share Burroughs’ opinion, and although the film did well at the box office, it was not a critical success. A side note in the production of the film is that it was handled by FBO, a studio controlled by Joseph P. Kennedy (father of JFK) and also featured a young Boris Karloff.
Since things hadn’t panned out as well as expected Pierce returned to coaching football and accepting bit parts in other movies. But, during the filming of Tarzan and the Golden Lion,
“Babe” and Burroughs’ daughter, Joan, had become very close and were married shortly thereafter, in 1928. When Tarzan’s creator decided to do a radio series, he put his son-in-law and daughter in the roles of Tarzan and Jane. This very successful series of 364, fifteen minute episodes debuted on WOR in New York City and ran from 1932 through 1934 and was regarded as the first syndicated radio serial. Later on, would come others such as Captain Midnight, Tom Mix, Sky King and Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy.
From 1927-1940 Pierce made supporting role appearances in movies starring the Marx Brothers, Buster Crabbe (who also portrayed Tarzan) and several of the top cowboys of this time period. In Universal’s much acclaimed serial Flash Gordon where Crabbe was featured in the title role, Pierce played the part of King Thun, The Lion King. Also in the serial were Priscilla Lawson (Indianapolis) who was Princess Aura and Lon Poff (Bedford) as the First High Priest. Claude Akins, another Bedford native later made his mark in Hollywood.
In the 40’s, Pierce began devoting much of his time to his blossoming real estate agency, while writing, directing and producing radio programs. He was also an excellent pilot and very active in helping form the National Airmen’s Reserve, which laid the foundation for today’s Air National Guard.
James and Joan Pierce had two children and seven grandchildren. Their large home in Apple Valley, California was filled with Joan’s father’s memorabilia. Pierce once stated, “Anybody can [learn to] act in a movie. Very few are lucky enough to remain very happily married for almost a half century. That, to my way of thinking, is glamourous.”
Joan Burroughs Pierce died in 1972. James Hubert “Babe” Pierce joined her in 1983. Their tombstones lie side-by-side in Shelbyville, Indiana’s Forest Hill Cemetery, inscribed Tarzan and Jane.
Denny Miller’s parents met while attending Indiana University. Denny was born in Bloomington on April 25, 1934. In his adolescent years he learned to love the game of basketball in Bourbon, Indiana, his mother’s hometown. Denny and his brother ended up playing varsity basketball in California at University High in Westwood. Their father had joined the faculty at UCLA. It was here that the brothers caught the eye of, none other than fellow Hoosier, John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood (John never liked this title). Both were given scholarships and played one year together with the Bruins.
Sometime later, while working at a job unloading a truck, a fellow yelling out of his car window, called Denny over and gave him a card that read talent agent. He said, “Call me," and soon thereafter the future Tarzan would make his first movie appearance in Some Came Running
filmed in Madison, Indiana and starring Dean Martin. Then Miller signed a seven-year contract with MGM, and before long was cast in Northwest Passage
and appeared on TV in The Life of Riley.
When a new search began for the next Tarzan, he was tested and got the role, thus becoming the first blonde “Apeman.” Denny said, “I believe I got the part because I was cheaper than some of the elephants.”
After starring in the 1959 Tarzan movie, he went into more TV, appearing in Wagon Train, Gilligan’s Island, I Spy, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
He as been in 138 TV commercials, 234 TV episodes and 20 feature films. One will probably be most familiar with his portrayal of the Brawny Paper Towel Giant (for 12 years) and the Gorton Fisherman (for 14 years).
Denny Miller presently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada. His biography is entitled Didn’t You Use to Be What’s His Name?
The material for most of this article was gleaned from various libraries and other sources by Gary McGrady and taken from the fascinating book entitled Hoosiers In Hollywood, a 9 by 12, 600 page book published by the Indiana Historical Society Press and authored by David L. Smith, professor of telecommunications at Ball State University. Smith was inducted into the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2005.
I was motivated to go to Forest Hill Cemetery to see if I could find out why James and Joan Burroughs Pierce were buried there. This is what I came up with. At the sight stands a huge tombstone with the name Orem. In addition to the markers for James H. (Tarzan) and Joan Burroughs (Jane) Pierce, I saw a marker for James M. Pierce marked Dad (1870-1965) and one for Jennie M. Pierce marked Mom (1875-1937). So my assumption is that “Babe’s” mother’s maiden name was Orem. So in all probability, it was James’ and Joan’s wish to be buried in this family plot.
Another side note to this article is this. In the process of putting it together, I was watching TV one evening and saw where George Gipp’s body was being exhumed. I googled George Gipp and this is what I found. A grandson (Rick Frueh) of one of Gipp’s sisters requested the exhuming to determine if Gipp had fathered a daughter, by an 18-year-old high school girl, born 5 days after his death. If so it could somehow be a financial gain for Mike Bynum, Gipp’s biographer. The disinterment took place in the presence of ESPN cameras, the biographer and others. Now some other relatives are suing ESPN, the biographer, the county medical examiner, the health department, among others.
Too often money makes people do strange things. I just couldn’t imagine the grave sight of Tarzan being mutilated.