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Olympic champions have a history with Hollywood

Figure-skating powerhouse Sonja Henie and champion swimmers Johnny Weissmuller and 'Buster' Crabbe achieved celebrity gold in movies and on TV.

July 30, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • The 1930s movie serial "Flash Gordon," with Buster Crabbe, left.
The 1930s movie serial "Flash Gordon," with Buster Crabbe,… (Bettmann, Bettmann )

If swimmers Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin or gymnast Gabrielle Douglas take gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, they will probably end up gracing Wheaties boxes, get the chance to host"Saturday Night Live" or sign up for"Dancing With the Stars." And some may become TV sports commentators or announcers.

But for decades, Hollywood would look at the Olympic superstars for the next big thing. Olympic medal winners didn't always quite make the finish line, such as 1984 Olympic gymnast and heartthrob Mitch Gaylord. The gold-medal winner was given a big splash in the 1986 "American Anthem," which failed to impress critics and audiences.

But there were several Olympic giants who parlayed their athletic prowess into big-time Hollywood careers (think of Tarzan and Buck Rogers). The studios weren't shy about using these Olympic stars' key assets: their sports glory and screen-ready bodies.

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Here are three of the winners:

Sonja Henie (1912-69)

The diminutive Norwegian was a three-time Olympic champion figure skater in 1928, 1932 and 1936, a 10-time World Champion and a six-time European champion. In fact, she won more Olympic and World titles than any other figure skater. After going professional in 1936, she toured in live shows including an ice show in Hollywood that caught the attention of 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck. He signed Henie to a contract that made her one of the highest paid stars of the time.

Despite a strong accent, she was an instant hit in her first film, 1936's "One in a Million." Depression-era audiences couldn't get enough of her plucky personality, dimples and skating prowess; she demanded and received control over her ice skating numbers.

She appeared in such hits as 1937's "Thin Ice,"with Tyrone Power, 1939's "Second Fiddle" and 1941's "Sun Valley Serenade," her best film, with John Payne and Glenn Miller and his Orchestra. When her film career petered out in the 1940s, she toured in lavish ice shows before retiring in the late 1950s.

Johnny Weissmuller (1904-84)

The Austria-Hungarian-born swimmer won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics. He also won 52 U.S. National Championships and set 67 world records. Tall and muscular, he got to show off his gold-medal body as a model and representative for BVD undies in 1929. That same year, he wore just a fig leaf as Adonis in the musical "Glorifying the American Girl."

Weissmuller's film career took off like a rocket in 1932, when he put on a skimpy loin cloth that left little to the imagination for MGM's 1932 "Tarzan, the Ape Man." He made six more Tarzan hits at MGM, the best being 1934's "Tarzan and His Mate" withMaureen O'Sullivan as Jane.

In 1942 he took Tarzan's vine over to RKO, where he made six more"Tarzan"films all with noticeably diminished production value. When he got longer in the tooth and wider in girth, he went to Columbia in 1948 for the adventure "Jungle Jim," for which he was fully clothed. He made 13 in the series before taking it to TV in 1955. Years after he retired, he did a cameo in the 1976 film "Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood."

Clarence Linden "Buster" Crabbe (1908-83)

The tall, chiseled Crabbe was a championship swimmer, winning the bronze in 1928 for the 1,500-meter freestyle and the gold in 1932 for the 400. A 1931 graduate of USC, Crabbe scored a few uncredited roles in such films as 1932's "That's My Boy"when he was tested for MGM's "Tarzan." He didn't get that part but ended up playing Kaspa the Lion Man in 1933's "King of the Jungle" and appeared as the Tarzan in Sol Lesser's 1933 low-budget version, "Tarzan the Fearless."

Crabbe, often billed as Larry Crabbe, appeared in the 1934 pre-code comedy "Search for Beauty" and then hit pay dirt in the enormously popular 1936 sci-fi serial "Flash Gordon." Equally popular was the 1939 serial "Buck Rogers." Crabbe was also a mainstay in low-budget fare and headlined the 1955 TV series, "Captain Galant of the Foreign Legion." In 1979, he guest-starred on the NBC TV series, "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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