Gordon Scott may have hung up his loincloth four decades ago, but he was still fondly remembered by some movie fans for his portrayal of jungle superman Tarzan and later roles in westerns and sword-and-sandals gladiator films.
The actor - who went from being an unknown Las Vegas hotel lifeguard to Hollywood star overnight, and seemed to vanish overnight after a 24-movie career - died Monday at Johns Hopkins Hospital of complications after several heart surgeries.
Mr. Scott, who was 80, had spent the last five years of his life in a rowhouse in Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood after being befriended by Roger and Betty Thomas. They gave him a spare room in their Pontiac Avenue home.
"My husband has been a fan of his since he was a child. He was his idol. When we were in Hollywood about eight years ago, we looked him up," said Mrs. Thomas, a retired licensed practical nurse who is a part-time actress. "They called each other several times, and then we invited him for a visit. He came and never left."
"I first saw him in a movie in a Rogersville, Pa., theater when I was a boy, and that was it," said Mr. Thomas, a retired factory worker. "I haven't had much time to think about his death and let it sink in. He meant the world to me, and we had lots of good times together. I was blessed to have known him."
Mrs. Thomas said that since October, the former film star had been in failing health and was in and out of a nursing home and several hospitals. "He had nobody but us."
According to a surviving brother, Rayfield Werschkull of Portland, Ore., Mr. Scott was born Gordon M. Werschkull there on Aug. 3, 1926. Other sources give his birth year as 1927, but the brother noted, "I'm exactly 10 years older."
"We were a family of nine kids, and we all ended up going in different directions. I haven't seen Gordon, whom we called Pete, for eight or 10 years. We just didn't keep in touch," Mr. Werschkull said.
Mr. Scott was in his teens when he took up bodybuilding, which he quickly found impressed women.
"Vanity is the crutch of us all," Mr. Scott told City Paper reporter Chris Landers, whose profile of the actor was published in yesterday's editions of the Baltimore weekly, with the news of his death added just before publication.
Mr. Scott attended the University of Oregon for a year and was drafted into the Army in 1944, serving as a drill sergeant and military policeman until 1947.
"After the war, I bought a beverage company and Pete went to work for me delivering soda pop until one day he left and went to work at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas as a lifeguard," his brother said. "And that's where Sol Lesser, a Hollywood producer, discovered him."
Climbing trees, jumping into pools and swinging from ersatz vines for six hours, Mr. Scott beat out 200 other would-be Tarzans from across the world who had auditioned for the part. And he was an impressive physical and athletic specimen, standing 6-foot-3, weighing 218 pounds and with 19-inch biceps.
In 1953, he was awarded a seven-year contract and the last name of Scott by Mr. Lesser, becoming the 11th Tarzan, replacing Lex Barker.
Tarzan was created by novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Hollywood movies based on his stories date to Elmo Lincoln (one-time locomotive engineer Otto Elmo Linkenletter), in the 1918 silent screen thriller Tarzan of the Apes.
During the 1954 production of his first film, Tarzan's Hidden Jungle, Mr. Scott met and fell in love with co-star Vera Miles. The couple married in 1954 and divorced four years later.
The film was followed by Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957); Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958); Tarzan and the Trappers (1958); Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959), with co-stars Sean Connery and Anthony Quayle; and Tarzan the Magnificent (1960).
"He was an absolutely wonderful Tarzan who played the character as an intelligent and nice man who carried himself well, much as my grandfather had originally written it," said Danton Burroughs of Tarzana, Calif. "He also gave a wonderful rendition of Tarzan's call which didn't have so much yodel in it."
Mr. Scott, having had his fill of Tarzan, moved to Italy in 1960 and acted in spaghetti westerns and films such as Hercules and Buffalo Bill, Hero of the Far West.
His last film, The Tramplers, made in 1966 with co-stars Joseph Cotten and James Mitchum, was released in 1968.
Mr. Scott supported himself later by attending autograph shows and film conventions, and living off residuals.
"He was always a big spender and loved to party," Mr. Scott's brother recalled. "If he had one weakness, it was women. They were always hitting on him."
In his City Paper interview, Mr. Scott said that being an actor "is one thing I never thought about doing, but once you're in it, it spoils you for anything else if you're successful at it. The money's so easy, you meet beautiful people. My god, that's the ideal situation - kind of a fantasy world. It's the best way to travel, too. First class, and you get to see a lot of interesting places."
"I was a little girl, and I remember when Uncle Pete would came up to see us," niece Jane Tyler said yesterday from her home in Seattle. "He was driving a big pink Cadillac, and my girlfriends couldn't believe that my uncle was such a big Hollywood star. Then we lost contact and I haven't seen him in more than 30 years."
Living as a semi-recluse in the Thomas household, Mr. Scott liked to stay in his room reading or watching old black-and-white movies on television. Occasionally, he walked around the neighborhood, unrecognized by passers-by.
"He'd talk about his days in Hollywood and the different film roles he had. Whenever he watched a Tarzan movie, he'd say, 'I can't believe I did those things. Just look at me now,'" Mrs. Thomas said.
Mr. Scott spent his final days on life support at Hopkins.
"We tried to get information from Gordon about his family because we were worried about what might happen to him, but he'd never discuss the issue," Mrs. Thomas said.
"I last saw him on Saturday and said, 'Gordon, we love you, and so does the dog and the bird.' He opened one eye for a moment and gave me a wink," she said.
Mr. Scott had been married at least three times, family members said, and is thought to have had at least three children.
Plans for a memorial service to be held in Oregon in June were incomplete yesterday.
In addition to his brother, survivors include two sisters, Janice McKeel of Salem, Ore., and Betty Lou Hyatt of Sisters, Ore.