One of the absolute joys of Comic-con 2012 was getting the chance, with our friend Derek McCaw of Fanboy Planet, to interview the great Ron Ely. For fans of a certain age, Ely is as great as they get – the star of TV’s Tarzan and the movies’ Doc Savage was the epitome of pulp pop culture thrills. But, as you’ll find from this wonderful interview, Ely is a man who was deeply affected by the roles that he played and has become a hero himself. This interview was one of the realest, most honest and most moving interviews I did during all of Comic-con. I think you’ll agree.
Jason Sacks and Derek McCaw for Comics Bulletin: Is this your first experience at Comic-Con?
Ron Ely: One and done.
CB: One and done, okay. How were they able to lure you out for this one?
Ely: Thomas Yeates was on a panel with me, at another place, and he contacted me and asked me if I would do this, and it kind of began to string out with him telling me a little bit about it, what it was, and coming along better with what are the arrangements, so one day we realized that I was committed on coming.
CB: So they trapped you into it. Sucked you in?
Ely: Well it just kind of worked that way, and so here I was. It was something that I think everybody should experience once in their life, to see Comic-Con. I’ve never seen so many people somewhere for things, video games, or collectables. It’s amazing to me that so many people are interested in that. I don’t know if it strikes you the same way or not, but in my world this is very unusual.
CB: As you have been a bit of an icon, you’re one of the people that they’re collecting pictures and other fan materials of, right?
Ely: I guess so, yeah. Which I don’t understand either.
CB: Well you played two iconic, hulk heroes, Tarzan, Doc Savage — and the Superboy episode, “The Ultimate Universe Superboy“! Okay, three! So you have that kind of fandom, or being in that center of attention can’t be new to you.
Ely: No, but I’ve been out of the public now for two decades. So it is kind of new. I’ve got to get back into it. So the experience is a strange one for me. To get back in and find out that there are people still out there that remember me, and have some interest in me for one reason or another. It surprised me.
CB: You were on a panel for celebrating one hundred years of Tarzan, and for a certain generation you are Tarzan. You were the face. You were it.
Ely: Yeah, as I said on the panel “Tarzan is a generational character.” Everybody has ‘their’ Tarzan. Mine is Johnny Weissmuller. In the previous generation it might have been – I don’t know – Gordon Scott or somebody like that, and then the next generation came along and I was it. Just one of those kinds of characters that goes through generation after generation with a different actor playing him each time. James Bond is kind of the same thing, you know? There are a few characters like that, that are a franchise and which continue for a long enough period of time so that the character does span for more than one generation.
CB: Why do you think Tarzan has been adored for 100 years? What do you think the key reason is that people love it so much, and have loved it for so long?
Ely: He’s an extreme character. It’s an unbelievably complex circumstance for a human being. When you think about what Tarzan actually is, Tarzan is more animal than he is man. He wears the complements of the man, but beneath that — just beneath that — is the pulse of an animal. Feral, dangerous, ready. That is the sum and substance of the character Tarzan. It’s not like any other character. Every other character may have some danger to them, but not like this.
CB: Were those things in your head when you were doing the show?
Ely: Yeah, but I wasn’t able to promote it to the degree that I wanted. There were a few shows where the character got very angry, and I would become very destructive, and very violent; dangerous. We had to have those shows, I mean I couldn’t have done the series without those shows because you have to show that side of the guy, of the character. You can’t always be all nice guy, and you’ve got to be fair, you can’t do that. That gets boring and dull and it takes the balls right off the character. You’ve got to put that back, and you’ve got to make that character a dangerous thing to be. An animal, and because you can communicate, as a man, you forget that. You forget that lurking just beneath the surface, underneath this thin veneer of civility and sophistication, is a ready-to-go animal.
CB: We can all see ourselves in that. We all have that inside ourselves.
Ely: Absolutely. It’s hidden. We hide it, as people, but we want to see it in characters and we watch. We see other people doing it, but we don’t want to do it ourselves.
CB: Oh there’s times where I wouldn’t mind throwing on a loincloth and going crazy. Then you go a decade later to Doc Savage, with savage in his name, but kind of not really a savage man.
Ely: He didn’t have the edge built into him as he’s created the way Tarzan did. The edge was built in to Tarzan from his creation. Doc Savage is a man with a excellent upbringing, a successful father that guided him, raised him, and he has “The Fabulous Five”. He has these five friends that they were more together, and they each had a different talent. So you bring them all together, and they combine their talents; you have a superb team. That’s it, but you’re not afraid of Doc Savage getting mad at you because you know that before he kills you, he will stop and he will rehabilitate you. With Tarzan, there’s no rehabilitation. I mean once he gets to that point, you’re gonna die. Because he’s an animal. I’m talking about, as it should be. I’m talking about as he’s created.
CB: Right, not as how it ever is on a television show. And Doc Savage has that in common with Superman. He’s much more genteel in a way. Superman wasn’t necessarily about rehabilitating, but he certainly was much more traditionally heroic than Tarzan. He went from Tarzan, to Doc Savage, to a version of Superman.
Ely: It got weaker with each little change, from Tarzan to Doc Savage to Superman. With Superman it got very weak. This character was very flawed, very vulnerable. There was a substance out there that could bring him to his knees. It could defeat him, and destroy him. The minute you incorporate that into a character, then you’ve got a character who is indefinite, that you can’t really depend on.
CB: And then you turned to writing yourself, and wrote two mysteries. I saw two different titles back in the ’90s; it’s been a while. Was any of that thinking going in when you wrote the Jake Sands books?
Ely: No, I wouldn’t say it was. I created a character who, in his own right, is dangerous – but only because of his character. What he’s willing to accept about himself. It’s not built into him in the way he was raised. It’s built into the way he became. What he became as a human, and the things he was involved in, made him evolve into a particular character. He’s a dangerous guy. He’s that guy that said “Oh my gosh, they’re messing with the wrong guy. They don’t know what they’re messing with!” He’s that guy.
He’s the one that, oh no. No, you don’t know who he is. Forget that, you don’t do that with him. The reader has to understand that this person that’s fooling with them and messing with him is messing with their own future. So that’s the way I conceive my characters, and also my characters are based on someone I know really well. Practically every character in my books has a real person connected to them. Some of them don’t like it.
CB: Usually the way it goes. Do you wish you had written more in that series? Had you planned to write more than two?
Ely: Actually I wrote two more, and I was talking to them about combining them. Because I had a very long epic outline for the two books and it’s 150 pages long. Simon and Shuster had bought that, and had bought the next Jack Sands book. They came back to me and they wanted to combine them in terms of royalties. I resisted that, and then they had a change in my editor so they assigned a new editor to me. You can’t work with an editor you don’t want. You just can’t. You have to trust an editor, and I didn’t trust this one so I just put the books on the shelf. They’re sitting there. It’s good, a very good book.
CB: This might be the right time to bring them off the shelf now with Amazon self-publishing and some other media might make it easier to let your books out.
Ely: It’s a possibility, maybe just eBooking it. Because they’re just eBooking my (previous) books anyway.
CB: Right, you don’t even need to go to a publisher anymore. Which is exciting.
Ely: No you don’t. You really don’t. I’ve had that experience. Enjoyed it, liked it. I don’t need it anymore. You guys write?
CB: Yeah, both of us do.
Ely: I mean fiction?
CB: Derek does. (Derek says) I’ve written comic books, haven’t tried a novel yet.
Ely: Until you write to completion on a novel, you’ve got a knot in you that you’ve got to untie.
CB: Well why don’t you create a novel now? I mean I assume it’s been a few years since you’ve written those novels, what gives you creative satisfaction today?
Ely: That’s a tough question to answer because there’s not a lot that I do that’s not family oriented. I am fully committed to my wife and my children. That’s why I stepped out of the business because I wanted to spend more time to raise my kids – where did my son go, anyway?
CB: He was just here.
Ely: Must have been a pretty girl, because that’s the only thing that could draw him away. It’s just (my family) have been my whole focus. I haven’t really cared about anything else. Now that they’re all grown, they want me to go back to work. My wife especially. She’s tired of me being around the house.
CB: Will you ever go back to acting?
Ely: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit.
CB: What would the ideal role for you be at this point in your life? What would you want to portray?
Ely: Well, I don’t have that anymore, I’m a character guy. So that’s great, I love to play a decent judge, or a dishonest judge, both those things.
CB: It’s actually ironic to hear you talk about that though, because I have two kids that just left for college. I’m dealing with the empty nest syndrome myself, and it’s very strange.
Ely: It is, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got an empty nest. Once the birds flew, and back around, they fly back. I don’t know about you, but we want that. Right now we’ve got all three kids living at home. My oldest daughter’s a lawyer, 26. We made an apartment for her out of two rooms, combined it and put it all together at one end of the house. My other daughter is at the guest house. Cameron’s upstairs taking two rooms. My wife and I all the way at the other end of the house. It’s great in the morning. We see each other. We see each other in the evening, we see each other when they come and go. We’re always in touch. We weren’t always when they were in school anyway.
CB: My nineteen year old started working with me over the summer, and it’s just such a joy to get to work with her, and really get to spend endless amounts of time with her, I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the absolute greatest thing in my life.
Ely: I’m sure you have friends who say “Can’t wait to get them out of the house!”. We’re not that way, I mean we ache at the thought of them leaving. Living on their own someplace. They’re going to and we know that, but we’re not rushing. We’re making sure that they know they’re welcome at that house as long as they want to be there. We’d be honored. I think it’s important that they feel that, and know that. It gives them a security that you don’t have when you’re out there struggling on your own, and maybe not eating so well, not able to make the rent. But it’s nice to know you’ve got a place to come back to.
CB: Well I think that’s real heroism. You’re like Doc Savage, and Tarzan, and Superman…
Ely: I’ve been asked this question, actually quite a few times by people- Have you been affected by the characters you play? I’ve always said no, but in reality when I look at it; not that if I had played bad guys all the way through, I would have been a bad guy. But I do think that the constant influence of doing the right thing, of making basically the right decisions as your character, I think it has influenced me a lot.
I look at all those old Bonanza episodes, and I say, yeah, that was a formative period for Michael Landon. Because when Michael Landon came out of Bonanza, he had this crusader side to him from Bonanza that carried into Little House on the Prairie, and made Little House on the Prairie work. He made it based upon those principles of family and goodness. I guess I’m looking to kind of obey those characters. They get into you, and you don’t even know it. They’ve affected you and you don’t even know it. When it comes time to lay down your hand, you’re pretty sure what you’re going to do. I don’t think a lot of people, even at my age, know who they are. They haven’t tested their soul, and until you do…
It’s sort of like a young guy that contemplates the Army because he’s concerned about whether he can live up to it or not. Whether he can cut the mustard, whether he can do the job, whether he can really be that guy. They’re so tempted. They’re so unsure. Some do it. Some join the Army. Some become policemen, some become firemen. They’re testing themselves. They’re seeking an identity for themselves. Just become an actor!
CB: You get to try lots of identities, and try on a lot of character hats.
Ely: This one fits. Oh, I like this one.
CB: So out of all the ones you’ve played, is there one that you wish you got to play as longer? More Doc Savage movies, or…?
Ely: Well I’ve played a couple of bad guys that I really enjoyed. Just before hanging it up, I did a show called Hawkeye, and I played a bad guy. Then I followed that very quickly with a show that was on briefly that was called Hat Squad. I played a character on Hat Squad that I really liked, I mean a bad guy. I loved playing those characters at that age because I was already set, my identity was set. Playing bad guys allowed me something new to work with. I’d always looked across the table at those actors playing those roles and said “You’ve got all the stuff! This is eating me alive in this scene!” I was always on the straight and narrow path. I wanted to be that guy for the fun of it. Once you’re set, once you know who you are and everything, you can do all those things. I don’t know, maybe you play those parts too early and it affects you, you might become a little loony. I can think of several actors that that would apply to.