James Pierce

Active - 1922 - 1951  |   Born - Aug 8, 1900   |   Genres - Western, Drama, Comedy, Action, Romance

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James Hubert Pierce belongs to that special fraternity of athletes-turned-actors -- exemplified by Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, and Bruce Bennett (aka Herman Brix) -- who were very popular with action film audiences in the early- to mid-20th century. He also shared a component of his career with all of the aforementioned actors, as they all portrayed Edgar Rice Burroughs' lord of the jungle, Tarzan. And, along with Herman Brix, he shared the unusual distinction of having gotten the imprimatur of Burroughs himself for the role.

Pierce was a former All-American football player at Indiana University and he was working as a coach at Glendale High School in 1926, when he was noticed by Burroughs at a celebration for the author's daughter being given at his home. The author declared Pierce to be the most perfect realization of the Tarzan character that he'd ever encountered and he arranged for a screen test for him at FBO (Film Book Offices Studios, the precursor to RKO), which was planning a new Tarzan movie. Pierce passed his audition and was cast as Tarzan in what proved to be the last silent Tarzan feature film, Tarzan and the Golden Lion. Released in May 1927, it was a modest success, and it logically might have led to a follow-up film but for the fact that two Tarzan serials, Tarzan the Mighty and Tarzan the Tiger, both starring Frank Merrill, went into production at Universal during the closing years of the silent period.

Tarzan and the Golden Lion was also to be Pierce's only leading role, he later played villains in Westerns, as well as police officers, doormen, and other small roles in mysteries and comedies. He also occasionally appeared in major films (Wings, Horse Feathers, Northwest Mounted Police, My Favorite Brunette) well into the sound era. The party that he attended at the Burroughs home, however, was to have a much more important and beneficial effect upon Pierce's life than any agent or producer could have predicted -- a romance blossomed between Pierce and Burroughs' daughter, Joan, and the two later married. He desired to play Tarzan again -- in a talkie -- and his father-in-law had a clause requiring that Pierce be cast as the jungle king in the production agreement that he made with producer Sol Lesser in 1933 for the movie Tarzan the Fearless. By then, Pierce was no longer in as good condition as he had been six years earlier and he was beaten out for the role by Buster Crabbe, a champion swimmer from the 1932 Olympics. Ironically, the biggest role that Pierce ever had in talkies was as Prince Thun, the leader of the Lion Men of Mongo, in the 1936 Universal serial Flash Gordon, Space Soldiers, starring Buster Crabbe. Pierce was a startling figure in that chapterplay, with his six-foot-four frame clad in armor, sporting a thick mane of shoulder-length hair, and leading an army of Lion Men against the palace of the Emperor Ming.

Even more ironic is the fact that Thun, the Prince of the Lion Men, is the only role for which Pierce ended up being remembered. Tarzan and the Golden Lion is essentially a lost film, unaccounted for since the 1940s. Pierce gave up acting after 1947, instead focusing on his family life. He and Joan Burroughs were married for 40 years, until her death in 1972.

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