Long After Playing Tarzan, Ron Ely Comes Back to Acting

Saturday, July 19, 2014
If you look at Ron Ely’s acting credits, there’s a huge gap between 2001 and 2014.

Ely was happy to take the long break from his career working in TV and films, which dates back to 1958.

“I stepped out of acting to raise a family and be able to spend more time with them here in Santa Barbara,” Ely says. “Now, all the kids are through college with advance degrees. My family asked me ‘what are you hanging around for?” I started looking around and this film came up. It felt so good making the movie, I wish I had never left.”

Ely plays an Amish elder in the Lifetime movie Expecting Amish, which looks at how the community is rocked when Hannah, one of four teens (AJ Michalka) on a rumspringa (the traditional Amish teenage rebellion) trip to Los Angeles, gets pregnant. Hannah knows that once the pregnancy is revealed she will be separated from her Amish family. She is given a way to stay in the community, but it means she has to reject the young man (Jesse McCartney) she met in Los Angeles.

One of the things Ely liked about the role was that his character wasn’t the center of the story. That gave him a chance to get back to work without the pressure of carrying the project.

Ely carried plenty of projects in the ’60s and ’70s, including the Tarzan series on NBC. Playing Tarzan changed his life, and not just from the two dozen major injuries — including two broken shoulders and various lion bites — he got during filming.

He had initially turned down the idea of being the 14th actor to step into the famous loincloth, but he decided to attend the meeting when he heard NBC was planning to make the show. That interview was on Monday and by Friday, Ely was jetting to Brazil to star in the series.

Tarzan lasted two seasons, 1966 to 1968, but that was enough to link Ely to the role.

“Everything happened so fast that it didn’t register with me what playing Tarzan would do to my career. That character is such a trap, nobody gets out alive. ... I became so associated with the role, I had to go to Europe to get work,” Ely says.

He finally started to land a few roles in the U.S., but Ely opted to take the acting hiatus. During that time he wrote five novels, in addition to spending time with his family.

It didn’t take him long to get back in the acting groove for Expecting Amish.

Ely has a theory as to why the Amish have become a popular subject for TV and big-screen movies. He thinks there’s a little bit of envy in contemporary American society of the simple Amish lifestyle.

“As we, as a society, grow further and further from our religious ties, we look back at the strongest of those communities. I would put Amish, Mormons, in that category. There’s something in us that seeks that out. The life many are living is ending a lot of traditions, chipping away at the underpinning of our society,” Ely says. “People look at Amish with their simpler life and strong values and wonder if their way of life would be better.”

Expecting Amish, 8 p.m. EDT Saturday, Lifetime

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