Born Clarence Linden Crabbe II in 1908, Buster Crabbe (as he later came to be known) was mostly raised in Hawaii where he became an exceptional swimmer. At age 20, he won a bronze medal in the 1928 Olympics, following up with a gold in the 1932 games. He soon married his college sweetheart and they remained together until his death 50 years later.
He had done some dabbling in films, as a stunt double for watery sequences and such, before working in a Tarzan rip-off called King of the Jungle. Oddly enough, he next appeared properly as Tarzan in Tarzan the Fearless. Originally filmed as a 12-part serial, it was later edited into a feature length film. It’s notable for the amazingly abbreviated loincloth he wore in which the bottom half of his ass was exposed! (Now who among you would not want to be ravaged as this young thing is in this shot?)
Within three years, he would portray the comic strip hero Flash Gordon, his most famous part. Although he would also play Buck Rogers in between turns as Flash, it was as Flash Gordon that he is best remembered. In at least one edition, his hair was lightened to a shocking pale blonde for the role.
Crabbe worked steadily in low-budget westerns, notably as Billy the Kid and then as Billy Carson in a long series of films. He was on an acting treadmill, often starting a film on a Monday that would be finished that Thursday!! In 1947, he found himself playing the villainous Magua in Last of the Redmen, a version of James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans!
By the early 50s, his career was mainly in television, working in the anthology series that were so popular then, but can’t ever seem to gain a foothold anymore. He did play the leading role for 41 episodes of an adventure series called Captain Gallant of The Foreign Legion, the show being notable for filming on location in Morocco for the better part of its run.
Eventually, though he continued to act sporadically, he turned to the swimming pool business and made quite a success of it! In fact, the company Cascade Pools still exists today. He made many, many personal appearances through this venture. Occasionally, he would turn up at Tarzan reunions for a photo op (there are pics out there of him and others, including Johnny Weissmuller, in his 60s wearing a loincloth and it’s not what you’d call pretty!) Here he, Johnny and Esther Williams (who successfully marketed swimsuits) make a personal appearance.
His startling good looks couldn’t last forever and he eventually evolved into a rather weathered character actor in films with little distinction. Arizona Raiders is a tremendously bad western in which a horrible narrator describes everything that’s happening onscreen. Still, Crabbe worked practically up to his death in 1983. In a nice tribute to his serial days, he showed up (looking rather gaunt, I’m afraid) in a cameo on the 1979 series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
His fame and success allowed him to extend his love of swimming to young people and he set up a swimming camp, which he would typically visit once a year. There are worse things than being taught to swim by Buster Crabbe!
When they remade Flash Gordon in 1980, another very handsome and fit actor was chosen, Sam J. Jones, but he never caught on and wound up with his own lackluster career. He is almost as well known for a Playgirl spread he did prior to the film!
In any case, we’re left with many beautiful images of Buster Crabbe who, with the right support, could have been a much bigger star. However, a cult following for the three iconic characters he portrayed keeps his memory going.