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I COULDA BEEN A TARZAN
by Robert Allen Lupton
On January 21, 1981, John and Bo Derek, along with an extensive cast and crew, arrived in wilds of Sri Lanka to film a remake of the 1932 film, “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” which had starred Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. They traveled with a film crew of 23, a lion named Dandi, an orangutan named CJ, three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds, and an 18 foot python from Thailand that weighed 120 pounds.
The immigration officials let them into the country with one stipulation. When filming was concluded, all the animals had to leave the country – especially the python.
Among the crew was the man cast to play Tarzan, Lee Canalito. Lee was both an actor and a professional boxer.
His acting career was limited. He appeared in Sylvester Stallone’s “Paradise Alley” in 1978, “The Glass Jungle” in 1988, and on television, “Magnum, P. I., in 1980. In 1990 he played a small role in the film, “Emperor of the Bronx,” which like “The Glass Jungle,” was written and directed by Joseph Merhi.
Canalito was a lineman at Sterling H.S. in Houston, TX, and was on Parade magazine’s annual All-America H.S. Football Team in 1971. He played defensive tackle at the University of Houston for two seasons before his college football career was derailed by a knee injury. His coach Bill Yeoman at Houston said “if Lee Canalito had two good legs he would have been the best defensive college football player ever in college football.”
A friend convinced him to try boxing and Canalito won the Houston Golden Gloves with only seven amateur fights. Angelo Dundee, Mohammed Ali’s trainer, was impressed and became Lee’s trainer from 1977 to 1981. Canalito’s professional boxing career lasted ten years. He was an undefeated heavyweight, with a record of 21-0, from 1977 to 1987. He won 19 of his fights by knockout. Not bad for a man with a knee injury.
Like the character in Rocky, Canalito was known professionally as the Italian Stallion.
He was first managed by Texas millionaire, Hugh Benbow, and later by Sylvester Stallone.
Stallone cast him in his movie “Paradise Alley.” That was the start of Canalito’s brief film career.
John and Bo Derek, impressed with Canalito’s physique, cast him as Tarzan in Tarzan, the Ape Man. Canalito wouldn’t have a single line in the Derek’s version of the film, Tarzan wouldn’t talk.
Things didn’t go well for the cast and crew in Sri Lanka. They tried sleeping in tents, but the mosquitos were relentless. The hotel they moved into didn’t have running water.
Production and scheduling problems were relentless. The elephants didn’t show up on schedule. Tempers flared as delays were compounded. Bo commented about the difficulties.
''John was screaming and yelling. I was screaming and yelling and I looked around at our group from Hollywood and I saw some of them were rolling their eyes and saying, 'What do you expect with this couple in charge - here we go again.' I knew some of them weren't going to last very long - and they didn't. So every day, as people goofed or didn't do their jobs - I said: 'Walk!' And they did.
''It was the first time dealing with people twice my age whom I had to fire. ''They had made dozens of films. I hadn't. But getting rid of someone wasn't really difficult. We had a job to do and there were too many problems to waste time.
''When someone had to be let go, I'd either tell them face to face, or if they were at the hotel, either telephone or write a note.'' In the first 15 days, Bo Derek said she sent back 15 of the original Hollywood crew of 23. On day one the auditor went. Then the wardrobe girl. On day three, Tarzan himself went. Bo wrote him the letter breaking the bad news. ''Lee had a beautiful quality with a Michelangelo face but he wasn't the proud lord of the jungle. We wanted him to look like a sculpture, but John knew he wasn't right first. Then I did and finally, Lee did as well.''
(Mr. Canalito's reaction to Mrs. Derek's account of his dismissal has never been made public, but the actor was paid in full.) Whatever the reasons that Lee left the production, he’s held his silence about it, but rumors abounded about the real reasons.
For many years, fans believed that John Derek caught Bo and Lee rehearsing for the sex scenes, but Ms. Derek insisted that he just wasn't shredded enough. There was "too much jiggling" as he ran through the jungle; we wanted him to look like a sculpture."
Lee stood six foot four and went 280 pounds. John Derek said that Canalito’s old football injuries kept him from being able to do the running, jumping, and climbing required for the role. (Seems like the Dereks would have figured that out before they flew him to Sri Lanka.)
Whatever the reason, Canalito was paid off. The Derek’s contacted former Tarzan, Jock Mahoney, their consultant on the film, and Jock recommended Miles O’Keeffe, the first actor to play a silent Tarzan in almost fifty years.
After not playing Tarzan, Canalito returned to America and continued his boxing career. He only appeared in one more film, the previously mentioned, “Emperor of the Bronx” in 1990. He opened a boxing gym in Houston, Texas. It’s still open and reportedly, as of 2020, Lee still boxes in the gym and trains customers on a regular basis.
As for the film, well the show must go on. The Dereks finished the production. This film received extremely negative reviews, and in some circles has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made, even though it was a box-office success, finishing as one of the top twenty highest grossing films of the year.
The film received six nominations for “Worst” Golden Raspberry Awards, Worst Actress, Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actor, Worst Director, and Worst New Star. Only Bo Derek won, receiving the award for worst actress. The Hastings Bad Cinema Society awarded the film the worst picture of the year award for 1981. This put it on an enviable list with such films as “Caveman,” “Heartbeeps,” and “Heaven’s Gate.”
Maybe, Lee dodged a knockout a punch when he got fired. We’ll never know.
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Guide to all the Robert Allen Lupton Articles in ERBzine
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