James Pierce: The Final Silent Tarzan

Tarzan. King of the Apes. Lord of the Jungle. Resident vine swinger. You know the story well: the son of shipwrecked British aristocrats, Tarzan is adopted by a clan of Great Apes, learns their ways, and becomes the hero of the forest. You’ve probably seen at least one Tarzan movie, even if it was the 1999 Disney version, but you probably didn’t know that one of the men to portray the great ape master was from Shelbyville, Indiana. James Pierce, former college football star, pilot, and actor, played the role of Tarzan in the now lost film Tarzan and the Golden Lion as well as in 364 episodes of a Tarzan radio serial. Many great accomplishments have come from the famous residents of Shelbyville, Indiana, but none have mastered the endearing grunts, the chest bashing, and the derring do of Tarzan except for James Pierce.

Video of Shelbyville, Indiana resident James Pierce portraying Tarzan in the 1927 film, Tarzan and the Golden Lion

Born in 1900 in Freedom, Indiana, James Pierce didn’t start out as an actor. He attended Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana where he was a center on the football team. As a matter of fact, he made the All-American first team during his time at IU, and football could have been a lucrative career for him. He moved out to Glendale, Arizona, where he coached the Glendale High School football team for two years. Interestingly enough, some of the players Pierce coached would go on to have acting careers of their own, including John Wayne, Addison Randall, and Robert Livington. Fate, however, had other plans for Pierce besides football. At a party given in honor of his daughter, Joan, the author of the original Tarzan novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs, met James Pierce and immediately recognized the new face of Tarzan. After a screen test at Film Box Office Studios, Pierce earned the part of Tarzan in the final silent Tarzan movie, Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

Video montage of Tarzan and the Golden Lion, a 1927 film starring Shelbyville, Indiana resident James Pierce as Tarzan

Released in 1927 and a minor success at the box office, Tarzan and the Golden Lion would prove to be James Pierce‘s only leading role. He acted as minor characters in several other films, mostly Westerns and mystery movies, but he would have one other major film role: Prince Thun of the Lion Men in a 1936 Flash Gordon serial. Radio would be much more kind to James Pierce than film. Starting in 1932, he and his wife, Joan (the daughter of Edgar Rice Burroughs) voiced Tarzan and Jane in a nationally syndicated radio program that also played in South America and Western Europe. The show ran for 364 episodes and two years, finally ending in 1934 when Pierce decided to play Thun in the Flash Gordon movie.

Original television commercial for the 1936 Flash Gordon serial; Shelbyville, Indiana resident James Pierce portrayed Prince Thun of the Lion Men in the series


James Pierce
‘s acting career ended with the outbreak of World War II. An accomplished pilot, Pierce helped found the National Airmen’s Reserve, the precursor to today’s Air National Guard. He would go on to teach at a flight school in California, where he also eventually owned a real estate agency. James Pierce passed away on December 11, 1983 in Apple Valley, California. Today, he and his wife Joan are buried in Shelbyville’s Forest Hill Cemetery. Their graves aren’t hard to find; they’re inscribed with “Tarzan” and “Jane” underneath the dates. Though he never became an accomplished actor, James Pierce had roles in over 75 films, including Cattle Queen, Flash Gordon, and The Lightning Express, but he is best known as Tarzan, both in Tarzan and the Golden Lion and the nationally syndicated serial radio program. An actor, Shelbyville sports figure, and pilot, James Pierce is still remembered in Shelbyville and Central Indiana as Tarzan, King of the Apes.

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