Buster Crabbe was the king of Saturday morning. He started out in serials, and when TV came along, he was a success in that, too. If you wanted live-action adventure on Saturday mornings, odds were you saw Buster Crabbe.
Crabbe grew up in Hawaii, where he became a swimming champion, winning a bronze medal in 1928 and a gold in 1932. The latter was held in Los Angeles, so it was natural that he follow in the footsteps of and earlier swimming medalist, Johnny Weissmuller.* After a few bit parts, he followed in Weissmuller’s footsteps in another way: he played Tarzan in the serial Tarzan the Fearless.
The role didn’t lead to much for several years, until in 1936, when he was cast in the part that he became fully identified with: Flash Gordon.
Crabbe’s serial became the definitive version of the character, as he faced off against the peril of Charles Middleton’s Ming the Merciless. The special effect were crude, even by the standards of the time.**
The serial was a sensation. A sequel, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released in 1938, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe came on in 1940.In between, he portrayed the other big name of pulp SF, Buck Rogers.
The serials are dated, but you can still see why they were popular and still relatively entertaining.***
Crabbe continued in serials, mostly westerns (including some programmers where he portrayed Billy the Kid as a hero). And when TV came along, he created the role of Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion.
As the title indicated, Captain Gallant was a commander of a foreign legion fort in Morocco. His son, Cullen Crabbe costarred as the legion’s mascot. The first season was actually shot on location in Morocco with some real legionnaires in bit parts. Gallant would deal with various local villains and uprisings. I remember watching reruns of it on Saturday mornings, long before I had seen the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials.
After Captain Gallant, Crabbe was semiretired, appearing in various guest shots, including playing “Brigadier Gordon” in the TV version of Buck Rogers.
Crabbe died in 1983, leaving behind memories of adventures in young people’s minds.
*Weissmuller’s Tarzan career overshadows the fact that he was a dominant freestyle swimmer, with five gold medals and a bronze.
**Though I must admit I was fascinated by the spaceships – hanging in the air giving off sparks and a strange buzzing sound. Many of the sets were recycled from earlier productions, as was the music.
***Buck Rogers isn’t quite as good, partly because it had an inferior villain, Killer Kane. I found it hard to take him seriously, since we used to sell a dandelion killer by that name – a cane filled with weed killer.