He was one of the few Hollywood actors who were better known in Europe than in their native America: Lex Barker. His portrayal of Old Shatterhand in numerous Karl May film adaptations made him an icon in the memory of German cinema audiences.
To American audiences, he is still known today for his role as Tarzan – when he took over the role of Tarzan in 1949, he followed in the footsteps of an iconic predecessor. Before him, Johnny Weissmuller had played the role of Tarzan – movie audiences associated no one other than Weissmuller with the role of Tarzan at first. RKO Radio Pictures faced the challenging task of finding a successor for Weissmuller in the late forties: The studio found one in Lex Barker.
Film Noir and Broadway
Before his engagement as Tarzan, Lex Barker played smaller roles: In 1947, Lex Barker played one of his smaller roles in In the Crossfire, a milestone of film noir, alongside Robert Mitchum.
Lex Barker first came into contact with acting during his schooling: Much to the chagrin of his father, a well-off building contractor, Barker dropped out of college in favor of acting. Barker decided to start training as an actor – his training took him to Broadway, where he acted under the direction of Orson Welles, among others. At that time he received an offer from 20th Century Fox – Barker, however, could not yet accept the contract because he was not of legal age.
The Second World War stood in the way of the continuation of Barker’s acting training: during the war Barker was seriously wounded in Sicily had a silver plate implanted in his skull for the rest of his life.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Barker signed his first film contract in Hollywood. Between 1949 and 1953, Lex Barker made a total of five Tarzan films: Tarzan’s Magic Mountain (1949), Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), Tarzan’s Peril (1951), Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952) and Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953). The role of Tarzan was Barker’s first major starring role and made him famous worldwide.
After Barker’s assignment for the Tarzan series was completed, his contentment in Hollywood ended abruptly: although he still played some roles in westerns, including War Drums (1957) and The Yellow Mountain (1954), Hollywood could not offer him any more new roles. Although Barker’s acting talent was undisputed, it seemed hopeless for him to continue waiting for promising role offers in Hollywood. Last but not least, the Golden Age of Hollywood was over – the screen figure Lex Barker was a belated result of the long-established Hollywood studio system, whose days were numbered by the end of the 1950s.
Leap to Europe
To propel his acting career, Lex Baker ventured to Europe: numerous other Hollywood actors who were famous in the forties and fifties took a similar path. At the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties, Lex Barker appeared on the screen in Italian, Spanish and French flicks.
In 1958, under the direction of Federico Fellini, Lex Barker appeared in front of the camera for the Italian film La Dolce Vita – the role brought him great international fame. With this role, Barker proved that he was not only suitable as an adventure and western actor: with his role, the multilingual American skillfully proved that he could also fascinate the audience in a comedy-drama with satirical features.
Path to the German film
Barker’s acquaintance with German producer Artur Brauner brought Lex Barker to German cinema: In the two black-and-white thrillers Im Stahlnetz des Dr. Mabuse [In the steel net of Dr. Mabuse] (1961) and Die unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse [The invisible claws of Dr. Mabuse](1962), he captivated German cinema audiences in the role of FBI man Joe Como, who hunts the villain Dr. Mabuse.
It is often said that it was thanks to the courage of Italian film producers that made Wild West films with budgets in the millions possible in the first place. Even before the Italian producers, however, German producer Horst Wendlandt dared to make high-budget Western productions. Even the legendary Sergio Leone later admitted that without the monumental Western productions from Germany, he would never have brought Westerns to the screen in the dimensions he was known for.
While the American cinema audience seemed to have forgotten him, Lex Barker’s popularity in Germany in the sixties surpassed that of Western stars like John Wayne: In the following years, a total of twelve films were made based on the novels by Karl May, starring Lex Barker. The Karl May material took him mainly to the Wild West: Treasure of the Silver Lake (1962) and Apache Gold (Winnetou I) (1963) set standards in the Western genre. Lex Barker slipped into the role of Dr. Sternau, Old Shatterhand in Winnetou and Kara Ben Nemsi in the film adaptations of May’s Orient novels. The films in the Western setting were shot in what is now Croatia and in Spain. Particularly through his embodiment of Old Shatterhand, Lex Barker advanced to cult stardom in Europe practically overnight – Barker lives on to this day in the Karl May adaptations which are still frequently shown today.
Barker’s success as a Western actor even prompted him to step in front of the microphone: in 1965 he recorded two love songs in the style of Western ballads.
Thanks to his popularity, Barker was cast in numerous other major European productions: In the film Mister Dynamite – Morgen küßt Euch der Tod [Mister Dynamite – Tomorrow Death Will Kiss You] (1967), Lex Barker played the main role of Mr. Dynamite, which was interpreted as a satire on James Bond.
Lex Barker always played the protagonist who stands up for good and fights the evil in the world: an exception was his role in the Spanish-German western Wer kennt Johnny R.? [Who Knows Johnny R.?] (1966), in which Barker played a villain.
Lex Barker shot his last film, Wenn Du bei mir bist [When You’re With Me], in Germany in 1970. From the early seventies, Barker retired to his estate on Spain’s Costa Brava.
After Barker had not made a Hollywood film for almost 15 years, a television series with him in the leading role was being prepared.
However, this television series never came to fruition – Lex Barker died in Manhattan on May 11, 1973.
Lex Barker’s legacy as an actor is still unforgotten today: In the late forties he was part of the film noir movement, albeit in supporting roles. His career took off with his role as Tarzan. In retrospect, it turned out to be the right decision to continue his acting career in Europe after the Tarzan series: To this day, the name Lex Barker is mainly associated with the Karl May character of Old Shatterhand.
Main sources: The Lex Barker biography on lex-barker.com, numerous movies with Lex Barker in the leading role and encyclopedias
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig