Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Elmo Lincoln

(Feb. 6, 1889 - June 27, 1952)

March 30, 2010 -- Elmo Lincoln is best known as the first actor to play the role of Tarzan on film, in "Tarzan of the Apes" (1918), the first screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1914 novel, the story of an orphaned boy who is raised by apes in the African jungle.

Film historians who are sticklers for absolute accuracy, however, will point out that Lincoln was actually the second actor to play Tarzan on film. The first was 10-year-old Gordon Griffith, who played Tarzan as a boy in the film, and appeared on screen before Lincoln.

An even more interesting story, however, is how Lincoln ended up with the role in the first place.

Born Otto Elmo Linkenhelt in Rochester, Ind., in 1889, Lincoln worked as a police officer in Arkansas before coming to Los Angeles, where he found work as a longshoreman. Director D.W. Griffith reportedly saw Lincoln, was impressed by his burly physique and 52-inch chest, and cast him as a cavalryman in "The Battle of Elderbush Gulch" (1913). Griffith used Lincoln quite often during the next few years, typically in small roles, including a blacksmith in "Birth of a Nation" (1915) and a bodyguard in "Intolerance" (1916).

Meanwhile, Burroughs published his "Tarzan of the Apes," first in magazines in 1912, then as a novel two years later. In the spring of 1917, work started on a film version of the novel, with Stellan Windrow cast as Tarzan, and the wilds of Louisiana standing in for the jungles of Africa. After five weeks of filming, World War I broke out and Windrow, an ensign in the Naval Reserves, was called to active duty by the U.S. Navy. The producers quickly brought Lincoln to Louisiana to replace Windrow as Tarzan. (Lincoln was reportedly offered $75 per week for his work, but he held out and received $100 per week. Windrow wasn't credited in the film, but he did receive $1,000 for his work.)

The first problem on the set was that Lincoln was afraid of heights, which would be a severe drawback for a man raised in the jungle who spends much of his time in the trees. So the producers kept the scenes which had already been filmed with Windrow swinging through the trees, and added the scenes with Lincoln fighting lions on the ground, and hoped that the audience wouldn't notice that Windrow was nearly six inches taller and much slimmer than Lincoln.

One of the oft-repeated -- but likely untrue -- stories about the filming of "Tarzan of the Apes" claims that one of the first scenes Lincoln filmed was a battle with a lion. The lion had been tranquilized, but it fiercely attacked Lincoln, who was forced to fight for his life with a prop knife. Lincoln finally killed the lion and, remembering his experience with Griffith, remained in character throughout the fight, planted his foot on the dead animal, and unleashed his signature jungle yell.

And, of course, throughout Lincoln's fight for his life, the cameraman kept filming, no one in the crew thought to step in and help, and the scene remained in the film. And the dead lion was stuffed, mounted and put on display at the film's New York City premiere. True or not, it was a great story for the fan magazines.

Burroughs, who had envisioned his Tarzan as graceful and athletic, was reportedly extremely unhappy with the beefy actor who brought his character to life on the screen. But film fans, especially female film fans, were happy to see the burly Lincoln, clad in animal skins over his massive chest, and "Tarzan of the Apes" was a huge success, one of the first films to earn over $1 million.

As with any hit film, a sequel is usually not far behind, and Lincoln also starred in "The Romance of Tarzan" (1918), which wasn't nearly as successful, and "The Adventures of Tarzan" (1921), which was the fourth-biggest money-maker of 1921, ahead of Rudolph Valentino's "The Sheik." Lincoln appeared in a few more films, including his last silent film, "King of the Jungle" (1927).

The Tarzan series continued without Lincoln, who moved to Mexico and invested his Tarzan earnings in an unsuccessful silver mine. He found more success in a salvage business in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Lincoln returned to Hollywood in 1939, and appeared in small roles in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), "Union Pacific" (1939), "Reap the Wild Wind" (1942) and "A Double Life" (1947). He also appeared in two more Tarzan films, but in small, uncredited roles, not as the legendary ape-man. Lincoln appeared as a circus worker in "Tarzan's New York Adventure" (1942), which starred Johnny Weissmuller, and as a fisherman in "Tarzan's Magic Fountain" (1949), which starred Lex Barker.

Lincoln also toured the country with a circus, billed as "The Original Tarzan," until he was 60. His final film work was in small, uncredited roles in "Iron Man" (1951) and "Carrie" (1952).

Lincoln died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 63. The plaque on his cremation niche at Hollywood Forever cemetery identifies him as "The First Tarzan."

Previous Grave Spotlights

Back to main page