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Lex Barker - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2006

Lex Barker on (re)Search my Trash

 

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The career of Lex Barker is an interesting one: In his native America, he was quite well-known for a time as being Johnny Weissmuller's successor as Tarzan at RKO, but this hardly caused an uproar or or granted him a place in cinema history - nor did actually his marriages to actresses Arlene Dahl and Lana Turner ... but when his popularity in the US had already begun to vane, he, like so many of his colleagues at the time, moved to Europe ... and Lex Barker would eventually emerge as Germany's most popular foreign actor (for a time) ...

 

But first things first: Lex Barker was born in 1919 in Rye, New York. After college, in the late 1930's, he soon became a stage actor. In 1942, he was enlisted in the military, and served his country, first in North Africa, then in Sicilly. During his service, he fought on the frontline and was repeatedly injured, but he left the army in 1945 as a major. In 1945, he also acted in his first film, Doll Face (directed by Lewis Seiler).

 

However, at first his career seemed to be less than promising, and while his filomography includes some quite popular titles - e.g. Dick Tracy meets Gruesome (1947, John Rawlins) with Ralph Byrd and Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here], Mr.Blandings builds his Dream House (1948, H.C.Potter) with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy and the classic film noir Crossfire (1947) directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring Robert Young and Robert Mitchum -, his roles in these films were all but stellar - mini parts as an ambulance driver in the first, a builder in the second, a soldier in the third.

 

 

His breakthrough as an actor however came in 1949, when he was made the successor of Johnny Weissmuller [Johnny Weissmuller-bio - click here] in the Sol Lesser-produced RKO-Tarzan-series. Barker certainly had what it takes to be Tarzan, he was tall, athletic without being musclebound, and handsome without being just another posterboy. He stayed with the series for 5 films - Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949, Lee Sholem), Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950, Lee Sholem), Tarzan's Peril (1951, Byron Haskin), Tarzan's Savage Fury (1952, Cy Enfield) and Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953, Kurt Neumann) - then he fell out with producer Lesser, reportedly because Barker demanded more and better dialogue (but the truth might be something much more profane like money). Barker's successor as Tarzan by the way would be Gordon Scott [Gordon Scott bio - click here], who, very much like Barker, later found fame in Europe.

 

Barker's Tarzans pretty much picked up where Weissmuller's left off - a far cry from Weissmuller's first efforts at MGM, they still had a certain quality to them as solid B-jungle adventures, however, sometimes these films would be campy more than anything else - and not always campy in a good way ...

 


Even while he was still playing Tarzan, Barker tried to establish himself in other roles, mainly Westerns. His first lead in a Western, The Battles of Chief Pontiac (Felix E.Feist), came in 1952, where he played a white scout, with horror-legend Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here], whose career has taken a nose-dive, playing the titular Indian chief.

 

More Westerns would soon follow, including Thunder over the Plains (1953, André de Toth), where he played second fiddle to Randolph Scott, The Yellow Mountain (1954, Jesse Hibbs), The Man from Bitter Ridge (1955, directed by sci-fi legend Jack Arnold) and Deerslayer (1957, Kurt Neumann), where he would portray James Fenimore Cooper's character Deerslayer a.k.a. Hawkeye. In War Drums (1957, Reginald Le Borg) he even played an Apache chieftain ...

In all, Barker's Westerns were competently crafted but unremarkable, as the (B-)Western genre as such had grown a bit stale and idealess. But both Deerslayer and War Drums are of interest regarding his later career in Germany, but we must not get ahead too far ...

 

Besides Westerns, Barker also made a few thrillers (The Price of Fear [1956, Abner Biberman], The Girl in the Kremlin [1957, Russell Birdwell]) and adventure movies (Jungle Heat [1957, Howard W.Koch]), but by and large, it seemed his career was essentially fading out.

 

Essentially, Lex Barker represented the type of actor that had fallen out of fashion in Hollywood all of a sudden, the matinée idol. Ten to fifteen years earlier, men of Barker's type - athletic, good-looking and very disciplined - would have found more work in serials and B-movies (especially Westerns and adventure movies) than they could ever hope to handle, however, in the 1950's, the B-movie genre as a whole had changed and the he-man hero was no longer in demand, instead it was aliens from space and giant insects who took over the screens, with the hero defeating them being most often someone as unlikely as the village doctor or a teacher at the local high school.

And while Barker was good at handling B's, he was never enough of a versatile actor to break into the A's, neither did he, like John Wayne, have sufficient charisma to outbalance his shortcomings.

 

Barker did share the fate of being too late, the hero with many of his colleagues, including his successor on the Tarzan-throne Gordon Scott, and so he did what many other B-actors fallen from grace or TV-actors unable to make their break in the (Hollywood-)movies did: He went to Italy for career recovery. Others who did the same included aforementioned Gordon Scott, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, George Nader, ... (it wasn't Barker's first trip to Italy, by the way, he had already made I Misteri della Giungla/Black Devils of Kali [Gian Paolo Callegari, Ralph Murphy] there back in 1954.)

 

Italy back then had a booming film industry, that was specialized in genre mobies including sword and sandal films, swashbucklers, pirate films, historical dramas, adventure films of any kind, and even some Westerns (though the Spaghetti Western was still a few years away). And since in Italy, like in most of Europe actually, American movies were not divided into A- and B-movies but merely judged by their popularity with the audience, actors like Barker were not only well-known but also in heavy demand to add some international flair to local productions.

 




Soon Barker would find himself filming like crazy, starring in films like Capitan Fuoco/Captain Falcon (1958, Carlo Campogalliani),  Il Figlio del corsaro rosso/The Son of the Red Pirate (1959, Primoi Zeglio), La Scimitarra del Saraceno/The Pirate and the Slave Girls (1959, Piero Pierotti), Terrore della maschera rossa/Terror of the Red Mask (1960, Luigi Capuano), Il Cavaliere dei cento volti/Knight of 100 Faces (1960, Pino Mercanti), I Pirati della costa/Pirates of the Barbary Coast (1960, Domenico Paolella), Il Segreto dello sparviero nero/The Secret of the Black Falcon (1961, Domenico Paolella), El Secreto de los Hombres Azules (1961, Edmond Agabra) and Il Boia di Venezia/The Executioner of Venice (1963, Luigi Capuano).

 





 


These films, as you might be able to tell even from the titles, are old-fashioned pirate/adventure vehicles with Barker as the main attraction. Compared to the Michael Curtiz-directed Errol Flynn pirate/adventure films, these Italian films of course fall flat, however taken on their own, the films are colourful escapist tales that have a certain naive charm, if one can forgive their shortcomings and doesn't question the on-screen goings-on too closely.

To stretch the Errol Flynn analogy even further, Barker even played Robin Hood, one of Flynn's signature roles, in a film, Robin Hood e i pirati/Robin Hood and the Pirates (1960, Giorgio Simonelli), that even manages to include pirates as well.

 


Flix.com


Flix.com

However, as charming as these films might be, they were far from being special, and the only really important film Barker starred in during that time, Federico Fellini's seminal La Dolce Vita (1960) only saw him in a small role which he allegedly only got due to his friendship with lead actress Anita Ekberg. Furthermore back in the days, American actors starring in Italian adventure movies came a dime a dozen, plus by the early to mid-1960's, the Italian adventure cycle was already coming to an end. But by then, Lex Barker had already made the career decision that would determine his later career - even if it at first did not sound all that promising ...

 

In 1961, Artur Brauner of CCC-Filmkunst lured Lex Barker to Germany to star in two of his Mabuse-thrillers. Brauner had just revived Fritz Lang's popular supervillain in the film Die Tausend Augen des Doktor Mabuse/The Thousand Eyes of Dr.Mabuse the previous year, directed by Fritz Lang himself (it would be his last film). Brauner figured that the character could be stretched into a series to compete with Rialto's incredibly popular Edgar Wallace-series. And with Barker, Brauner planned to add a little international flair to the series that would facilitate world sales.

 


Barker starred in Doktor Mabuse 2 and 3, Im Stahlnetz des Dr. Mabuse/The Return of Dr. Mabuse/FBI vs Dr. Mabuse (1961) and Die Unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse/The Invisible Dr. Mabuse/The Invisible Claws of Dr. Mabuse (1962). Both films were competently directed by Harald Reinl [Harald Reinl bio - click here] and were successful enough at the box-office to spawn more Mabuse-sequels (without Barker), but for Barker, the best was still to come ...

 


In 1962, he was approached by Rialto Film to star in a Western called Der Schatz im Silbersee/Treasure of Silver Lake (Harald Reinl), based on a popular book by the German adventure novelist Karl May (1842 - 1912) chronicling the adventures of the Apache chief Winnetou and his white, German friend Old Shatterhand. Curiously enough Barker was chosen to play Old Shatterhand, the only German in the book. Even more curiousloy, he was the only American in the cast of a movie that's supposed to take place in America ... but was actually filmed in Yugoslavia. The Apache chief Winnetou was played by Pierre Brice, a goodlooking French actor ... who looked nothing like a Native American [Pierre Brice bio - click here].


But if you now think this combination spells doom, you are dead wrong. Der Schatz im Silbersee/Treasure of Silver Lake came at a time when the Americans seemed to have forgotten how to make good old-fashioned Westerns while the audience (at least in Europe) longed for them. Furthermore the film, with its simplified plot, its pittoresque (if not very American) landscapes and its romantic music gave the story a fairy-tale-like quality - and, even if there were no native Americans in the cast, it took their agenda very seriously and presented them as heroes, while Hollywood as a whole was still lightyears away from doing so. And of course, the very competent direction of Harald Reinl (who also did Barker's two Mabuse-films), who seemed very much at ease with the genre, the plot, the impressive landscapes and with handling a large cast in and outdoors film, didn't hurt either, neither did villain Herbert Lom.

The film would be a phenomenal success, the most successful film in Germany of the year, so soon, the adventures of Winnetou, both with and without his white friend Old Shatterhand, would be prolonged into a series ...

 


In all, Der Schatz im Silbersee and subsequent films of the Winnetou films would bear resemblance to (at least) two of Barker's American Westerns: War Drums - with the difference that Barker played the Apache chief in this one with Ben Johnson playing his white friend - and Deerslayer - the outfit that Barker wears as Old Shatterhand even resembles that of his Deerslayer-role, and furthermore, Karl May's Winnetou-books as such bore a striking resemblance to James Fenimore Cooper's books about Deerslayer/Hawkeye.

 

After the success of Der Schatz im Silbersee, Rialto Film promptly sent most of the cast and crew back to Yugoslavia to film Winnetou I/Apache Gold (1963) - and Winnetou II/Last of the Renegades (1964) and Winnetou III/Desperado Trail (1965) were quick to follow, with the basic formula unchanged, and all of these films also directed by Harald Reinl with music by Martin Böttcher.

 


Winnetou I chronicles the story of how Winnetou and Old Shatterhand first met, as enemies, and as they gradually became friends and blood-brothers, with Mario Adorf handling the villainy and Marie Versini playing Old Shatterhand's native American love interest.

 

Winnetou II tells of Winnetou's great love Ribanna (Karin Dor, not at all looking native American either [Karin Dor bio - click here]) and how he lost her to a young Mario Girotti (=  Terence Hill) for the sake of peace with the white man. Anthony Steel is the villain here, and Klaus Kinski is in this one too.

 


In Winnetou III, Winnetou dies a tragic death, with Rik Battaglia being the main baddie.

Rather surprisingly, between Der Schatz im Silbersee and Winnetou III, there is no drop in quality, all four films are done in the same adventurous yet romantic mood, and impressive landscapes, competent direction and love for the genre as such make them great if naive films. Even at the box office, all four films did equally well.

 



By 1964 however, producer Artur Brauner of CCC-Filmkunst, the man who has brought Barker to Germany in the first place, has smelled success, and since he was one to always jump any bandwagon, he made an even for him bold move: He hired Lex Barker, Pierre Brice and Ralf Wolter - the perennial sidekick of the series - and put them into a Winnetou-film of his own - which he could, since Winnetou was in public domain and the actors had no exclusive contracts with Rialto Film ...

Thus Old Shatterhand was born, directed by Hollywood veteran Hugo Fregonese, with music by Riz Ortolani, and Rik Battaglia - who would later be the main heavy in Winnetou III - playing one of the villains. Daliah Lavi was the female lead, with nothing really to do though besides from a very brief nude scene.

 

Old Shatterhand was not on par with Rialto's Winnetous, it was more of a traditional, somewhat hastily made B-Western with a muddled screenplay, but it did well enough at the German box office to make Rialto Film realize there is competition out there and make their main actors (Barker, Brice, Wolter) sign contracts that would bar them from playing their charracters for any other studio.

 


Once he smelled success though, Brauner wasn't one to give up, and soon he came up with some Karl May-novels not dealing with Winnetou and Old Shatterhand: First up were Karl May's Oriental adventures about Kara Ben Nemsi, a German adventurer who rights wrongs in the Middle East ... and who better to play him than Lex Barker - which made kind of sense, since author Karl May had claimed that Kara Ben Nemsi and Old Shatterhand were one and the same person (and in one of his outrageous lies he even claimed that both were him and he is just chronicling his own adventures). For Barker's Oriental sidekick Hadschi Halef Omar, Artur Brauner did not look that far either, Ralf Wolter, perennial Winnetou sidekick, was just transposed to the Orient (which in fact was not very far, since the first Kara Ben Nemsi was shot in Yugoslavia, just like the Winnetous).

 


The first of the three Kara Ben Nemsi-films, Der Schut/The Shoot (1964) is probably also the best, a colourful Oriental adventure competently (but not outstandingly) handled by Hollywood legend Robert Siodmak, with music by Winnetou's Martin Böttcher, Rik Battaglia once again as main villain and Marie Versini of Winnetou I as female lead.

 


The film was successful enough to spawn 2 sequels, Durchs Wilde Kurdistan/The Wild Men of Kurdistan and Im Reiche des Silbernen Löwen/Attack of the Kurds in 1965. Both of these films were directed by Franz Josef Gottlieb [Franz Josef Gottlieb bio - click here], whose talents were more with light comedy than adventure yarns. Furthermore budgets were low, the Spanish locations (at least those chosen for the film) were somewhat missing the romantic aura of those in Yugoslavia, and the scripts were rather muddled and boring, not at all helped by the fact that the two films were interlinked ... 

The films were rather moderate successes

 


But even if the Kara Ben Nemsis, as a whole, did not perform as well as expected, Brauner and CCC-Filmkunst seemed to be hell-bent to milk the cow dry, and next they threw 2 films about Karl May's character Karl Sternau - again played by Lex Barker - at the audience, in the films Der Schatz der Atzteken/The Treasure of the Aztecs  and Die Pyramide des Sonnengottes/Pyramid of the Sun God (both 1965).

Once again, Robert Siodmak helmed these movies, but while they are competently crafted, at the end of the day they seem to be little more than underbudgeted Western/adventure films. Consequently, they were not very successful.

 

Away from Karl May-adaptations, Artur Brauner found yet another (!) way to try and cash in on the Winnetou-series. He teamed up Lex Barker and Pierre Brice in the Western Die Hölle von Manitoba/A Place Called Glory (1965), directed by Sheldon Reynolds, where both of them play gunmen coming to a city to take part in a big duel, and, not knowing that they will be opponents in this duel, become friends and right a few wrongs. The film is actually surprisingly good, an interesting yet entertaining psychological Western. However, since the film was not the success Brauner would have expected it to be, it's today largely forgotten but ripe for rediscovery.

 

Meanwhile, the Winnetou-series at Rialto Film was steadily going on, despite the death of Winnetou (the films were just explained away as prequels), but Barker wasn't in them, he was replaced by Stewart Granger as Old Surehand in 3 films. The series though was steadily deteriorating ... and not just because Lex Barker was missing.

In 1966 Barker returned to the series for one film, Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi/Half Breed, directed by Harald Philipp, but this film, starring the very Bavarian young Uschi Glas as a Native American halfbreed is nothing short of revolting. Both the love for the genre and fairy tale-like atmosphere is gone, replaced by the story about a cute half-Indian girl and her brother who constantly gets into trouble. Furthermore, most of the heroics are not handled by Pierre Brice or Lex Barker but by Götz George, a capable actor in his own right but out of place in this silly Western.

 





After Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi, Rialto Film would only do one more Winnetou, Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand (1966, Alfred Vohrer [Alfred Vohrer bio - click here]), which was almost as bad, but Barker was not in this one (Rod Cameron took over as Old Firehand).

 

Away from the Winnetou-series, Lex Barker's films were a so-so bunch, comprising of films of the typical B-genres like adventure (Das Todesauge von Ceylon/Scarlet Eye [1963, Gerd Oswald, Giovanni Roccardi]), crime thriller (Code 7, Victim 5 [1964, Robert Lynn]), Western (Wer kennt Johnny R.?/Who Killed Johnny Ringo ? [1966, José Luis Madrid]) and espionage thriller (Mister Dynamit - Morgen küsst Euch der Tod/Spy Today, Die Tomorrow [1967, Franz Josef Gottlieb - Franz Josef Gottlieb bio - click here]).

In one film, Gern hab' ich die Frau'n gekillt/Killer's Carnival (1966, Alberto Cardone, Robert Lynn, Sheldon Reynolds), he even shared top billing with Pierre Brice and Stewart Granger, which sounds interesting as it would be a modern day thriller starring the three main stars of the Winnetou series. Furthermore the film also stars Karin Dor, Klaus Kinski and Herbert Fux. If however this sounds interesting, the film is anything but - Barker, Brice and Granger star in three seperate segments that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, and the script for the film as a whole totally lacks excitement.

 



Flix.com

Lex Barker's most interesting film of this period might be Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel/Castle of the Walking Dead (1967). Somehow based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, this is Barker's  only excursion into straight horror, and quite an effective piece of work too, wonderfully and atmospherically crafted by Harald Reinl (once again), and starring - besides Barker - Karin Dor and Christopher Lee... this is one film ripe for rediscovery.

 


The following year, 1968, Lex Barker would do another film with Harald Reinl, and would once again to Atze Brauner's CCC-Filmkunst, the company that got him to Germany in the first place, for Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten/In the Valley of the Death.

By 1968, when this film was made, all the actors' exclusive contracts with Rialto Film, that would bar them from starring in Winnetou-films for other companies had expired, so Artur Brauner decided to try his hands on the series yet once more, but this time make everything right. Consequently he hired Lex Barker and Pierre Brice as the leads, Ralf Wolter as their trusted sidekick, once more Karin Dor took the female lead, Rik Battaglia would do the villainy, and Eddi Arent, who did the comic relief in some of the earlier films, was again hired to do just that. Directorial duties once again went to Harald Reinl, and Martin Böttcher wrote the romantic score.

Still, neither in quality nor at the box office, Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten could compete with Der Schatz im Silbersee and Winnetou I, II and  III, it seemed too much of a rehash of these four movies and reminiscence of a time that no longer was - because even though Der Schatz im Silbersee, the first of the bunch, was a mere 6 years away, since then the Spaghetti Western has hit big time and changed the genre forever, for better or worse.

 


With his star in Germany beginning to vane, Lex Barker moved back to America. True he made 2 more movies in Europe in 1970, the sci-fi-thriller Aoom (Gonzalo Suárez) and the romance Wenn Du bei mir bist (Franz Josef Gottlieb [Franz Josef Gottlieb bio - click here]) - in which he only had a small part, - but by and large he tried to rekindle his long-neglected American movie career.

 

His efforts however did not lead to more than a handful TV-appearances in series like It Takes a Thief, The Name of the Game, The F.B.I. and Night Gallery, before death took him away ...

 

In 1973, Lex Barker died all of a sudden from a heart attack in New York, and with him went an average screen-Tarzan for some, but the most popular foreign actor of Germany and the white brother of Winnetou for others ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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