From Days of Vine to a Night of Roses: a Jane-Less Ron Ely Swings Again

updated 09/08/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For the first time in the history of the Miss America Pageant, more people may be sizing up the emcee than the beauties. Not that his 6'6", 230-pound physique isn't worth eyeballing at 46-34-undisclosed. But Ron Ely steps into an extra-hot spotlight this Saturday as the replacement for Bert Parks, the spectacle's venerable host, who was unceremoniously dumped last January after 25 years. Bringing what pageant officials call "a modern, contemporary image" to the Atlantic City glamor parade, Ely, 42, does cut a younger figure than the 65-year-old Parks. But, in the words of the 1971 Miss America, Phyllis George: "Ron has big shoes to fill—I wish him luck."

Ely is accustomed to following tough acts, albeit barefoot. He was the 15th actor to play Tarzan and the first on TV, in NBC's 1966-68 series. Although he is now the host of the game show Face the Music, he isn't a trained singer, and his selections Saturday probably won't include Parks' hallmark There She Is, Miss America. The producers say they tapped Ely because he's a polished performer with good looks and has a strong but not overbearing personality.

Whatever, he clearly wasn't chosen for his liberated attitude on the sexes. The new "contemporary" host takes a view of women that seems back in the jungle. "Women are capable of one thing I'm not, and that's having children," Ely announces, for starters. "A woman carries that child in her body, and afterward it's her responsibility to be with that child. It's also her job to create a home for a man that's compatible with his interests." In return, Ron adds, a man should be a breadwinner and protector.

Divorced since he was 23, Ely doesn't deny that his concept of the perfect woman is "almost antique." While he's not looking for a wife, he plans to see if any of the Miss America contestants measure up. "I want a woman who is bright, graceful under pressure, sensitive and who has a developed talent," he says. "She should also have a sense of humor and a willingness to participate in my life rather than try to take me in her direction." Indeed, Ely's two-year marriage to his childhood sweetheart ended because she wanted a career, an idea he opposed. Ambivalent about marriage ("I really want to fall in love and marry, but I worry about opening myself to that since I'm a very happy person"), he usually appears solo at social events and celeb golf and tennis tourneys. "I've loved one woman in my life, and it wasn't my wife," he reports. The woman in question was a European actress he refuses to name. "I let her go and regret it," he sighs.

A native of Hereford, Texas, Ely was 15 months old when his father died. When Ron was 4 his mother took him and his sister Freda with her to Amarillo, where she worked as a secretary. "I had no buffer from the world," he recalls, "because my mother herself was trying to survive." He worked at odd jobs as a kid, and at Amarillo High School dabbled in sports and won the Texas state poetry-reading championship with his rendition of Rudyard Kipling's The Service Man ("I still consume literature like a paper shredder," he notes. "I go through 1,000 pages a week"). After a semester at the University of Texas, he got hung up on acting and moved to L.A. After some small parts in movies (South Pacific was the first), Ely switched to TV (Father Knows Best, Playhouse 90 and Malibu Run). A stint in the Air Force and a trip around the world interrupted his career. But after returning to L.A., starring roles in Night of the Grizzly and Tarzan brought him notoriety.

Ely hasn't gone out of his way to exhibit grace under pressure vis-à-vis Parks, who he says "could have demonstrated a lot more class." Parks, who asserts he received no advance notice of his ouster, says, "I still feel I was treated in a shabby manner." While Ely won't disclose how much he's getting under his three-year contract (with options), it's reportedly a lot more than Parks' $18,500. "I get a lot of money for what I do because I'm a professional, and I deserve it," puffs Ely. Parks—and some 85 million others—will judge for themselves. Observes Bert: "I can't wait to see Tarzan. Imagine that—going up into the trees to find a replacement."

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