Tarzan Today!

updated 11/25/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/25/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even in the jungles of Mexico, where people live in huts and there are no VCRs, the tiniest kids knew right away that the dude in front of the cameras—the one with the long locks and the short loincloth—was Tarzan, King of the Jungle. What they didn't know right away was that this was a Tarzan for the '90s, a man who fights poachers, drug smugglers, toxic-waste dumpers, strip miners and air polluters.

Wolf Larson, 32, who plays the vine-swinging hero in the new ecologically oriented, family-friendly Tarzan TV series, which debuted in syndication Sept. 28, is a '90s guy too—a hunk with a heart, a head and an M.B.A. "My parents didn't much care what I did for a living," says Larson. "They just wanted me to have something to fall back on."

The late Edgar Rice Burroughs, who over 75 years ago introduced the little-lost-English-lord raised by apes, might be thrilled that this, the 19th incarnation of his enfant sauvage, is a character who talks in complete sentences. Still, frets Larson, many moviegoers remember the grunting, monosyllabic Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan. "It's a little like playing James Bond after Sean Connery," says Wolf.

Larson, whose first big break in showbiz came with a few spots as Joan Collins's secretary on Dynasty ("She couldn't have been nicer!"), spent three months in training to swing from vine to vine. During the four months of shooting in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Larson, an athlete since childhood, typically toiled 13 hours a day in heat that reached more than 100°F, then worked out for another 90 minutes in a tiny custom-built concrete gym. Lydie Denier, the 27-year-old French actress who plays Jane with a Gallic lilt, feels the result was worth it: a lean, sculpted swimmer's physique. "He doesn't have the body of an Arnold Schwarzenegger," says Denier. "Wolf's is better."

Within that 6'2", 200-lb. fortress of power is a sound mind as well. Berlin-born Wolfgang Wyszecki moved to Ottawa with his parents when still a baby. His late father, Gunther, had doctorates in physics and mathematics, and his mother, Ingeborg, is a chemist. (Larson is a name from his mother's family.) After graduating with honors from Queen's University in Ontario, Larson went on to earn his MBA at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (a town he calls "a nonstop madhouse"), and lingered at UNLV for two more years as an instructor in security portfolios and stock-market analysis.

But since "acting was something I always wanted to do," he says, though he hadn't done it since high school, after migrating to L.A., Larson took classes and auditioned for roles while working with an actor friend to build a lucrative business turning out calendars, 20 to date. Most of the artwork features flora and fauna, but the bestsellers are the "Skin Deep" series—-bathing-suit calendars that come in male and female varieties. (On the male version, look for Wolf as February 1992's hunk of the month.)

The Dynasty role led to two months of Tarzan auditions. Says casting director Barbara King: "Wolf has this wonderful quality. A terrific-looking body and a wonderful naïveté about his face."

Larson swung right into the role on the jungle set. He trimmed a few inches off his loincloth, finding it "too long," and changed his mind about playing Tarzan barefoot (opting to wear sandals instead) when he saw the interesting variety of snakes in the area. He also talked the producers into letting him do almost all his own stunts, "except the 60-foot-high dive off the waterfall. They thought it was too dangerous, but I was up for it, honest!"

While the ratings are building, Larson, back from the jungle with 25 episodes on tape, leads an uncomplicated life in a five-bedroom suburban L.A. house, one of three bought with his calendar profits. He abhors steroids and avoids even aspirin but willingly quaffs an occasional beer. What with keeping up his memberships at three different gyms, he claims to have no time for wolfing around. "I'm not ready to get married, and I've ended relationships because the women wanted to go that extra step," he says. "I'm too busy being Tarzan."

The trouble with being Tarzan, of course, is that the image is tougher to shed than a loincloth. "My aspirations are to go on to completely different things," says Larson. "Still, it might not be so bad, getting stuck in the action-adventure mold. It sure hasn't hurt Arnold's career."

LOUISE LAGUE
DAVID MARLOW in Los Angeles

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