Saturday, February 6, 2021

Mike Henry—August 15, 1936–January 8, 2021

By Jeffrey J. Miller

Mike Henry's 1962 Post Cereal card

Most people who remember Mike Henry at all remember him as the titular character in three Tarzan movies from the 1960s, but we here at the Pro Football Journal—and some of the more knowledgeable football fans, of course—recall Henry as a decent middle linebacker who played six NFL seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1959-61) and Los Angeles Rams (1962-64).  It was with great sadness that we learned of Henry’s passing on January 8, 2021 at the age of 84. 

During his career, the six-foot, two-inch, 220-pounder appeared in 76 games, 54 as a starter.  He had his best statistical season in 1963 with the Rams, picking off five passes and recovering one fumble.  For his career, Henry accounted for nine interceptions and six fumble recoveries.             

Henry played his college ball at USC but was selected by the less-than-glamorous Pittsburgh Steelers in the 9th round of the 1958 college draft. After three seasons in the Steel City, Henry’s desire to pursue a career in acting resulted in his requesting a trade to the Los Angeles Rams, knowing several Rams had made appearances in movies, television series and commercials. It wasn’t long before Hollywood studios recognized the potential in the ruggedly handsome native Californian. He began appearing in bit roles in film and television the early 60s, but his signature role signaled the end of his football career.  

Mike Henry (53) in action as the Los Angeles 
Rams take on John Unitas (19) and the 
Baltimore Colts, November 22, 1964.

With his chiseled physique, Henry was perfectly fit for the role of Lord of the Jungle.  Between 1965 and 68, Henry appeared in three Tarzan flicks, including Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, Tarzan and the Great River, and Tarzan and the Jungle Boy.  

While filming Tarzan and the Jungle Boy, however, Henry was bitten on the jaw by the chimpanzee playing Cheetah, requiring 20 stitches to close the wound. The actor subsequently sued the production company (Banner Productions). The case was settled for an undisclosed amount, but Henry refused to continue in the role. Ron Ely took over as Tarzan in the TV series.

Mike Henry as Tarzan (1966)

Henry moved on to forge a successful career as a character actor, his most notable role as the son of Buford T. Justice, Jackie Gleason’s character in the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy.  He also appeared in two films with John Wayne, as Sergeant Kowalski in The Green Berets (1968) and as a corrupt sheriff in Rio Lobo (1970).  

Henry put his experience as a football player to good use, too, appearing alongside Charlton Heston in the commercial and critical flop Number One in 1970, and as a football-playing prison guard in the wildly popular Burt Reynolds vehicle, The Longest Yard (1974).  His last film role was a bit part in the 1987 comedy Outrageous Fortune, which starred Bette Midler and Shelly Long.

Mike Henry as Rasmussen, a crooked prison 
guard/football player in The Longest Yard (1974)


He retired from acting in 1988 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He passed away in Burbank, California, on January 8 due to complications from both Parkinson's and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).     

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