Bo Derek remembers her harrowing near-death lion attack on the set of ‘Tarzan, the Ape Man’

As Tarzan’s longtime companion, Jane Porter is no stranger to perilous animal encounters within the pages of Edgar Rice Burrough’s popular novels or their many screen adaptations. But real life and reel life collided in dangerous fashion on the set of 1981’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, starring Bo Derek as the King of the Jungle’s better half. Released in theaters 40 years ago this month, the film includes a scene where Derek’s Jane is attacked by a lion while bathing on a tropical beach. 

But as the actress and international sex symbol tells Yahoo Entertainment, her co-star went seriously off-script during the shoot, and tried to maul her for real. Only the last-minute intervention of Tarzan himself (played by Miles O’Keefe) prevented disaster. “Tarzan saved my life,” she says now. (Watch our video interview above.) 

Even before the attack, Derek had a premonition that this particular lion might be trouble. As both the star and producer of the film — which was a remake of the 1932 blockbuster that spawned an entire Tarzan franchise — she had handpicked another animal co-star, an older, more experienced big cat that had been in many Hollywood productions. But when she arrived on set in Sri Lanka, she discovered that the crew — led by her husband and the film’s director, John Derek — had made a new hire. 

Miles O'Keeffe and Bo Derek as Tarzan and Jane in 1981's Tarzan, the Apeman (Photo: MGM/courtesy Everett Collection)

Miles O’Keeffe and Bo Derek as Tarzan and Jane in 1981’s Tarzan, the Apeman (Photo: MGM/courtesy Everett Collection)

“I saw this gorgeous, young spectacular male lion and he just fixes on me,” Derek recalls. “Not anyone else in our group, just me. They said, ‘Oh, he’s fresh from a zoo in Texas, but he’s so sweet. You’re going to love him.’ And I said, ‘I don’t like the way he’s looking at me.’ You get that feeling on the back of your neck that you’re prey — and that’s the way he was looking at me.” 

Derek’s concerns went unaddressed, particularly after O’Keefe bonded with the more aggressive young lion. “He and Tarzan were buddies, no problem,” she says. It didn’t help that the animal was on set while they rehearsed the beach scene where Jane and Tarzan meet for the first time, observing Derek while she pretended to be in peril. “I was running and screaming for two days in front of this lion, just like prey.”

As scripted, O’Keefe was supposed to bring Derek out of the water and onto the sand. But the lion broke character and pounced while she was still in the waves. With Derek’s husband and the other crew members a half-mile down the beach, O’Keefe was the only one who could intervene. “When the lion went to attack me, he pushed Miles on top of me, and I crawled out from underneath. The lion is swatting me — and they can break your neck with their paws. I’m getting beat up, but I knew he didn’t like the water. So I’m trying to crawl into the surf, but the [waves] keep going out!” 

Derek was attacked by a lion while filming this scene from Tarzan, the Ape Man. (Photo: MGM)

Derek was attacked by a lion while filming this scene from Tarzan, the Ape Man. (Photo: MGM)

That’s when O’Keefe had his real-life Tarzan moment. “The lion went to leap again, but [Miles] held him just long enough around the waist to confuse him and that gave me time to get into the ocean. Right before the wave came, [the lion] did get on my back, and went to take my shoulder off, but the angle was wrong. He just sliced me on my shoulder.” 

In the immediate aftermath of Derek’s near-miss with becoming a lion’s dinner, her husband almost shut down production on the film. “He was furious,” she says now. “He was like, ‘Screw movies, nothing is worth this!’ But by the time we got to dinner, John was there with a storyboard figuring out how to use the attack in the film.” And, in fact, that’s the version of the scene that ended up in the movie, with only a few minor alterations. “[John] added another shot of Miles pulling the lion off of me,” Derek says. “We used as much as we could in the film. It was nuts, but that’s the business right? That’s movies!” 

Derek encounters another jungle creature in Tarzan, the Ape Man (Photo: MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Derek encounters another jungle creature in Tarzan, the Ape Man (Photo: MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

In a wide-ranging interview, Derek reflected on why she chose Tarzan, the Ape Man to be her first major star vehicle after breaking through with Blake Edwards’s hit 1979 comedy 10; dealing with the critical backlash when the film was released; and why she decided to take charge of her screen image after feeling “exploited” by Hollywood.

Yahoo Entertainment: You shot to stardom with 10 — why did you decide to make Tarzan your first major Hollywood leading role?

Bo Derek: At the time I was being offered everything! Sheena, Queen of the Jungle was one of [the offers], and in the process of talking with my agent, Marty Baum, we started talking about how the classic Tarzan line is: “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” This was 1980 or 1981 when we were trying to put this package together, and we thought we could switch it and have the attitude of the movie be: “Me Jane, you Tarzan,” because women’s issues and rights were in full swing back then. So that was the plan! But the only rights we could get at the time were to remake the 1932 film, and we had to be exact. Sometimes when you’re making a film, you start off wanting one thing and you end up making something you don’t even recognize. There’s a lot of that. 

People forget how racy those early Tarzan movies were for their time. Was that part of your inspiration?

No, we thought we would have that latitude to make that story from the woman’s point of view, but slowly it kept getting willed away into something else. What John and I meant it to be was fun, beautiful and something we could work on together. And Marty also set [the film] up so that I would be producing it. I was feeling a bit controlled, pushed, shoved. Honestly, people were coming into our office with big cases, full of cash to get me to sign anything. They didn’t care! They would walk in and say, “What are your interests? Sign, and here’s a case full of cash.” It was pretty crazy, and everyone knew what I should do except me. So I was feeling pulled, pushed, shoved, exploited, and it was my husband’s advice to produce my own movie and exploit myself.  

As you mentioned, the film is very much Jane’s story — Tarzan doesn’t even appear onscreen until about 45 minutes in. And even then, Jane is the one taking action, which is different from the ’30s version.

To a point. It really was her movie, even the 1931 version. We got criticism for not having Tarzan speak, but we couldn’t. I mean, “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” is about all he said in the original movie, and we had to do the same thing.

What was the process of casting Miles O’Keefe as Tarzan?

He was just so spectacularly beautiful. Miles was unique in his look, and he had a grace and an animal quality — like a cat. So that was very appealing to us as producers casting the movie.

And speaking of cats, you do have some great animal actors in the movie as well.

Yes, and I want to explain this because this was a different time in terms of the way we felt about wild animals. I grew up with National Geographic and Wild Kingdom, so when we stared making the movie, part of the appeal was that I would get to be around these wild animals. They were trained for movies, and I hired them because I was the producer. We would write scenes according to what [the wranglers] said the animals would do. But when we got there, and I saw the abuse that some of the animals had to go through to get the scene we wrote, we were able to quickly say, “Hold on everybody, let’s stop this. We don’t need lionesses to go into the water. Let’s just scratch the scene, and send them home.”

O'Keefe and Derek with a chimp co-star in 'Tarzan, the Ape Man' (Photo: MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

O’Keefe and Derek with a chimp co-star in ‘Tarzan, the Ape Man’ (Photo: MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

For the chimps, [the wranglers] had these horrible slingshots that they would shoot up in the trees when they weren’t behaving. I think what was beautiful in the film is that we just started using what the animals did naturally instead of sometimes beating them into performances. It was a big awakening to me that these animals don’t necessarily love me. Because I knew when I got around them they would of course fall in love with me! [Laughs]

The chimps wanted to bite me most of the time, so I was running from them. There were leeches and snakes everywhere. We had a scene with a hundred elephants, and I hired a hundred elephants to come in from all over Sri Lanka. But you can’t put a hundred elephants together — they start to fight! You could hear them in the jungle, fighting all morning. I get a lot of criticism now for just riding an elephant in that movie, and I get it. It was a different time. 

You are very involved with animal causes today. Was that the birth of that interest, working on that movie?

Yes, I’m on the board of WildAid, a great conservation foundation. During the movie, Miles and I had developed this friendship with an orangutan named C.J. who was so sweet, and so dear. One morning, John said, “Let’s just play around with him and see what happens.” So we did, and you see that in the movie. If you talk to experts in primates, they’re quite impressed with that sequence because it’s two humans and this gorgeous creatures with this great spirit playing and having fun. You don’t see that very often.

Derek and O'Keefe in an intimate scene from Tarzan, the Ape Man. (Photo: MGM/courtesy Everett Collection)

Derek and O’Keefe in an intimate scene from Tarzan, the Ape Man. (Photo: MGM/courtesy Everett Collection)

You mentioned that the film became something else as you were making it. Was the nudity and sexual content something that was added and not part of your intention going in?

No, I had no problem with nudity. And, as you said, the 1932 movie was very racy. So there are some nudity, but it’s not really in a sexual context. It’s pretty mild, especially by today’s standards. Even by 1981 standards it was very light and fun.

Your husband had photographed you for Playboy and your later films together also had sexual content in them. Were those scenes comfortable for you to do?

I just tried to treat them like anything else. You’re directed constantly and shots are set up, so they were never a big deal for me. And at that time, they were sort of a required element in a film if you wanted good foreign sales. If you look at most films from that time, there was the obligatory love scene.

Was that one of things you felt exploited about, having to do scenes like that in your films?

The films I was being offered at the time definitely all had that, so I felt better being in control. And as a producer, I was involved in the editing room and how much was in the movie and how much wasn’t.

Derek takes a break from the adventure in Tarzan, the Ape Man (Photo: MGM/courtesy Everett Collection)

Derek takes a break from the adventure in Tarzan, the Ape Man (Photo: MGM/courtesy Everett Collection)

Tarzan was very successful at the time, and even finished in the Top 20 at the 1981 box office. The critics weren’t as kind, though, and you also got some Golden Raspberry nominations. Was that painful to see that reaction?

If you look at the Golden Raspberries, I’m in really good company, so I’m fine with that! [Laughs] You know, they don’t like husbands and wives working together in general in Hollywood, especially back then. The reviews were so personal: they weren’t about the movie many times. One of the reviews said that we did such a bad job with the plane crash, but the plane crash came later in the original series of Tarzan movies! 

I never planned to make films with just my husband, but the few films that we made together made money so there was always an opportunity to make another one together. [John Derek died in 1998.] And in terms of who I was at the time, the attention I was getting and the criticism I was getting, it was just fun to go off and make a film with my husband in some exotic location. We always left town and went someplace to try and make a good movie. And fortunately the did well, all of them.  

Tarzan, the Ape Man is available to rent or purchase on most on demand platforms, including Prime Video.

— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee

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