Crabbe was in Lane 6, close to the Japanese, while Taris was across the pool in Lane 1. As expected, Taris took the lead, using his distinctive flailing, roundhouse stroke to churn farther and farther ahead until, halfway through the race, he was a full three lengths in front of his nearest pursuer, Crabbe. To that point, Crabbe stuck to his strategy of staying close to the Japanese. "I glimpsed Taris from time to time," he later told Virginia, "and I wasn't worried. I could see the splashing he made across the pool. But then I saw he wasn't fading. Suddenly, I realized he had probably been faking it in the trial heats. So I changed my tempo and my tactics—fast—and I took off after him."
Crabbe quickly chewed up Taris' lead. By the time Crabbe pushed off the wall for the final lap, he was about a length behind, but he'd used up a lot of energy in the process. "Suddenly I was hit by the conviction that I had lost," Crabbe recalled. "I was maybe 30 seconds from the finish, and I was completely spent. I wanted to stop. The only thing that kept me going was the tremendous noise of the crowd. Everyone was screaming. I figured that meant either that I must still be gaining on him or that I'd caught him. I didn't take a breath or raise my head those last 10 yards, and the instant I hit the wall I looked over at his lane. I saw his head bob, which meant he'd just touched the wall. I knew I'd won. The whole place went wild." The time was 4:48.4 for Crabbe, 4:48.5 for Taris. The Japanese finished third, fourth and fifth. Oyokota, who came in third, later told teammates that he had been suffering from diarrhea caused by consuming too much fresh milk and honeydew melon served him by the adoring local Nisei.
Crabbe's father was in the crowd, and he shoved his way through a platoon of guards, rushed to the pool and kissed his son square on the mouth before Buster had even pulled himself out of the water. Virginia was in the crowd, too, and she recalls, "The minute he touched the wall, I couldn't think of anything but to rush to a phone and call my mother. It didn't really make that much of an impression on Mother, and later, when Buster joined us in the stands, he was a little irritated at me. The first thing he said was, 'Where were you?' "
Crabbe wasn't the biggest American hero of the Games—that distinction belonged to Babe Didrikson, who won two gold medals and a silver in the three track and field events she was allowed to compete in (SI, Oct. 6, 1975 et seq.)—but he probably profited the most from them.
Even before the Olympics had begun, Paramount Pictures had sent scouts into the Village to seek handsome young men for a screen test that was intended to uncover a new jungle king to compete with MGM's Tarzan, Weissmuller. About 20 Americans, including Crabbe, put on what he called G-strings and had themselves filmed in action—running, grinning, throwing a javelin, pretending to heft and heave a huge papier-mâché boulder that weighed about five pounds.
"I did it as a big lark," Crabbe later told a New York paper. "Acting had never entered my head. I always thought there was something a little odd about the kids in school who went out for plays."
A few days after the Olympics, Crabbe and half a dozen others were retested and Crabbe was picked. Was this because of latent acting talent? Because some mogul saw dollar signs on Crabbe's big brown eyes? Hardly. Crabbe became an instant star because 25 studio secretaries, who assuredly were well aware of his heroics and who easily recognized him because his face had been on the front page of all the major L.A. papers, were assembled one afternoon to watch a second series of screen tests. They picked Crabbe, 24 to one.
He started work immediately, at $100 a week, on a feature film, King of the Jungle. The first day on the lot, his assignment was to pose for still photos with a real lion. The photographer had Crabbe toss bits of meat to the animal. He accidentally dropped a tidbit, and the lion, evidently irritated, leaped and sank its teeth into Crabbe's thigh, causing a wound so deep and so bloody that when a doctor attempted to cauterize the wound, the photographer fainted. King of the Jungle was released in March 1933 and got a near rave review from The New York Times: "Endowed with a refreshing sense of humor lacking in other films of the type, 'King of the Jungle'...is an unusually good picture, one that will appeal to cinema patrons of all ages." TIME magazine was less impressed, calling the film "an obvious inversion of the Tarzan formula." The magazine was more enthusiastic about Crabbe, who played Kaspa, a young man who'd been raised by lions. "From the neck down," said TIME, "Crabbe easily equals Weissmuller as an attraction to female audiences; from the neck up he is a vast improvement."
Crabbe next made a brainless beefcake flick called Search for Beauty ("Venus-like Girls! Tarzan-like Men!"), which Virginia succinctly labels "a stinker." But the studio raised his pay to $200 a week, and he stayed on—and on. In the end, he made some 192 movies, including eight serials of at least 12 episodes each. He played Buck Rogers 12 times, Tarzan once, and possibly made more Zane Grey Westerns than anyone else. He may have become accustomed to being called the King of the Serials, but he didn't like it. He said later, "I never thought I belonged. The book about my movie career I have in mind would be called something like From the Outside Looking In. They pigeonholed me as a lifeguard or something. You know, the guy who strips pretty well. I never got any help from a good director. Just because I was a swimmer doesn't mean I was a dummy. I could have learned to be a good actor."
Crabbe remained a man of serious mien throughout his life. Dawson, who knew Crabbe for years, says: "He was a no-nonsense guy. He didn't have that happy-go-lucky attitude that other swimmers like Weissmuller or Stubby Kreuger had. Buster knew that Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon weren't Hamlet, but he took his acting very seriously. He was a man who valued his dignity."