Crabbe's son, Cullen, 38, known as Cuffy, a Phoenix real-estate man, who, as a 10-year-old in the mid-1950s, co-starred with his father in a TV series called Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, sees his father as a man who was an honest craftsman above all else. "Flash Gordon was far-out stuff in the 1930s when my dad made it," says Cuffy. "It had a kind of tongue-in-cheek quality to it for most people. But the old man played it straight. He gave it serious, honest effort, and because of that, I think, that serial has survived as...well, as a piece of American history." Fittingly enough, one of Buster's most treasured possessions was an autographed picture of David Scott, an astronaut on two of the Apollo moon missions. The inscription reads: MANY THANKS FOR LEADING THE WAY!
Crabbe never gave up swimming and he did as much as two miles a day right up until the end of his life. He stopped competing after 1932, but he was a member of the water polo team selected to represent the U.S. at the 1936 Olympics. He didn't go to the Berlin Games, however, because the U.S. Olympic Committee chased him off the team for having appeared in advertisements for the Bulova Watch Company.
Crabbe performed in Billy Rose's Aquacades at the 1940 New York World's Fair, and he owned his own touring water show, called Aqua-parade, from 1945 until it went broke in Europe in the winter of '50. Crabbe was foundering then, but he didn't sink. He subsequently hosted what may have been TV's first calisthenics-for-housewives program on WOR-TV in New York, did a kiddies' Western show on the same station, ran a boys' camp in the Adirondacks, was the ceremonial "director of water sports" at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills and did countless ads and personal appearances for swimming-pool makers. He was even a stockbroker for a time. In his last decade he made good money on the lecture circuit discussing physical fitness and was a regular attraction at conventions of movie trivia fans.
Crabbe didn't make a fortune, but he lived well, stayed married to the same woman, had seven grandchildren, moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. when he was 65 and was recognized wherever he went. However, that tenth of a second must have given him pause from time to time. "He wasn't a natural as an entertainer," says his daughter, Susan, 46, a psychologist. "I think he always saw himself as a professional swimmer, as a man who made his living from that instead of from being a professional actor."
Virginia Crabbe adds pensively: "Well, after all, Buster was a legend in his own time. But I don't think he would ever have chosen to be an actor if all these things hadn't happened to push him into it. I think he was never really completely fulfilled after the Olympics. He had that one moment when he absolutely hit the top. He had a good life after that, and he enjoyed it. But I'm not sure Buster ever felt that he reached his full potential again."