Raised in Hawaii, he excelled as a swimmer and participated in two Olympic Games: 1928, where he won the bronze medal for the 1,500 meter freestyle, and 1932, where he won the gold medal for the 400 meter freestyle. Ironically, at that Olympics, he broke the record held by Johnny Weissmuller, whose role as Tarzan he would later assume.
Crabbe's role in a 1933 Tarzan serial, also issued as a full length movie Tarzan the Fearless, launched a successful career in which he starred in over one hundred movies. Other than a 1964 remake of the same movie, it would be the only movie in which he starred as Tarzan. In the 1933 movie, King of the Jungle the 1941's Jungle Man, and the 1952 serial, King of the Congo he played similar roles ... but that's not Tarzan. His next major role was as Flash Gordon in the popular Flash Gordon serial. Other characters he portrayed included Western hero Billy the Kid and Buck Rogers.
Crabbe's career waned somewhat in the 1950s, though he did make regular television appearances including one in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century where he helps the title character. Nevertheless, he is best remembered today as one of the original action heroes of the cinema.