Johnny Weissmuller was the sixth movie Tarzan and he played the role in a total of 12 films. He is by far the best known of the actors who have portrated the character before or since, and the distinctive yodelling Tarzan call which he created, is still mucn used and imitated. Before his successful Hollywood career Weissmuller was a top class international swimer, some would say the best ever. During the 1920's he won 5 Olympic gold medals and 1 bronze medal and held an astonishing 67 world records.
Johnny Weissmuller was born in Timisoara, Romania, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 2, 1904. He arrived in America aged 3, when his parents immigtrated. He later caused confusion by claiming to have been born in Pennsylvania to ensure his eligibilty to represent the USA at the Olympics.
He was a weak child after a bout of polio and he took up swimming on doctor's orders to build up his strength. His swimming was initially self-taught, in the city's public pools and he built up his stamina by swimming in Lake Michigan. He had a natural ability and he worked hard, eventually earning a place on the YMCA swimming team.
He left school at 14 and began training seriously at the Illinois Athletic Club, whilst working as a bell hop at Chicago's Plaza Hotel. He developed his own unique swimming action in the front crawl, his body raised from the water and his back arched to reduce drag and his speed coming from his powerful arms and shoulders. In 1921, aged 17, he won the 50-yard freestyle on his debut at the Amateur Athletic Union championships and then two years later he showed his formidable ability by winning the freestyle events at four distances and also the 150 yard backstroke, when he beat the world record by six seconds. He weighed in at 190lbs and was and impressive 6' 3". He had arrived as an international stature swimmer and he proved the point at the 1924 Olympics where, aged 20, he won 3 gold medals. then in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he won two more golds. During his amateur swimming career from 1921 to 1929, astonishingly, he was never beaten.
When he retired from amateur competition in 1929 he began work promoting swimwear for the BVD swimwear company, travelling round the country giving swimming exhibitions, appearing on talk shows and modelling the company's swimwear. It was a very beneficial contract financially for him and at the same time he made his movie debut portraying Adonis clad only in a fig leaf, in 'Glorifying the American Girl', and in some movie shorts featuring Olympic champions, called "Crystal Champions". His big break into Hollywood movies came as a result of Louis B Mayer, head of MGM taking an option on two of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan stories. In the search for an actor to portray the hero, Weissmuller was noticed by MGM screenwriter, Cyril Hume, as he took his regular swim at the Hollywood Athletic Club. The result was a seven year contract with MGM and his debut movie was in the role of Tarzan in 1932 in 'Tarzan the Ape Man'.
The movie was an instant success and Weismuller found himself an international movie star. He went on to make 'Tarzan and His Mate' in 1934 with his speaking part noticeably increasing and then Tarzan Escapes' in 1936. He made six Tarzan movies with MGM, each with the seductive Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. The last three of the MGM series also included Johnny Sheffield as Boy.
When he moved to RKO in 1942 he made six more Tarzan movies, now without Maureen O'Sullivan, and with a smaller budget which reduced the quality of the movies. Weissmmuller left the series in 1948 after 'Tarzan and the Mermaids' but his distictive yodelling Tarzan cry, remained.
He was replaced by Lex Barker but Weissmuller stayed with the profitable jungle theme for his next series of movies, in a run of 13 'Jungle Jim' films although, noticeably paunchier now, he tended to wear shorts rather than a loincloth.
At the end of his film career Weismuller turned to the world of business but not with any great distincion. He had a series of unsuccessful ventures, including a Jungle Hut restaurant, a swimming pool company and a 'Tropical Wonderland' tourist attraction in Florida, which never got built. He finally retired in 1965 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
He reunited briefly with Maureen O'Sullivan in 'The Phynx' in 1969 and he made one more cameo appearance in the spoof movie, 'Won Ton Ton, the Dog That Saved Hollywood' in 1976, before finally retiring for good.
In a stormy personal life Weissmuller was married five times.
Singer, Bobbe Arnst
Actress, Lupe Vélez
(1939-1948), three children: John Scott, Jr., Wendy Anne, and Heidi Elizabeth.
Golfer, Allene Gates
Maria Brock Mandell Bauman
(1963- his death)
In 1973 Weissmuller fractured his hip in a fall and this marked the beginning of a series of health problems. He had a series of strokes in 1977and he lived the last part of his life quietly in Mexico with his fifth wife, Maria.
Johnny Weissmuller died of pulmonary edema on January 20, 1984. He was 79. His funeral was at the Valley of the Light Cemetery in Acapulco, and, at his request, a recording of his famous Tarzan call was played three times.
Johnny Weissmuller Academy AwardsNo Nominations:
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Johnny Weissmuller Filmography
Glorifying the American Girl (uncredited)
Swim or Sink
Tarzan the Ape Man
The Human Fish
Tarzan and His Mate
Sunkist Stars at Palm Springs
Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 1
Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 10
Screen Snapshots Series 17, No. 5
Tarzan Finds a Son!
Medicus Film of New York World's Fair
Tarzan's Secret Treasure
Tarzan's New York Adventure
Stage Door Canteen
Tarzan's Desert Mystery