Johnny Weissmuller (June 2, 1904 – January 20, 1984) was one of the world's best swimmers in the 1920s, winning five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal. He won 52 US National Championships and set 67 world records. Weissmuller understood the potential role that athletic competition could play in the world. He said, "I have always been vitally interested in physical conditioning. I have long believed that athletic competition among people and nations should replace violence and wars."
After his swimming career, he became the sixth actor to portray Tarzan in films, a role he played in 12 motion pictures. Other actors also played Tarzan, but Weissmuller was the actor most identified with the role.
Before Johnny was well known, he and his brother Peter saved 11 lives when a Lake Michigan tour boat capsized in a sudden storm. As an Olympic swimmer, Weissmuller was a hero to many for his accomplishments. Weissmuller also inspired people through his portrayal of Tarzan, who always protected his family and animal friends from the deeds of evil doers.
Johnny Weissmuller was registered as János Weissmüller at birth in Freidorf near Temeschburg, Banat. At the time, Freidorf was part of Austria-Hungary. Today, it is a suburb of Timişoara in Romania). Weissmuller was born to German-speaking parents of Jewish and Roman Catholic descent, Petrus Weißmüller and Elisabeth Kersch, according to his Hungarian birth and (Roman Catholic) baptismal records. In fact, he was named Johann by his parents, but all legal records at the time used the Hungarian forms of personal names.
When Johnny was seven months old, the family emigrated to the United States aboard the S.S. Rotterdam. They left the Dutch port of Rotterdam on January 14, 1905, and arrived in New York City 12 days later. Upon entering the United States, the family names were recorded in English as Peter, Elizabeth and Johann Weissmuller. Peter had been born December 31, 1876.
After a brief stay in Chicago, Illinois, to visit relatives, the Weissmullers moved to the coal mining town of Windber, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. Peter Weissmuller worked as a miner. His youngest son, Peter Weissmuller, Jr., was born in Windber on September 3, 1905.
After several years in Western Pennsylvania, the family moved to Chicago. Johnny's father owned a tavern for a time. His mother became head cook at a popular restaurant. Later, Peter Sr. worked as a brewer for the United States brewery in Chicago.
Johnny's parents eventually divorced, as is shown by the divorce document filed in Chicago by Elizabeth Weissmuller. Many sources incorrectly state that Weissmuller's father died of tuberculosis contracted from working in coal mines and left her a widow. Elizabeth Weissmuller even appears with her sons on the Cook County census listed as a widow. It is possible that because divorce had a stigma at the time, that Elizabeth referred to herself as a widow to avoid this stigma for her and her sons.
Peter actually fathered another family following his divorce, and lived to an old age. By 1930, he had married his second wife, Anna, with whom he had a son named Edward and a daughter Ruth.
Johnny and his brother Peter learned to swim at a young age in order to become stronger and healthier. Johnny in particular was weak and sickly as a pre-adolescent. Both boys quickly became known as aggressive swimmers. The beaches of Lake Michigan became their favorite place for summer recreation. Johnny also joined the Stanton Park pool, where he began swimming competitively. He won every junior swim meet. At the age of 12 Johnny earned a spot on the YMCA swim team.
When Weissmuller left high school, he worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel in Chicago. At the same time he began training for the Olympic Games with swim coach William Bachrach at the Illinois Athletic Club. This is when Johnny developed his revolutionary high riding front crawl stroke. He made his amateur debut on August 6, 1921, winning his first AAU race in the 50-yard freestyle (crawl stroke).
Though he was foreign-born, Weissmuller gave his birthplace as Windber, Pennsylvania, and his birth date as that of his younger brother, Peter Weissmuller. This was to ensure his eligibility to compete as part of the United States Olympic team. U.S. birth was also critical issue in obtaining an American passport.
On July 9, 1922, Weissmuller broke Duke Kahanamoku's world record for the 100 meter freestyle, swimming it in just 58.6 seconds becoming the first person to swim event in less than one minute. He won the Gold Medal for the 100 meter freestyle at the 1924 Summer Olympic Games, beating both Duke and Samuel Kahanamoku, who were silver and bronze medalists respectively. He also took gold medals in the 400 meter freestyle and the 4 x 200 meters relay. As a member of the American water polo team, he also won a bronze medal. Four years later, at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, he won another two Olympic titles.
In all, he won five Olympic gold medals, one bronze medal, 52 U.S. National Championships and set 67 world records. Johnny Weissmuller retired from his amateur swimming career undefeated.
Not only was he an Olympic champion, but Weissmuller was a lifelong advocate for all children learning to swim at an early age. This was likely a result of his awareness of the horrible tragedy of the sinking of the "Eastland" in Lake Michigan near the beaches he frequented throughout his summers there. More than 800 people perished in this accident including 22 entire families. Many people drowned simply because they were unable to swim. Twelve years later when Johnny and his brother Peter were training in the lake, they witnessed the much smaller "Favorite" tour boat capsized when a bad storm blew in. The brothers rushed to the scene and pulled nearly two dozen people from the boat. Eleven of those people survived. Twenty–seven died of drowning in this tragic accident. Witnessing these tragedies left a lasting impression on Weissmuller, convincing him that everyone should learn to swim in their childhood.
In 1929, Weissmuller signed a contract with the clothing company BVD to be a model and representative. He traveled throughout the country doing swim shows, handing out leaflets promoting the BVD brand of swimwear, giving his autograph and appearing on television talk shows. Also in 1929, Johnny made his first motion picture appearance as an Adonis wearing only a figleaf, in a movie titled "Glorifying the American Girl." He appeared in the first of several "Crystal Champions," movie shorts filmed in Silver Springs, Florida featuring Weissmuller and other Olympic champions.
His career began in earnest when he signed a seven year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and played the role of Tarzan in "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1932). The movie was a huge success. The 6' 3" Weissmuller became an overnight international sensation. Even the author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created the character of Tarzan in his books, was pleased with Weissmuller's portrayal of Tarzan.
Weissmuller starred in six Tarzan movies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) with actress Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. The last three also included Johnny Sheffield as Boy. Weissmuller said about the series, "Tarzan films are decent films, designed for family viewing. It's an idealistic, down-to-earth story about a man's love for animals and the care of his family."
Production of Tarzan movies at MGM ended with the onset of World War II. Johnny Weissmuller's contribution to the war effort was to teach navy recruits to swim to safety out from under waters covered with burning petroleum.
In 1942, Weissmuller went to RKO Studios and starred in six more Tarzan movies. Sheffield appeared as Boy in the first five features for that studio. Another costar was blonde actress Brenda Joyce, who played Jane in Weissmuller's last four Tarzan movies. In a total of 12 Tarzan movies, Weissmuller earned an estimated $2,000,000 and established himself as the best known of all the actors who have ever portrayed Tarzan.
Although not the first Tarzan in movies (that honor went to Elmo Lincoln), Weissmuller was the first to be associated with the now traditional ululating, yodeling Tarzan yell. During an appearance on television's Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s, Weissmuller explained how the famous yell was created. Recordings of three vocalists were spliced together to get the effect—a soprano, an alto, and a hog caller. This famous yell is still used in films.
When he finally departed from the role of playing Tarzan, Johnny immediately traded his loincloth costume for jungle fatigues, appearing fully clothed in the role of "Jungle Jim" (1948) for Columbia Pictures. He made 13 Jungle Jim movies between 1948 and 1954. In the next year, he appeared as himself in three more jungle movies.
Also in 1955, Weissmuller began production of the Jungle Jim television adventure series for Screen Gems, a film subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. The show ran for 26 episodes. Reruns of the show played on network and syndicated TV for many years.
Johnny Weissmuller enjoyed close friendships with a number of other Hollywood leading men such as Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Raoul Walsh, Forrest Tucker, and John Wayne. The men enjoyed golfing together and racing speed boats. Some have referred to this group as the first "Rat Pack."
Weissmuller was less lucky in love. He married five times. His first wife was band and club singer Bobbe Arnst (married 1931 - divorced 1933). Johnny married hert after a brief two week courtship. This was a time when his obligations to MGM were demanding, which may have been a destructive factor to the marriage.
The firey and temperamental actress Lupe Vélez was his second wife (married 1933 - divorced 1939). This marriage turned out to be a stormy one. Lupe didn't share Johnny's love for the water and watersports. Also, Lupe suffered from extreme mood swings and eventually, following their divorce, committed suicide while in a deep depression.
With his third wife, Beryl Scott (married 1939 - divorced 1948), he had three children, Johnny Scott Weissmuller (or Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., also an actor) (born September 23, 1940, died July 27, 2006), Wendy Anne Weissmuller (born June 1, 1942) and Heidi Elizabeth Weissmuller (July 31, 1944 – November 19, 1962). This marriage lasted longer than his first two but there were still the heavy pressures from the studios with which he had contracts. Beryl developed her own social circle surrounding her backgammon and bridge playing. In addition, the expense of keeping up the opulent lifestyle brought about financial problems. A combination of these factors brought an end to this marriage. Beryl assumed responsibility for the children's upbringing and was awarded a substantial child support settlement.
Johnny met and married Allene Gates (married 1948-divorced 1962) after his divorce from Beryl was finalized. Johnny Jr. lived with the couple for a time. He enjoyed close family time with the couple in a way he never experienced when his mother and dad were married. Unfortunately, when Johnny Sr. had no more regular work in the movie industry, the loss of regular work brought financial problems again. Johnny and Allene began struggling in their relationship and after repeated separations, eventually divorced.
Maria Bauman (married 1963 - his death 1984) came into Weissmuller's life just before the devastating loss of his youngest daughter, Heidi in a car accident. Johnny Jr. described the marriage as Weissmuller's worst. He did not trust the woman his father had married and in later years, didn't agree with the way she managed his care or affairs. None the less, Johnny Sr. and Maria were married until the time of his death. Of all Weissmuller's marriages, this one endured the longest.
In the late 1950s, Weissmuller moved back to Chicago and started a swimming pool company. He also lent his name to other ventures, but did not have success in business. He retired in 1965 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
In 1970, he attended the British Commonwealth Games in Jamaica where he was presented to Queen Elizabeth. He also made a cameo appearance with former co-star Maureen O'Sullivan in "The Phynx" (1970).
Weissmuller lived in Florida until the end of 1973, then moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. He worked as a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel for a time. In 1974, he broke a hip and leg. While hospitalized for these injuries, he learned that in spite of his strength and lifelong daily regimen of swimming and exercise, he had a serious heart condition.
In 1976, he appeared for the last time in a motion picture playing a movie crewman who is fired by a movie mogul, played by Art Carney. The movie was "Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood." He also made his final public appearance that year, when he was inducted into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame.
Weissmuller suffered a series of strokes in 1977. For a time in 1979, he was a patient in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. Later he and his last wife, Maria, moved to Acapulco, Mexico.
Johnny Weissmuller died on January 20, 1984 of pulmonary edema at a retirement home in Acapulco. He is buried in the Valley of The Light Cemetery there.
His former co-star and movie son, Johnny Sheffield, said of him, "I can only say that working with Big John was one of the highlights of my life. He was a Star with a capital "S" and he gave off a special light and some of that light got into me. Knowing and being with Johnny Weissmuller during my formative years had a lasting influence on my life."
Johnny Weissmuller has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
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