Weissmuller, Johnny (1904?-1984)

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Weissmuller, Johnny (1904?-1984)

Although he first achieved fame as a free-style swimmer who won five Olympic gold medals and set 67 world records, Johnny Weissmuller is best known for his film role as Tarzan, King of the Jungle, who had been abandoned in the African wild as an orphaned infant and raised by apes. Weissmuller starred in twelve Tarzan films between 1932 and 1948.

The Tarzan series, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, became widely popular from the first book, Tarzan of the Apes (1914). More than 25 million copies of Burroughs' books sold worldwide as the public embraced the stories of an English nobleman's son who grew up to be the King of the Jungle. Weissmuller added to the popularity—and added to his own wealth—when his first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes, was released, leading to spinoffs such as Tarzan radio programs and comic strips. The films co-starred Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane and featured a combination of naive love interest with plenty of action, interspersed with the comic relief supplied by Cheetah the chimp.

The facts concerning Weissmuller's birth are the subject of some dispute. Official Olympics sources say he was born in Windber, Pennsylvania, on June 2, 1904, but there is credible evidence that he was born at Freidorf, near Timisoara, Romania, and emigrated with his parents to the United States as a young child. It is believed by biographer David Fury and others that Weissmuller's parents later switched his identity with that of his American-born brother in order to qualify him for the U.S. Olympic team. He attended school in Chicago through the eighth grade. His ability as an athlete led to his being trained in swimming as a teenager by the Illinois Athletic Club in Chicago. In the 1920s Weissmuller participated as a member of several of the club's championship teams in relay and water polo events. He won 26 national championships in individual freestyle swimming in the 1920s in various events, including the 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, and 800 meters, where he demonstrated his speed as well as stamina. At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris he broke three world records while winning three gold medals in the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle and in the 800-meter relay. In the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928 he added two more gold medals for the 100-meter freestyle and the 800-meter relay. When he turned professional in 1929, Weissmuller was unchallenged as the world's finest swimmer. His sports fame led to the production of several short films showing his aquatic prowess, bringing him to the attention of MGM, the studio that offered him the Tarzan role.

More than a dozen actors had played the part of Tarzan in silent films as well as talkies, including Buster Crabbe, Glen Morris, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, and Jock Mahoney, but the public considered them mere pretenders. No one else possessed the athleticism to skim through the alligator-filled rivers doing the Australian Crawl or swing on a vine through the trees yelling his high-pitched, chest-thumping call. Of the twelve Tarzan films Weissmuller starred in, the most popular were the ones that included Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. After making a hit in Tarzan of the Apes (1932), the couple continued to win fans in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), considered by many to be the best of the series; Tarzan Escapes (1936); Tarzan Finds a Son (1939); Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941); and Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942).

In the late 1940s and 1950s Weissmuller moved over to Columbia Pictures for a series of movies with African settings in which he played Jungle Jim. These films were shot with low budgets as the lesser ends of double features. A British film critic, writing in The Monthly Film Bulletin about the film Jungle Moon Men, was incensed: "This is a preposterous and in some respects a rather distasteful film, which insults the intelligence of the most tolerant spectator."

Weissmuller was married and divorced five times. His third wife (from 1933 to 1938) was Lupe Velez, a star of silent films who played in "B" movies and in early talkies as a tempestuous character known as "the Mexican Spitfire." After his retirement from his swimming and film careers, Weissmuller returned to Chicago, where he opened a swimming pool company. He moved to Florida in the 1960s, serving as the curator of the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. In 1973, he became a "greeter" for Caesar's Palace Hotel in Las Vegas; a few years later he was hospitalized due to a stroke and died in 1984.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Behlmer, Rudy. "Johnny Weissmuller: Olympics to Tarzan." Films in Review. July/August 1996, 20-33.

Fury, David. Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to Tarzan on Screen and Television. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Company, 1994.

Halliwell, Leslie. The Filmgoer's Companion. New York, Hill and Wang, 1967.

Platt, Frank C., editor. Great Stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. New York, New American Library, 1966.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. New York, Crown, 1970.