Johnny Weissmuller Explained

Johnny Weissmuller
Birthname:Peter Johann Weißmüller
Born:June 2, 1904
Location:Temesvár, Austria-Hungary
(now Timişoara, Romania)
Deathplace:Acapulco, Mexico
Spouse:Maria Brock Mandell Bauman
Allene Gates
Beryl Scott
Lupe Vélez
Bobbe Arnst
Camilla Louiee
(? - ?)

Johnny Weissmuller (June 2, 1904  - January 20, 1984) was an American swimmer and actor who was one of the world's best swimmers in the 1920s, winning five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal. He won fifty-two US National Championships and set sixty-seven world records. After his swimming career, he became the sixth actor to portray Tarzan in films, a role he played in twelve motion pictures. Dozens of other actors have also played Tarzan, but Weissmuller is by far the best known. His character's distinctive, ululating Tarzan yell is still often used in films.

Early life

Weissmuller was a Banat German, born to Peter Weißmüller and his wife Elisabeth Kersch in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austria-Hungary. The ship's roster from his family's arrival at Ellis Island lists his birthplace as Freidorf, now a district of Timişoara, Romania,[1] [2] [3] [4] but he was born in the village of Pardanj (today Međa, Serbia, near the Romanian border). It has been claimed that he was actually named Peter by his parents, but when he arrived in the US he used his brother's name, Johnny, because it was more American. However, the records of St Rochus Church in Freidorf show that János (the Hungarian equivalent of Johann), son of Peter Weissmuller and Elizabeth Kersch, was baptized there on 6 May 1904. The passenger manifest of the "Rotterdam", which arrived in New York on January 26, 1905, lists Peter Weissmuller, a 29 year old laborer, his 24 year old wife Elisabeth, and 7 month old Johann, The family is listed as Hungarian Germans, last residence: Szabadfalu (Hungarian equivalent of Freidorf). They were going to join their brother-in-law Johann Ott of Windber, Pennsylvania. On November 5, 1905, Johann Peter Weissmuller was baptized at St John Cantius Church in Windber. In the 1910 census, Peter and Elizabeth Weisenmuller as well as John and Eva Ott were living at 1521 Cleveland Ave in the 22nd Ward of Chicago, with sons John, age 6, born in "Hun-German" and Peter Jr., age 5, born in Illinois. Peter Weissmuller and John Ott were both brewers, Ott immigrating in 1902, Weismuller in 1904. The ethnic group known as Banat Swabians had lived for several centuries in that region and developed a distinctive dialect and cultural traits.

When Weissmuller was a small child, the family emigrated to the United States aboard the S.S. Rotterdam as steerage passengers. They left Rotterdam on January 14, 1905, and arrived at Ellis Island in New York harbor twelve days later as Peter, Elisabeth and Johann Weissmuller. The passenger list records them as ethnic Germans and citizens of Hungary. After a brief stay in Chicago, visiting relatives, they moved to the coal mining town of Windber, Pennsylvania. (For most of Weissmuller's career, show business biographies incorrectly listed him as having been born in Pennsylvania. Some sources state that Weissmuller lied about his birthplace in order to ensure his place on the U.S. Olympic swimming team.) Peter Weissmuller worked as a miner, and his youngest son, Peter Weissmuller, Jr., was born in Windber on September 3, 1905. Peter Jr. is listed on one census as born in Illinois.

At age nine, Weissmuller contracted polio. At the suggestion of his doctor, he took up swimming to help battle the disease. After the family moved from Western Pennsylvania to Chicago, Weissmuller continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swim team.[5] While living in Chicago, Weissmuller's father owned a bar for a time and his mother became head cook at a famed restaurant. After Peter's business failed, he began drinking heavily and abusing both his wife and children. Elizabeth Weissmuller eventually filed for, and was granted, a divorce (various biographies erroneously state that Weissmuller's father died of tuberculosis leaving her a widow).[6] In his book, Tarzan, My Father, Johnny Weissmuller Jr. stated that although rumors of Peter Weissmuller living to "a ripe old age, remarrying along the way and spawning a large brood of little Weissmullers" were reported, no one in the family was aware of his ultimate fate.[6]



As a teen, Weissmuller attended Lane Techical H.S. before dropping out to work various jobs including a stint as a lifeguard at a Lake Michigan beach. While working as an elevator operator and bellboy at the Illinois Athletic Club, Weissmuller caught the eye of swim coach William Bachrach. Bachrach trained Weissmuller and in August 1921, Weissmuller won the national championships in the 50-yard and 220-yard distances. Though he was foreign-born, Weissmuller gave his birthplace as Tanneryville, 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, and was a critical issue in being issued an American passport.[5]

On July 9, 1922, Weissmuller broke Duke Kahanamoku's world record on the 100-meters freestyle, swimming it in 58.6 seconds.[7] He won the title in that distance at the 1924 Summer Olympics, beating Kahanamoku on February 24, 1924.[8] He also won the 400-meters 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.[9]

In all, he won five Olympic gold medals, one bronze medal, won fifty-two U.S. National Championships and set sixty-seven world records. Johnny Weissmuller never lost a race and retired from his amateur swimming career undefeated.[10]

Motion pictures

In 1929, Weissmuller signed a contract with BVD to be a model and representative. He traveled throughout the country doing swim shows, handing out leaflets promoting that brand of swimwear, signing autographs and going on talk shows. In that same year, he made his first motion picture appearance as an Adonis, wearing only a figleaf, in a movie entitled Glorifying the American Girl. He appeared as himself in the first of several Crystal Champions movie shorts featuring Weissmuller and other Olympic champions at Silver Springs, Florida.

He co-starred with Esther Williams in Billy Rose's Aquacade during the San Francisco World's Fair, 1939-41, pursuing her throughout a span of 2 years.[11]

His acting career began 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 and Weissmuller became an overnight international sensation. Tarzan author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was pleased with Weissmuller, although he so hated the studio's depiction of a Tarzan who barely spoke English that he created his own concurrent Tarzan series filmed on location in Central American jungles and starring Herman Brix as a suitably articulate version of the character.

Weissmuller starred in six Tarzan movies for MGM with actress Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane (with whom he had brief affair) and Cheeta the Chimpanzee. The last three also included Johnny Sheffield as Boy. Then, in 1942, Weissmuller went to RKO and starred in six more Tarzan movies with markedly reduced production values. Unlike MGM, RKO allowed Weissmuller to play other roles, though a three picture contract with Pine-Thomas Productions led to only one film, Swamp Fire, being made, co-starring Buster Crabbe. Sheffield appeared as Boy in the first five features for RKO. Another co-star was Brenda Joyce, who played Jane in Weissmuller's last four Tarzan movies. In a total of twelve Tarzan films, Weissmuller earned an estimated $2,000,000 and established himself as what many consider the definitive Tarzan. Although not the first Tarzan in movies, (that honor went to Elmo Lincoln), he was the first to be associated with the now traditional ululating, yodeling Tarzan yell. (During an appearance on television's The 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).

When Weissmuller finally left that role, he immediately traded his loincloth costume for a slouch hat and safari for the role of Jungle Jim (1948) for Columbia. He made 13 Jungle Jim films between (1948) and (1954). Within the next year, he appeared in three more jungle movies, playing himself. In 1955, he began production of the Jungle Jim television adventure series for Screen Gems, a film subsidiary of Columbia. The show ran for twenty-six episodes, which subsequently played repeatedly on network and syndicated TV. Aside from a first screen appearance as Adonis and the role of Johnny Duval in the 1946 film Swamp Fire, Weissmuller played only three roles in films during the heyday of his Hollywood career: Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and himself.

After movies

In the late 1950s, Weissmuller moved back to Chicago and started a swimming pool company. He lent his name to other business ventures, but did not have a great deal of success. He retired in 1965 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Sometime in the 1960s, Weissmuller built a doomed tourist attraction called Tropical Wonderland, aka Tarzan's Jungleland, on US 1 in Titusville, Florida. In September 1966, Weissmuller joined former screen Tarzans James Pierce and Jock Mahoney to appear with Ron Ely as part of the publicity for the upcoming premiere of the Tarzan TV series. The producers also approached Weissmuller to guest star as Tarzan's father, but nothing came of it.

In 1970, he attended the British Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where he was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. That same year, he 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, where he worked as a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel for a time. 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, in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, and he also made his final public appearance in that year when he was inducted into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame.

Personal life

Weissmuller had five wives: band and club singer Bobbe Arnst (married 1931-divorced 1933); actress Lupe Vélez (married 1933-divorced 1939); Beryl Scott (married 1939 - divorced 1948); Allene Gates (married 1948 - divorced 1962); and Maria Bauman (married 1963 - his death 1984).

With his third wife, Beryl, he had three children, Johnny Weissmuller, Jr. (September 23, 1940 - July 27, 2006), Wendy Anne Weissmuller (b. June 1, 1942), and Heidi Elizabeth Weissmuller (July 31, 1944 - November 19, 1962).

Declining health and death

In 1974, Weissmuller broke both his hip and leg, marking the beginning of years of declining health. While hospitalized he learned that, in spite of his strength and lifelong daily regimen of swimming and exercise, he had a serious heart condition. In 1977, Weissmuller suffered a series of strokes. In 1979, he entered the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California for several weeks before moving with his last wife, Maria, to Acapulco, Mexico, the location of his last Tarzan movie.[12]

On January 20, 1984, Weissmuller died from pulmonary edema at the age of 79.[13] At his request, he was buried in Acapulco at Valley of the Light Cemetery where, also at his request, a recording of the Tarzan yell he invented was played.[12]


His former co-star and movie son, Johnny Sheffield, wrote 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."[14]

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Johnny Weissmuller has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.


1929Glorifying the American GirlAdonisCameo appearance in the segment "Loveland"
rowspan=21931Swim or SinkHimselfShort subject
Water BugsHimselfShort subject
rowspan=21932Tarzan, the Ape ManTarzan
The Human FishHimselfShort subject
1934Tarzan and His MateTarzan
1936Tarzan EscapesTarzan
1939Tarzan Finds a Son!Tarzan
1941Tarzan's Secret TreasureTarzan
1942Tarzan's New York AdventureTarzan
rowspan=31943Tarzan TriumphsTarzanComplete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan Triumphs
Tarzan's Desert MysteryTarzanComplete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan's Desert Mystery
Stage Door CanteenHimself
1945Tarzan and the AmazonsTarzanComplete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Amazons
rowspan=21946Tarzan and the Leopard WomanTarzanComplete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Leopard Woman
Swamp FireJohnny Duval
1947Tarzan and the HuntressTarzanComplete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Huntress
rowspan=21948Tarzan and the MermaidsTarzanComplete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Mermaids
Jungle JimJungle Jim
1948The Lost TribeJungle Jim
rowspan=31950Mark of the Gorilla Jungle Jim
Captive GirlJungle JimAlternative title: Jungle Jim and the Captive Girl
Jungle Jim in Pygmy Island Jungle JimAlternative title: Pygmy Island
rowspan=21951Fury of the CongoJungle Jim
Jungle ManhuntJungle Jim
rowspan=21952Jungle Jim in the Forbidden LandJungle Jim
Voodoo TigerJungle Jim
rowspan=31953Savage MutinyJungle Jim
Valley of Head HuntersJungle Jim
Killer ApeJungle Jim
rowspan=21954Jungle Man-EatersJungle Jim
Cannibal AttackJohnny Weissmuller
rowspan=21955Jungle Moon MenJohnny Weissmuller
Devil GoddessJohnny Weissmuller
1970The PhynxHimself
1976Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved HollywoodStagehand #2
1956-1958Jungle JimJungle Jim26 episodes

Further reading

External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: Interview with Johnny Weissmuller, Jr..
  2. "Johnny Weissmuller."
  3. News: Serbia: Monument to Tarzan. 2007-02-17. The New York Times.
  4.'s+top+stories "Businessweek report."
  5. Web site: From the pool to Hollywood stardom. Rasmussen. Frederick N.. 2008-08-17. 2008-10-09.
  6. Book: Weissmuller, Jr., Johnny. Weissmuller, Johnny; Reed, William. Burroughs, Danton. Tarzan, My Father. ECW Press. 2002. 25–28. 1-550-22522-7.
  7. Book: Safire, William. The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. Macmillan. 2007. 943. 0-312-37659-6.
  8. Book: Christopher, Paul J.. Smith, Alicia Marie. Greatest Sports Heroes of All Times: North American Edition. Encouragement Press, LLC. 2006. 204. 1-933-76609-3.
  9. Book: Kirsch, George B.. Othello, Harris; Nolte, Claire Elaine. Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2000. 488. 0-313-29911-0.
  10. Book: Simonton, Dean Keith. Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. Guilford Press. 1994. 156. 0-898-62201-8.
  11. The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography, By Esther Williams, Digby Diehl, Published by Harcourt Trade, 2000, ISBN 0156011352, 9780156011358
  12. Book: Fury, David. Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to "Tarzan" on Screen and Television. McFarland & Company. 1994. 57. 0-899-50771-9.
  13. Book: Sisson, Richard. Zacher, Christian; Cayton, Andrew Robert Lee. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Indiana University Press. 2007. 902. 0-253-34886-2.
  14. Book: Weissmuller, Johnny, Jr.. Weissmuller, Johnny; Reed, William. Burroughs, Danton. Tarzan, My Father. ECW Press. 2002. 83. 1-550-22522-7.