Johnny Weissmuller, 1940
Peter Johann Weißmüller
June 2, 1904
Freidorf, Temes County, Kingdom of Hungary, Austro-Hungarian Empire
(in modern Romania)
January 20, 1984
Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico
Maria Brock Mandell Bauman (1963–84; his death)
Allene Gates (1948–62)
Beryl Scott (1939–48; 3 children)
Lupe Vélez (1933–39)
Bobbe Arnst (1931–33)
Johnny Weissmuller (born Peter Johann Weißmüller; June 2, 1904 – January 20, 1984) was an Austro-Hungarian-American competition swimmer and actor best known for playing Tarzan in films of the 1930s and 1940s and for having one of the best competitive swimming records of the 20th century. Weissmuller was one of the world's fastest swimmers in the 1920s, winning five Olympic gold medals for swimming and one bronze medal for water polo. He won fifty-two US National Championships, set more than fifty world records, both in freestyle and backstroke, and was purportedly undefeated in official competition for the entirety of his competitive career. After retiring from competitions, he became the sixth actor to portray Edgar Rice Burroughs's ape man, Tarzan, 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 Tarzan yell is still often used in films.
- Early life 1
- Swimming 2.1
- Films 2.2
- After films 2.3
Personal life 3
- Declining health and death 3.1
- Influence 4
- Filmography 5
- See also 6
- References 7
- Further reading 8
- External links 9
Weissmüller was an ethnic German, one of two boys born to Peter Weissmüller and his wife Elisabeth Kersch, who were both Banat Swabians, an ethnic German population in Southeast Europe. His generally accepted birthplace was in the Freidorf (Szabadfalu) suburb of the current city of Timișoara, Romania (German: Temeschburg, Hungarian: Temesvár) The village is in Romania. However, the ship's roster from his family's arrival at Ellis Island lists his birthplace as Párdány, Kingdom of Hungary, in what is today a village in Serbia, not far from the Romanian border.
According to his son (Johnny Jr), Johnny (senior) was named Peter by his parents; but, once he began to be successful as a swimmer, he formally used his brother's name, Johnny, because his brother John was, by birth, a US citizen (and had official records that verified this fact), and Peter was not (this was done so that non-citizen Peter could represent USA in the Olympics).
The records of St Rochus Church in Freidorf show that Johann, son of Peter Weissmüller and Elizabeth Kersch, was baptized there on 6 May 1904. The passenger manifest of the S.S. Rotterdam, which arrived in New York on 26 January 1905, lists Peter Weissmüller, a 29-year-old laborer, his 24-year-old wife Elisabeth, and seven-month-old Johann. The family is listed as Germans, last residence (Timișoara). They intended to join their brother-in-law Johann Ott of Windber, Pennsylvania. On November 5, 1905, Johann Peter Weissmüller was baptized at St John Cantius Catholic Church in Windber. In the 1910 census, Peter and Elizabeth Weisenmüller as well as John and Eva Ott were living at 1521 Cleveland Ave in the 22nd Ward of Chicago, with sons John, age six, born in Temesvár and Peter Jr., age five, erroneously entered as born in Illinois. Peter Weissmüller and John Ott were both brewers, Ott emigrating in 1902, Weissmüller 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 Weissmüller 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 Weissmüller. The passenger list records them as ethnic Germans and citizens of Austria-Hungary. After a brief stay in Chicago visiting relatives, they moved to the coal mining town of Windber, Pennsylvania. (For most of Weissmüller's career, show business biographies incorrectly listed him as having been born in Pennsylvania. Some sources state that Weissmüller lied about his birthplace to ensure his place on the US Olympic swimming team.) Peter Weissmuller worked as a miner, and his youngest son, Peter Weissmüller, Jr., was born in Windber on 3 September 1905. Peter Jr. is listed on one census as born in Illinois.
At age nine, Weissmüller 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, Weissmüller continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swim team. According to draft registration records for World War I, Peter and Elizabeth were apparently still together as late as 1917. On his paperwork, Peter was listed as a brewer, working for the Elston and Fullerton Brewery. He and his family were living at 226 West North Avenue in Chicago. In his book, Tarzan, My Father, Johnny Weissmuller Jr. stated that although rumors of Peter Weissmüller living to "a ripe old age, remarrying along the way and spawning a large brood of little Weissmüllers" were reported, no one in the family was aware of his ultimate fate. Peter signed his consent for 19-year old John "Weissmuller"'s passport application in 1924, preceding Johnny's Olympic competition in France. In the 1930 federal census, Elizabeth Weissmüller, age 49, has listed with her, sons John P. and Peter J., and Peter's wife Dorothy. Elizabeth is listed as a widow.
|Olympic medal record|
|Competitor for the United States|
|Gold||1924 Paris||100 m freestyle|
|Gold||1924 Paris||400 m freestyle|
|Gold||1924 Paris||4×200 m freestyle|
|Gold||1928 Amsterdam||100 m freestyle|
|Gold||1928 Amsterdam||4×200 m freestyle|
As a teen, Weissmuller attended Lane Technical College Prep High School 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 US passport. (This comment seems to be contradicted by data on his actual passport application; on his 1924 passport application, he listed his date of birth as June 2, 1904, and his place of birth as Windbar, Pennsylvania. His father, Peter, signed an affidavit to this effect, giving his 19-year-old son permission to travel abroad to participate in the Paris Olympics and for other competitions in England and Belgium. His passport was issued in May, 1924.)
On July 9, 1922, Weissmuller broke Duke Kahanamoku's world record in the 100-meter freestyle, swimming it in 58.6 seconds. He won the title for that distance at the 1924 Summer Olympics, beating Kahanamoku for the gold. He also won the 400-meter freestyle and was a member of the winning U.S. team in the 4×200-meter relay. As a member of the U.S. water polo team, he also won a bronze medal. Four years later, at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, he won another two gold medals. It was during this period that Weissmuller became an enthusiast for John Harvey Kellogg's holistic lifestyle views on nutrition, enemas and exercise. He came to Kellogg's Battle Creek, Michigan sanatorium to dedicate its new 120-foot swimming pool, and would go on to break one of his own previous swimming records after adopting the vegetarian diet prescribed by Kellogg.
In 1927, Weissmuller set a new world record of 51.0 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle, which stood for 17 years. He improved it to 48.5 s at Billy Rose World's Fair Aquacade in 1940, aged 36, but this result was discounted as he was competing as a professional.
In all, Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal, fifty-two United States national championships, and set sixty-seven world records. He was the first man to swim the 100-meter freestyle under one minute and the 440-yard freestyle under five minutes. He never lost a race and retired with an unbeaten amateur record. In 1950, he was selected by the Associated Press as the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th Century.
Weissmuller would later, upon moving to the prosperous Bel Air section of Los Angeles, California, (specifically to an area known today as East Gate Bel Air), famously commission architect Paul Williams to design a large home with a 300-foot serpentine swimming pool that curled around the house (and which still exists to this day).
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 radio. In that same year, he made his first motion picture appearance as an Adonis, wearing only a fig leaf, 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.
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. The author of Tarzan, 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 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 suit for the role of Jungle Jim (1948) for Columbia. He made thirteen Jungle Jim films between 1948 and 1954. According to actor Michael Fox, Weissmuller would shoot two Jungle Jim films back to back with nine days filming for each with a break of two days between, then he would return to his home in Mexico. Within the next year due to the rights of the name "Jungle Jim" being taken by Screen Gems, 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. His costars were Martin Huston and Dean Fredericks. The show produced only twenty-six episodes, which were subsequently played repeatedly on network and syndicated television. 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.
According to David Wallechinsky's Complete Book of the Olympics, while playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Cuba in 1958, Weissmuller's golf cart was suddenly captured by rebel soldiers. Weissmuller sized up the situation, got out of the cart and gave his trademark Tarzan yell. The shocked rebels soon began to jump up and down, calling "Tarzan! Welcome to Cuba!" Johnny and his companions were not only not kidnapped, but were given a rebel escort to the golf course. However, Weissmuller didn't do the yell himself for the movies so the anecdote is dubious.
He was an accomplished amateur golfer and played in two official PGA Tour tournaments, at the 1937 Western Open at Canterbury Golf Club outside Cleveland (87-85=172, missed the cut) and the 1948 Hawaiian Open (79-75-79-76=309) to finish in 37th place.
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 (ISHOF). He was inducted to the ISHOF the same year.
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 the late 60s, early 70s, Weissmuller was involved with a doomed tourist attraction called Tropical/Florida Wonderland, aka Tarzan's Jungleland, on US 1 in Titusville, Florida. It was a last-ditch effort to transform Florida Wonderland into something much bigger. It failed when Weissmuller and the owners did not see eye to eye, it was shut down for good in 1973.
Based on his interest in natural lifestyles, Weissmuller opened a small chain of health food stores called Johnny Weissmuller's American Natural Foods in California in 1969.
In 1970, he attended the British Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where he was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. That same year, he made an 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 Caesars Palace along with boxer Joe Louis 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.
Weissmuller had five wives: band and club singer Bobbe Arnst (married 1931 – divorced 1933); actress Lupe Vélez (married 1933 – divorced 1938); Beryl Scott (married 1939 – divorced 1948); Allene Gates (married 1948 – divorced 1962); and Maria Baumann (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.
On January 20, 1984, Weissmuller died from pulmonary edema at the age of 79. He was buried just outside Acapulco, Valle de La Luz at the Valley of the Light Cemetery. As his coffin was lowered into the ground, a recording of the Tarzan yell he invented was played three times, at his request.
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."
In 1973, Weissmuller was awarded the George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
|Johnny Weissmuller in Film|
|1929||Glorifying the American Girl||Adonis||Cameo appearance in the segment "Loveland"|
|1931||Swim or Sink||Himself||Short subject|
|Water Bugs||Himself||Short subject|
|1932||Tarzan the Ape Man||Tarzan|
|The Human Fish||Himself||Short subject|
|1934||Tarzan and His Mate||Tarzan|
|1939||Tarzan Finds a Son!||Tarzan|
|1941||Tarzan's Secret Treasure||Tarzan|
|1942||Tarzan's New York Adventure||Tarzan|
|1943||Tarzan Triumphs||Tarzan||Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan Triumphs|
|Tarzan's Desert Mystery||Tarzan||Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan's Desert Mystery|
|Stage Door Canteen||Himself|
|1945||Tarzan and the Amazons||Tarzan||Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Amazons|
|1946||Tarzan and the Leopard Woman||Tarzan||Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Leopard Woman|
|Swamp Fire||Johnny Duval|
|1947||Tarzan and the Huntress||Tarzan||Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Huntress|
|1948||Tarzan and the Mermaids||Tarzan||Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Mermaids|
|Jungle Jim||Jungle Jim|
|1948||The Lost Tribe||Jungle Jim|
|1950||Mark of the Gorilla||Jungle Jim|
|Captive Girl||Jungle Jim||Alternative title: Jungle Jim and the Captive Girl|
|Jungle Jim in Pygmy Island||Jungle Jim||Alternative title: Pygmy Island|
|1951||Fury of the Congo||Jungle Jim|
|Jungle Manhunt||Jungle Jim|
|1952||Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land||Jungle Jim|
|Voodoo Tiger||Jungle Jim|
|1953||Savage Mutiny||Jungle Jim|
|Valley of Head Hunters||Jungle Jim|
|Killer Ape||Jungle Jim|
|1954||Jungle Man-Eaters||Jungle Jim|
|Cannibal Attack||Johnny Weissmuller|
|1955||Jungle Moon Men||Johnny Weissmuller|
|Devil Goddess||Johnny Weissmuller|
|1976||Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood||Stagehand #2|
|1956–1958||Jungle Jim (TV series)||Jungle Jim||27 episodes|
- List of athletes with Olympic medals in different disciplines
- List of multiple Olympic gold medalists
- List of multiple Olympic gold medalists at a single Games
- List of multi-sport athletes
- List of Olympic medalists in swimming (men)
- World record progression 100 metres freestyle
- World record progression 200 metres freestyle
- World record progression 400 metres freestyle
- World record progression 800 metres freestyle
- World record progression 4 × 200 metres freestyle relay
- Bill and Sue-On Hillman. "ERBzine 0991: Tarzan in the Holy Land II". erbzine.com. Retrieved 2014-10-25.
- Smith, E.W. (2010). Athletes Once: 100 Famous People Who Were Once Notable Athletes. Cortero Publishing. p. 9.
- JOHNNY WEISSMULLER (USA) 1965 Honor Swimmer. ishof.org
- "Interview with Johnny Weissmuller, Jr.". germanhollywood.com.
- "Johnny Weissmuller." Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
- France-Presse, Agence (2007-02-17). "Serbia: Monument to Tarzan". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-07.
- Bjelogrlic, Aleksandar (March 28, 2007) Rocky Inspires Success in Serbia. Businessweek
- Great Lives (BBC4): Johnny Weissmuller. 9 May 2006.
- Arlene Mueller (August 6, 1984). "Johnny Weissmuller Made Olympian Efforts To Conceal His Birthplace". Sports Illustrated.
- Rasmussen, Frederick N. (2008-08-17). "From the pool to Hollywood stardom". baltimoresun.com. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
- Weissmuller, Johnny; Reed, William (2002). Tarzan, My Father. Burroughs, Danton. ECW Press. pp. 25–28.
- Safire, William (2007). The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. Macmillan. p. 943.
- Christopher, Paul J.; Smith, Alicia Marie (2006). Greatest Sports Heroes of All Times: North American Edition. Encouragement Press, LLC. p. 204.
- Kirsch, George B.; Othello, Harris; Nolte, Claire Elaine (2000). Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 488.
- Johnny Weissmuller. sports-reference.com
- Schaefer, Richard A (2005). "Chapter Thirteen" THE FIVE-HUNDRED-DOLLAR SEED". LEGACY: Daring to Care: the heritage of Loma Linda.
- Simonton, Dean Keith (1994). Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. Guilford Press. p. 156.
- "Johnny Weissmuller Residence/Nicolosi Estate, Los Angeles, CA." Paul Revere Williams Project website
- The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography, By Esther Williams, Digby Diehl, Published by Harcourt Trade, 2000, ISBN 0-15-601135-2, ISBN 978-0-15-601135-8.
- Weaver, Tom (2004) "Michael Fox Interview", pp.106-107 in It Came From Horrorwood: Interviews With Moviemakers In The Science Fiction And Horror Tradition McFarland. ISBN 0786420693
- Richmond, Akasha (2006). Hollywood Dish: More Than 150 Delicious, Healthy Recipes from Hollywood's Chef to the Stars. Penguin.
- Weissmuller, Johnny (2008). Tarzan, My Father. ECW Press. p. 178.
- Fury, David (1994). Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to "Tarzan" on Screen and Television. McFarland & Company. p. 57.
- Sisson, Richard; Zacher, Christian; Cayton, Andrew Robert Lee (2007). The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Indiana University Press. p. 902.
- Weissmuller, Johnny, Jr.; Weissmuller, Johnny; Reed, William (2002). Tarzan, My Father. Burroughs, Danton. ECW Press. p. 83.
- "Awards granted by George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film". George Eastman House. Retrieved 2014-05-17.
- Fury, David A. Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Artist's Press. 2000) ISBN 0-924556-02-1
- Weissmuller, Johnny Jr. Tarzan My Father, Toronto: ECW Press 2002
- Johnny Weissmuller at the Internet Movie Database
- Louis S. Nixdorff, 1928 Olympic games collection, 1926–1978, Archives Center, National Museum of US History, Smithsonian Institution.
- The passenger list of the ship that brought the Weissmullers to Ellis Island
- "Serbia: Monument to Tarzan", The New York Times, February 17, 2007. The article states that Johnny Weissmuller was born in Serbia.
- Johnny Weissmuller at Find a Grave