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Johnny Weissmuller, Cinema's Favorite Tarzan

Updated on August 22, 2016

Not Only an Actor

Johnny Weissmuller was a top class Olympic swimmer as well as an iconic Hollywood actor. During the 1920s he won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal and set no less than 67 world records.

When his swimming career was over he turned to acting and became the sixth movie Tarzan, a role he played in twelve films. He is by far the best known of all the actors who have portrayed Tarzan and his distinctive Tarzan call is still much imitated.

Johann Peter Weismuller

He was born Johann Peter Weismuller on June 2, 1904 in Timisoara, Romania, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents immigrated to the US when he was 3 years old. He later claimed that he was born in Pennsylvania in order to ensure eligibility to represent America in the Olympics.

He had polio as a child and was advised to take up swimming to build his strength. From the age of 9 he taught himself to swim in the city's public pools and in Lake Michigan and took to it quite naturally. When he and his family moved to Chicago Weissmuller continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swimming team.

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Olympic Swimming Star, 1924

After leaving school, he took several jobs including working at the Plaza Hotel in Chicago and he began training seriously at the Illinois Athletic Club, where he developed his arched back, front crawl style which uniquely raised his body from the water to reduce drag.

He made his Amateur Athletic Union racing debut in 1921, winning the 50-yard freestyle, then really made his mark at the national championships in 1923 where he won the freestyle events at four distances and also the 150 yard backstroke event, beating the world record by six seconds. The sickly child had developed into a formidable 6' 3", 190lb, fiercely competitive athlete.

He began his Olympic medal haul in 1924 with three golds and then in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he won two more golds. He was a genuine swimming phenomenon. From the time he began his amateur career as a 17 year old in 1921 to when he turned professional in 1929, he never lost a race.

New Hollywood Star

In 1929, he finished with swimming and began lucrative work with the BVD (Bradley, Voorhies, and Day) swimwear company, travelling round the country giving swimming exhibitions and promoting the BVD swimwear products. He was to be paid $500 per week for five years.

Also in 1929 he made his movie debut in 'Glorifying the American girl', as Adonis, and he also appeared in a series of 'Crystal Champions' movie one reelers, all featuring recent Olympic champions.

During this time he continued to swim at the Hollywood Athletic Club on Sunset Blvd and he was spotted by MGM screenwriter, Cyril Hume, and introduced to producer, Bernard Hyman. The result was his first major motion picture, 'Tarzan the Ape Man' in 1932, the role that defined his career. Partnered with the oddly sophisticated but undeniably alluring Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, Weissmuller became an international superstar almost overnight.

Famed for the line,"Me Tarzan, you Jane," Weissmuller claimed he never said it; it was "Tarzan, Jane." Their jungle life continues in 'Tarzan and His Mate' in 1934 with Tarzan's vocabulary noticeably expanding.

The Tarzan Call - (by Johnny Weissmuller)

The Tarzan Years

Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan and Johnny Sheffield with Cheetah
Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan and Johnny Sheffield with Cheetah

Weismuller went on to star in six Tarzan movies with Maureen O'Sullivan and also Cheeta the Chimpanzee. The last three of the series also included Johnny Sheffield as Boy. In 1942 he moved to RKO and, without O'Sullivan, made six more Tarzan movies but of noticeably reduced quality.

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As Jungle Jim with Marty Huston, 1955

When Weissmmuller left the series after Tarzan and the Mermaids' in 1948, the distinctive yodeling yell he invented remained on the soundtrack. He was by now paunchier and in shorts rather than a loincloth, and his Tarzan role was taken over by Lex Barker.

Nevertheless Weissmuller continued his tropical adventures in a run of 13 'Jungle Jim' films, including 'Jungle Jim' in 1948 and 'Voodoo Tiger' in 1952. From 'Cannibal Attack' in 1954 onward, the 'Jungle Jim' name was dropped and the hero became simply 'Johnny Weissmuller'.

Weissmuller's Wives

Weissmuller had a stormy personal life. He was married five times.

His first wife was band singer Bobbe Arnst whom he married in 1933. Whilst in New York for the premiere of his first Tarzan film, he met actress Lupe Vélez, whose affair with Gary Cooper had just ended. They started a passionate affair and after a divorce with Bobbe had been engineered and paid for by MGM, Johnny and Lupe were married in October, 1933, and went to live in the bride's home in Beverly Hills.

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Johnny and Lupe Vélez, 1935

It was a doomed marriage between two combustible and highly incompatible people and their public arguments and fights became commonplace. Lupe, who is believed to have suffered from what is now known as bipolar disorder filed for divorce several times and eventually the marriage came to an end in 1938. Six years later Lupe, by then in another relationship, committed suicide.

Weismuller met his third wife, Beryl Scott, during a golf tournament in 1939. She was 21 and he 35.They married in the same year and during the next four years Beryl bore him his three children: John Scott, Jr., Wendy Anne, and Heidi Elizabeth.

Allene Gates, a golfer from Los Angeles, married Weissmuller in 1948 when she was 22 and he 44. They divorced in 1962 and from 1963 until his death, Weissmuller lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with Maria, his last wife, a native of Bavaria.

Final Years

When his film career ended Weismuller had a series of unsuccessful business ventures, including a Jungle Hut restaurant franchise, a swimming pool company and a tourist attraction called 'Tropical Wonderland' in Florida, which never got off the drawing board. He retired in 1965 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In 1969, he came out of retirement and reunited briefly with Maureen O'Sullivan in 'The Phynx' 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 failing health from 1974 he had a series of strokes in 1977 and lived the last part of his life in Mexico with his fifth wife, Maria. Johnny Weissmuller died of pulmonary edema on January 20, 1984. He was 79. At his funeral in Acapulco at the Valley of the Light Cemetery, at his request, a recording of his famous Tarzan call was played three times.

Johnny Weissmuller Video Clips

Johnny Weissmuller 1904-1984

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    • Ben Reed profile image

      Ben Reed 4 years ago from Redcar

      He was my hero as Tarzan when I was a youngster - wonderful lense, thank you.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 5 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Oh wow, I sure enjoyed learning more about Johnny Weissmuller. I watched many of the Tarzan movies growing up.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I loved all his Tarzan movies. Great info here including picture of him as an older man. Too bad he didn't have financial success in his later years.

    • profile image

      RecordLady 5 years ago

      Very interesting lens. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 5 years ago from Central Florida

      It was sad today to hear that Cheeta had died at age 80. He outlived Johnny Weissmuller though.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 5 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I really enjoyed the old Tarzan movies. I grew up with them, and nobody played a better Tarzan than Johnny Weissmuller. I had no idea he ended his days in Fort Lauderdale. I only lived up the road from there for 4 years. Excellent lens, let me be the first to comment on it, and also hopefully the first to bless it, but not the last.