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Johnny Weissmuller

Johnny Weissmuller (June 2, 1904January 20, 1984) was an American swimmer and actor. He was one of the world's best swimmers in the 1920s, winning five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal. He won fifty-two National Championships and set sixty-seven world records. After his swimming career, he played Tarzan in twelve motion pictures. Other actors also played Tarzan, but Weissmuller was the best-known.


Early Life

He was born János Weißmüller in Freidorf, Austro-Hungary (present-day Timişoara) to Austrian parents, Petrus Weißmüller and Erszebet Kersch, as is shown on his birth and baptismal records.

When Johnny was seven months old, the family emigrated to the United States aboard the S.S. Rotterdam. They left Rotterdam on January 14, 1905, and arrived in New York twelve days later, with their names recorded in English as Peter, Elizabeth and Johann Weissmuller.

After a brief stay in Chicago, Illinois, visiting relatives, they moved to the coal mining town of Windber, Pennsylvania, where Peter Weissmuller worked as a miner. Another son, Peter Weissmuller, Jr., was born in Windber on September 3, 1905.

After several years in Pennsylvania, they moved to Chicago. Johnny's father owned a bar for a time and his mother became head cook at a famed restaurant. His parents were later divorced, as is shown by the divorce document filed in Chicago by Elizabeth Weissmuller, although a lot of sources state incorrectly that Weismuller's father died of tuberculosis contracted from working in coal mines and left her a widow. It has been said that he actually lived to old age and had another, large family of children.

From an early age, Johnny and his brother were aggressive swimmers. The beaches of Lake Michigan became their favorite summer recreation place. He then joined the Stanton Park pool, where he won all the junior swim meets. At the age of twelve he earned a spot on the YMCA swim team.

Swimming Career

When Weissmuller left school, he worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel in Chicago and trained for the Olympics with a swim coach at the Illinois Athletic Club, where he developed his revolutionary high-riding front crawl. He made his amateur debut on August 6, 1921, winning his first AAU race in the 50-yard freestyle.

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, and was a critical issue in being issued an American passport.

On July 9, 1922, Johnny Weissmuller broke Duke Kahanamoku's world record on the 100-meters freestyle, swimming it in 58.6 seconds. He won the title in that distance at the 1924 Summer Olympics, beating Kahanamoku on February 24, 1924. 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 two more Olympic titles.

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.

Tarzan and Jungle Jim

In 1929, he 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, giving his autograph 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 titled Glorifying the American Girl and he appeared as himself in the first of several Crystal Champions , a movie short featuring Weissmuller and other Olympic champions at Silver Springs, Florida.

The movie career of Johnny Weissmuller only really began after 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. Even the author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created the character of Tarzan in his books, was pleased.

Weissmuller starred in six Tarzan movies for MGM with actress Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. The last three also included Johnny Sheffield as Boy. Then, in 1942, Weissmuller went to RKO and starred in six more Tarzan movies. Sheffield appeared as Boy in the first five features for that studio. Another co-star was blonde actress Brenda Joyce , who played Jane in the last four Tarzan movies. In a total of twelve 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 honour went to Elmo Lincoln , he was the first to be associated with the now traditional ululating, yodeling Tarzan yell.

When he finally left that role, he immediately traded his loincloth costume for jungle fatigues and appeared fully clothed in the role of Jungle Jim (1948) for Columbia. He made thirteen Jungle Jim movies 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 played over and over on network and syndicated TV for many years.

Later Life

Weissmuller was married five times: to 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 1963-1984).

According to a movie site on the Internet, he also married and divorced Camilla Louiee, but that claim has been challenged. Weissmuller reportedly said that Louiee ran off and married another man instead of him.

With his third wife, Beryl, he had three children, Johnny Scott Weissmuller (or Johnny Weissmuller, Jr. , also an actor) (born September 23, 1940), Wendy Anne Weissmuller (born June 1, 1942) and Heidi Elizabeth Weissmuller (July 31, 1944-November 19, 1962).

In the late 1950s, Weissmuller moved back to Chicago and started a swimming pool company. He also 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 . 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, where he was a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel for a time. In 1974, he broke a hip and leg. 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 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 suffered a series of strokes in 1977. For a time in 1979, he was a patient in the Motion Picture and Television Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. Later he and his last wife, Maria, moved to Acapulco, Mexico, which was the location of his last Tarzan movie.

Johnny Weissmuller died on January 20, 1984 of a pulmonary edema at his retirement home in Acapulco. He is buried in the Valley of The Light Cemetery there.

Weissmuller was a nice man who was friendly to his fellow man. He seemed always willing to share a big smile and make someone feel special in their own way. 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.


  • Glorifying the American Girl (1929) (Paramount) ... Adonis
  • Crystal Champions (1929) (Paramount) ... Himself
  • Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) (MGM) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan and His Mate (1934) (MGM) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan Escapes (1936) (MGM) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939) (MGM) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941) (MGM) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942) (MGM) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan Triumphs (1943) (RKO Pathé) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943) (RKO Pathé) ... Tarzan
  • Stage Door Canteen (1943) (United Artists) ... Himself
  • Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) (RKO Pathé) ... Tarzan
  • Swamp Fire (1946) (Paramount) ... Johnny Duval
  • Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) (RKO Pathé) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan and the Huntress (1947) (RKO Pathé) ... Tarzan
  • Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) (RKO Pathé) ... Tarzan
  • Jungle Jim (1948) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • The Lost Tribe (1949) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Mark of the Gorilla (1950) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Captive Girl (1950) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Pypmy Island (1950) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Fury of the Congo (1951) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Jungle Manhunt (1951) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land (1952) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Voodoo Tiger (1952) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Savage Mutiny (1953) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Valley of Head Hunters (1953) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Killer Ape (1953) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Jungle Man-Eaters (1954) (Columbia) ... Jungle Jim
  • Cannibal Attack (1954) (Columbia) ... Himself
  • Jungle Moon Men (1955) (Columbia) ... Himself
  • Devil Goddess (1955) (Columbia) ... Himself
  • The Phynx (1970) (Warner Bros.) ... Cameo
  • Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) (Paramount) ... Crewman

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Last updated: 11-08-2004 04:17:17