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Johnny Weissmuller (Born as Johann Peter Weißmüller; June 2, 1904 – January 20, 1984) was an Romanian-born of German ethnicity Americanmarker 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 Romanian of German ethnicity, born to Peter Weißmüller and his wife Elisabeth Kersch, in Banat, Romania. The ship's roster from his family's arrival at Ellis Islandmarker lists his birthplace as Freidorfmarker, now a district of Timişoaramarker, Romaniamarker,. 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 Johann, son of Peter Weissmuller and Elizabeth Kersch, was baptized there on 6 May 1904. The passenger manifest of the S.S. 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 seven-month-old Johann, The family is listed as Romanian Germans, last residence Timisoara, despite the fact that they lived for a long time in Freidorf. They were going to join their brother-in-law Johann Ott of Windber, Pennsylvaniamarker. 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 six, born n Timisoara and Peter Jr., age five, 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.

R.
Brever, B.
Skelton, Johnny Weissmuller. c.
1925


When Weissmuller was a small child, the family emigrated to the United States aboard the S.S. Rotterdam as steerage passengers. They left Rotterdammarker on January 14, 1905, and arrived at Ellis Islandmarker in New Yorkmarker harbor twelve days later as Peter, Elisabeth and Johann Weissmuller. The passenger list records them as ethnic Germans and citizens of Romaniamarker. After a brief stay in Chicagomarker, visiting relatives, they moved to the coal mining town of Windber, Pennsylvaniamarker. (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 US 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. 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). 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 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. 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 Weissmeuller, age 49, has listed with her, her sons John P. and Peter J., and Peter's wife Dorothy. Elizabeth is listed as a widow. Illinois death records indicate a Peter "Weissmuller" died in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois on July 17, 1938. A "Katherin Weissmuller" died there as well on October 15, 1946. These may have been Johnny Weissmuller's parents.

Careers

Swimming

As a teen, Weissmuller attended Lane Technical H.S. before dropping out to work various jobs including a stint as a lifeguard at a Lake Michiganmarker 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. (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 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 for the gold. 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 Amsterdammarker, he won another two Olympic titles.

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

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 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, Floridamarker.

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 two years.

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 a 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 suit 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, Floridamarker, where he was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

According to David Wallechinsky's Complete Book of the Olympics, Weissmuller was playing in a celebrity golf tournament in 1958 when his 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.

Sometime in the 1960s, Weissmuller built a doomed tourist attraction called Tropical Wonderland, aka Tarzan's Jungleland, on US 1 in Titusville, Floridamarker. 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 Edinburghmarker, 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, Nevadamarker, 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, Californiamarker for several weeks before moving with his last wife, Maria, to Acapulco, Mexicomarker, the location of his last Tarzan movie.

On January 20, 1984, Weissmuller died from pulmonary edema at the age of 79. 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.

Influence

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."

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

Filmography

Film
Year Film Role Notes
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
1936 Tarzan Escapes 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
1970 The Phynx Himself
1976 Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood Stagehand #2
Television
Year Title Role Notes
1956-1958 Jungle Jim Jungle Jim 26 episodes


References

Further reading

  • Fury, David A. Fury. Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Artist's Press. 2000) ISBN 0924556021
  • Weissmuller, Johnny Jr. Tarzan My Father, Toronto: ECW Press 2002


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