- Dan Streible
Weissmuller, Johnny (02 June 1904–20 January 1984), swimmer and actor, was born Janos Weissmuller in Freidorf, Romania (then Austria-Hungary), the son of Peter Weissmuller, a miner, and Elizabeth Kersh, a cook. The Weissmullers immigrated to the United States with seven-month-old Janos, renaming him Johann. After a short time in Windber, Pennsylvania, the family moved to Chicago. When Weissmuller qualified for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, Illinois congressman Henry Rathbone questioned his citizenship. Using his brother’s Pennsylvania baptismal records, the champion swimmer obtained his American passport under the name Peter John Weissmuller. His given name and European birth remained largely unknown until after his death.
When his father separated from the family in 1918, Weissmuller left school. He was swimming at the Young Men’s Christian Association when coach Bill Bachrach of the Illinois Athletic Club discovered his talent. After a year of intense training, he entered competition in 1921. Weissmuller immediately began winning Amateur Athletic Union races and breaking world records. Tall, rangy, and strong, he revolutionized the sport of swimming. His specialty was the “American crawl” used in freestyle races. By 1922 experts were already declaring Weissmuller the greatest swimmer of all time, citing his innovative variation of the crawl stroke that allowed him to travel higher in the water than his slower competitors. Racing in events ranging from fifty yards to a half-mile, the peerless Weissmuller was unbeaten, setting sixty-seven world records. He was the first person to swim 100 meters in under a minute and the first to race 400 meters in under five.
Alongside runner Paavo Nurmi, Weissmuller emerged as the star athlete of the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He won three gold medals (two individual and one for anchoring a U.S. relay team) as well as a bronze in water polo (one of only three Americans ever to medal in two sports). At the 1928 games in Amsterdam, Weissmuller again was the speediest swimmer at 100 meters. He became the first swimmer to earn five gold medals by also repeating his feat on the 4 × 200 meter relay team.
A shy, handsome, and well-liked celebrity, Weissmuller broadened the appeal of the sport he dominated. He performed around the world in water shows before and after “turning pro” in 1929. Ten years later he was still swimming remarkable times while starring in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the New York World’s Fair. Weissmuller began to supplement his live appearances with print advertisements (modeling swimsuits) and radio and movie performances. He appeared in a sports documentary by journalist Grantland Rice and made a cameo, as a fig-leafed Adam, in Florenz Ziegfeld’s film Glorifying the American Girl (1930). The hard-training athlete began to socialize with the show business set. After a brief marriage to singer Bobbe Arnst (1930–1932), he had a stormy marital relationship with film star Guadalupe Villalobos “Lupe” Velez (1932–1939) that was often the subject of newspaper gossip. He subsequently married socialite Beryel Scott (1939–1948); they had three children, including Johnny, Jr., who pursued a movie career. He was later married to golfer Allene Gates (1948–1961) and Gertrudis Maria Theresia Elizabeth Bauman (from 1962 until his death).
Weissmuller’s fame as a swimmer was far exceeded by his success as the star of a dozen Tarzan films produced in Hollywood between 1932 and 1948. Many actors have portrayed the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels, but Weissmuller’s performance was the most definitive, “because,” as critic David Thomson wrote, “he conjured up the notion of a swimming superman, a radio and newsreel hero, now lighted like a god.” For the rest of his life he was invariably linked with his King of the Jungle persona, which he embraced with good humor. Beginning with Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and continuing through Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), Weissmuller portrayed his action hero with long hair and a shaven body, wearing only a loin cloth while swinging from tree to tree. While never taken seriously as an actor, his voice became an equally important part of his identity. His dialogue consisted of monosyllabic phrases taught to him by Tarzan’s companion Jane (played by Maureen O’Sullivan in the first six films). Weissmuller’s first movie line, “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” became part of screen lore, surpassed in fame only by the yodeling jungle yell he invented as Tarzan’s signature. His distinctive Tarzan call became a standard sound effect throughout pop culture. Films featuring the chest-thumping star were designed as unpretentious matinee adventures, though the early entries had erotic appeal. (“Built like a Greek statue,” a 1932 New York Sun review ran, he represented “the movie maiden’s prayer for a cave man, ape man, and big fine fig-leaf-and-bough man.”) Weissmuller’s aquatic athleticism was showcased via underwater photography and outdoor swimming and diving scenes. Armed only with a hunting knife, his Tarzan wrestled all manner of wild animals while taming others—particularly his pet chimpanzee Cheetah—to help fight invaders.
In 1943, after six glossy, biennial Tarzan pictures at MGM, producer Sol Lesser hired Weissmuller to reprise his role in six small-budget, annual films for RKO. Though he was still popular, his status as a screen action hero began to decline. In 1948, now incorporated as Johnny Weissmuller Productions, he moved to the even lower-rent Columbia studios, starring in the B-movie series of “Jungle Jim” films. Weissmuller played the comic strip character as “Tarzan in pants.” His formulaic action heroics were largely recycled in films that appeared semiannually with such titles as Mark of the Gorilla (1950), Fury of the Congo (1954), and Killer Ape (1954). As depictions of Africa, they were an anthropologist’s nightmare, but were generally considered too cheap and preposterous to invite critical attention. After the thirteenth entry, Jungle Man-Eaters (1954), Weissmuller abandoned his character’s name and played himself in three more jungle action pictures.
In the late 1950s Weissmuller retired from Hollywood after a short run of “Jungle Jim” television episodes, though he made occasional cameo appearances until the mid-1970s. He did charity work and loaned his name to several minor business ventures while living in retirement in Florida, California, and Las Vegas (where he worked as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace Hotel). In 1950 the Associated Press voted him the greatest swimmer of the half-century; in 1983 he was elected a charter member in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. He died in Acapulco, Mexico, near the spot where he filmed his final Tarzan movie.
An icon of his generation’s conception of masculinity, Weissmuller’s image as a golden boy turned heroic he-man was an apt fusion of his athletic achievement and screen legend. Although he dominated a single sport as few had, his subsequent identity as the quintessential movie Tarzan remains his more indelible legacy.
Weissmuller, with Clarence A. Bush, authored the book Swimming the American Crawl (1930). A Weissmuller biography is Narda Onyx, Water, World, and Weissmuller (1964). Spurious biographical details published during his lifetime are corrected in Arlene Mueller, “Johnny Weissmuller Made Olympian Efforts to Conceal His Birthplace,” Sports Illustrated, 6 Aug. 1984. Paul Gallico, The Golden People (1965), assesses the Weissmuller of the 1920s as an icon in the golden age of American sports, while Buck Dawson, Weissmuller to Spitz: An Era to Remember (1988), details the swimmer’s accomplishments. Gabe Essoe, Tarzan of the Movies (1968), gives a pictorial history of Weissmuller on screen. Critical assessments of his cinematic image are David Thomson, “Johnny Weissmuller,” Film Comment 20 (Mar.–Apr. 1984): 70–71, and Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumim, You Tarzan: Masculinity, Movies, and Men (1993). An obituary is in the New York Times, 22 Jan. 1984.