By Penny Deutsch
in Freidorf, Hungary in 1904, Peter Janos Weissmuller’s family immigrated to the
United States in 1907, where he grew up in the southwestern Pennsylvania town of
Windber. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade, shortly before the death
of his father, who was a brew master, and learned to swim at about age
9 in the city's public pools and in Lake Michigan. From August 1921, when as a
17- year-old he broke his first world record, until he turned professional in
January 1929, he set and reset world and national freestyle records for
distances from 50 yards to a half mile.
Although Weissmuller was quite sickly as a child, he began swimming on the
advice of his physician and improved more than just his health as he grew into a
six-foot-three-inch undefeated swimming champion, who found world re-known in
1922, when he broke Duke Kahanamoku’s world record in the 100-meter freestyle
and went on to repeat the feat in the 1924 Olympics. Although his formal
education ended with completion of the 8th grade, Weissmuller’s swimming
training continued at the Illinois Athletic Club in Chicago, where he began a
stellar career leading to three gold medals at the 1924 and two more at the1928
Additional credits of his swimming feats include The1972 Dewars Merit Award for "Sports Immortal”; being declared "King of Swimming Undefeated" in 1974 by the
International Palace of Sports; awarded the "Sportsman's World Award/Swimming"
in 1974; winning the "American Patriot Award" in 1971; acknowledged as "Sports
World King" in 1972; won the Helms Hall of Fame Award 3 times, and was awarded
an honorary sixth Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Germany in 1972.
When writer Cyril Hume was working on the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’
Tarzan stories in 1932, he noticed Weissmuller swimming in the pool at his
hotel. Although he had starred in some sports shorts and a movie called The
American Girl in 1929, Weissmuller was currently under contract modeling BVD
underwear, so MGM managed to get him released from the contract by agreeing to
use some of their female stars to promote BVD swimsuits. Johnny was then hired
by MGM to play the heroic adult part of the orphaned son of English aristocrats
raised in the jungles of Africa by apes.
of the Apes” opened to wide acclaim and he became the most popular Tarzan ever
to grace the silver screen, starring in a total of 12 Tarzan movies in all,
opposite such gorgeous leading ladies as Tarzan’s first love interest, Jane,
played first by Maureen O’Sullivan and for four years after her by Brenda
Joyce. The character of Jane Parker, the daughter of an ivory hunter, was that
of a strong-willed young woman with a mind of her own. She is captivated with
Tarzan upon meeting him, but wary of his simple manner and inability to
communicate in her language. When he saves her life and takes her to his home
high in the trees of the jungle, however, she becomes captivated with his
strength, good looks and honesty. As the movie progresses and Tarzan
demonstrates his undying love for her, she realizes
that the life she had been
living was shallow and unimportant compared to life in the jungle with Tarzan
and the animals. An especially seductive scene where Jane, draped in very skimpy
loincloths joins Tarzan in the lake for a playful swim, had Hollywood abuzz and
people clambering for more. “Me Tarzan. You Jane” and the famous “Tarzan yell”
became known the world over in every language.
Other Tarzan movies included Tarzan and His Mate in1934; Tarzan Escapes in 1936,
Tarzan Finds a Son in 1939, where Johnny Sheffield entered the Tarzan family
group. During auditions for the part, Weissmuller personally selected Sheffield
to play the part of his son and the chemistry between them on screen added an
important dimension to the character of Tarzan, the “family” presentation and
their popularity. Tarzan's Secret Treasure was filmed in1941 and Tarzan's New
York Adventure in 1942, where O'Sullivan made her final appearance as Jane,
unsuccessfully attempting to adapt Tarzan to civilization.
Weissmuller went on to portray Tarzan for another six feature films through
1948, four of which starred Brenda Joyce as Jane, consisting of Tarzan Triumphs
in 1943; Tarzan's Desert Mystery in 1943; Tarzan and the Amazons in 1945; Tarzan
and the Leopard Woman in 1946; Tarzan and the Huntress in 1947, and Tarzan and
the Mermaids in 1948.
Weissmuller portrayed Tarzan in 12 films before leaving MGM to star in the
Jungle Jim TV Series. He was elected Chairman of The International Swimming Hall
of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, established 76 world records, and won 52
National Championships. If all this wasn’t enough, Sportswriters of America
conferred on him the title of The Greatest Swimmer of the First Half Century
married six times in all, his first being a much-covered stormy liaison with the
tempestuous Mexican actress Lupe Velez from 1933 to 1938. Earlier wives,
all of whom sued him for divorce, were Robbe Arnst, a musical comedy actress;
Beryl Scott, the San Francisco socialite who bore his three children, John
Scott, Wendy Ann and Heidi Elizabeth (who died in a car crash at the age of 19
in 1962). Due to their marital problems, Beryl filed a suit against Weissmuller
when John Scott was three years old, whereby he was unable to see his son for
seven years, however, when this period ended and they were able to spend time
together, they became very close and developed a warm father/son relationship.
Allene Gates, a golfer from Los Angeles was his fourth wife.
From 1965 until November 1973, Weissmuller lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with
Maria, his last wife, a native of Bavaria. In spite of his swimming prowess and
obvious strength, he had a history of heart problems and suffered a series of
strokes in 1977. The man that brought Rice-Burroughs tale of Tarzan of the
Jungle to life like no other before or since was 79 years old when he died. His
funeral took place in Acapulco, not far from the site of his last movie.
Penny Deutsch is a freelance writer
and at one time a regular contributor to
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Visit her web
site Super Scripting Style at http://www.superscriptingstyle.net.
Other Johnny Weissmuller Pages:
Johnny Weissmuller by Ken Lashway -- A
second Johnny Weissmuller profile right here on things-and-other-stuff.com!