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By Penny Deutsch

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1939 Film Fantasy Playing Card Tarzan in Exile featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan1939 Film Fantasy Playing Card Tarzan in Exile featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny SheffieldBorn 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 Olympic Games.

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.

“Tarzan 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 Programs featuring Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan the Ape Man1954 Still Photo of Johnny Weissmuller as Jungle Jimthat 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 1900-1950.

Weissmuller 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 The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Visit her web site Super Scripting Style at

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