Johann Peter Weissmuller, the son of Peter and Elisabeth Weissmuller, was born on June 2, 1904, in Freidorf, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present day Timisoara, Romania). Johann and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1905, before he was even a year old. The three Weissmullers were steerage passengers on the boat to Ellis Island and were listed as "Germans." (Although there is some dispute about Johann's exact place of birth, his birth date seems to be mutually agreed upon by all sources.)
The family settled in a town called Windber, Pennsylvania, where Peter found work as a miner. Another Weissmuller son, Peter Jr., was born in 1905. By 1910, the family had moved and settled in Chicago.
At the age of nine, Johann contracted polio. His doctor recommended he take up swimming to battle the disease. Johann took to the new activity like a fish to water (sorry) and soon had a spot on the local YMCA swim team.
He had been a student at the Lane Technical College prep school, but soon dropped out and found work as a lifeguard at Lake Michigan Beach. Johann had several odd jobs during this period, including working as both a bellboy and an elevator operator at the Illinois Athletic Club.
A swim coach named William Bachrach spotted and was impressed by Johann's aquatic prowess and became his trainer in August of 1921. Soon, Johann had won two national swimming championships.
It was during this period, that Johann adopted the more Americanized named of "Johnny Weissmuller." He also took on the birth date of his younger brother (November 5, 1905) and "adopted" a new birthplace- Tanneryville, Pennsylvania. These factors were necessary when he needed an American passport to be able to compete in the 1924 Olympics. His younger brother's Pennsylvania baptism record was enough to convince authorities. The whole new identity scheme for Weissmuller was supposedly cooked up by his mother.
Johnny was to make it to the 1924 Olympic games in Paris and compete as an American. He won three Olympic swimming gold medals (plus a bronze medal for water polo) at the Olympics that year. In 1928, at the Olympics in Amsterdam, Johnny added two more swimming golds. He set a new world record in each of his five swimming Olympic competitions.
Undefeated in his amateur swimming career, he won 52 national championships and set 67 world swim records. In 1950, Johnny was named by the Associated Press as the greatest swimmer in the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1929, Johnny became a spokesman and model for BVD underwear. That same year, he made his motion picture debut, playing the role of Adonis in the film Glorifying the American Girl. His entire wardrobe consisted of a fig leaf (carefully placed).
In 1931, MGM screenwriter Cyril Hume was working on an adaptation of the first speaking Tarzan movie Tarzan the Ape Man (the first movie Tarzan was silent screen actor Elmo Lincoln in 1918) when he noticed Johnny swimming in the hotel pool and recommended him for the lead role. Johnny got the role over other virile male applicants including a young Clark Gable (who was deemed too unknown) and New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig (his legs were too thick and muscular).
Johnny's female co-star in the film was Maureen O'Sullivan. She was to be his counterpart in all six of his MGM Tarzan movies. Also co-starring in each of Johnny's Tarzan forays was Cheeta the chimpanzee, who always supplied the perfect comic relief. In Johnny's final three MGM Tarzan films, Johnny Sheffield came on board to play his son, Boy.
The immortal "Me Tarzan, you Jane" conversation which was supposedly immortalized in the film never actually happened. When Tarzan and Jane exchange words in their most famous scene, she says "I'm Jane Parker" and points to herself a few times and says "Jane." Then she points to Tarzan, inquisitively, who identifies himself simply as "Tarzan." He then says "Jane, Tarzan, Jane, Tarzan" over and over (each time he says "Jane" he pounds her hard in the chest in a most un-gentlemanly manner).
The legendary "Tarzan yell" (originated in this film, but used many times thereafter) has a disputed origin. According to some sources, the yell was a combination of a soprano, an alto, and a hog caller, all spliced together. But Maureen O'Sullivan swore to her dying day that the yell came from Johnny himself, it was supposedly a yodel he had learned and used many years before.
In 1933, Johnny married his second wife, "Mexican spitfire" Lupe Velez. The Weissmullers' violent fights became fodder for the Hollywood gossip columns and reputedly, the MGM makeup men were kept busy during the Weissmuller-Velez marriage (1933-1939), covering up various cuts, bruises and bite marks on Johnny's body.
Tarzan the Ape Man was a hit with audiences and Johnny was to play the role five more times at MGM (his last MGM outing as Tarzan was 1942's Tarzan's New York Adventure.)
In 1943, Johnny moved to RKO studios, where he starred in Tarzan Triumphs. He was to star as the ape man five more times. For the six RKO Tarzan movies, production costs dropped precipitously. The RKO Tarzan films were, noticeably, made on a much lower budget.
Brenda Joyce took over the Jane role in the last four Tarzan films (there was no Jane character in the first two RKO films). Johnny Sheffield stuck around for the first five RKO Tarzan movies, and of course, Cheeta was there every time. In 1948, Johnny starred in his 12th Tarzan movie Tarzan and the Mermaids before finally hanging up his loincloth.
Although there were movie Tarzans both before and after Johnny Weissmuller, he remains "everybody's favorite" and the quintessential ape man (much like Sean Connery's James Bond or Bela Lugosi's Dracula).
Right after this, Johnny stayed busy starring as Jungle Jim in another successful movie series for 16 films (1948-1954). Upon finishing the Jungle Jim series, he starred as "Johnny Weissmuller" in a handful of movies.
In 1958, Johnny and some friends were golfing in Cuba during the time of the Cuban revolution. A daunting looking group of rebel soldiers suddenly surrounded Weissmuller and his scared golfing buddies. Unable to communicate with words, Johnny let out his world-famous Tarzan yell. The guerrilla soldiers recognized both the yell and it's purveyor immediately. ("Es Tarzan! Es Tarzan de la Jungla!") Not only did they not kidnap or harm the golfing buddies, they gave them a personal escort back to the hotel.
In 1965, Johnny helped found the International Swimmers Hall of Fame. He became one of the charter inductees that same year. In 1976, Johnny appeared in his last movie. He played a Hollywood intern who got fired by a Hollywood mogul (played by Art Carney) in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. In 1973, Johnny moved to Las Vegas with his fifth and final wife, Maria, where he found work as greeter at Caesar's Palace, along with boxer Joe Louis.
(Image credit: Joost Evers/Anefo)
Johnny had several health setbacks in the late seventies and early eighties, including a series of strokes. In 1979, the Weissmullers moved into the Motion Picture and Television County Home and Hospital for a short stay while he recovered from a stroke. The couple finally settled in Acapulco, Mexico, the location of one of Johnny's motion pictures.
Johnny was married five times in all; he fathered three children with his third wife, Beryl- Johnny Jr., Wendie Anne and Heidi Elizabeth. Sadly, a pregnant Heidi was killed in a tragic car accident in 1962, at the age of 18. It was said by friends that Johnny Weissmuller never got over the loss of his daughter and not-yet-incipient grandchild.
He lived his entire adult life with the fear that authorities would eventually find out about his actual birth place and his actual identity and take away his Olympic gold medals. Fortunately (and mercifully) this never happened.
Johnny Weissmuller, the world's most beloved Tarzan, died at the age of 79 on January 20, 1984, of pulmonary edema. At his funeral ceremony, as Johnny's coffin was being lowered into the ground, his world famous Tarzan yell was played three times. This was done at his request.