For most of us, the first awareness we had of Johnny Weissmuller was through viewing his appearances in vintage “Tarzan” movies. Who can forget the iconic Tarzan warbling yell that has become a cliché?
Johnny starred in six “Tarzan” films with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Cheeta the Chimp for MGM pictures. Later, he contracted with RKO pictures for six additional “Tarzan” flicks. Even though there have been other Tarzans in movie and television features, Johnny Weissmuller is considered to be the definitive Tarzan character.
When the public tastes for “Tarzan” began to wane, Weissmuller played the role of “Jungle Jim” for Columbia Pictures. Between 1948 and 1954, he starred in 13 “Jungle Jim” movies. In the mid 1950s he also starred as “Jungle Jim” on the television adventure series known by the same name. The 26 episodes went into re-run syndication almost immediately after the original show was cancelled. His other major film and television appearances were as Johnny Weissmuller himself.
He was born Janos Weißmüller on this day (June 2) in 1904 near the suburb of the city of Temesvár in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. While still young, the Weißmüller family emigrated to the U.S. as steerage passengers on board the SS Rotterdam. The family eventually moved to Pennsylvania. At the age of nine, little Janos contracted Polio. His doctor prescribed swimming as therapy for the disease. After the family moved to Chicago, Janos earned a place on the YMCA swimming team.
Janos worked as an elevator operator and bellhop at the Illinois Athletic Club. Swim coach William Bachrach met up and became Janos’ trainer. Soon, the young man won national championships for the 50 and 220 yard competitions. Even though he was born in Europe, Janos gave his birthplace as Tanneryvill, Pennsylvania. He also fibbed about his birth date as that of his younger brother Peter. He needed to give this information in order to be eligible to be a part of the U.S. Olympic Team. He had to have a U.S. Passport, so he gave his name as Johnny Weissmuller.
July 9, 1922, Weissmuller set a new world record in the 100-metre freestyle with a time of 58.6 seconds. He also won the Gold Medal for that race in the 1924 Summer Olympics. He was also a winner in the 400-metre relay and the 4 By 200 metre relay. Weissmuller also was a member of the U.S. Water Polo team. For that he won a bronze medal. Then, at the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics, he captured two more Olympic Golds.
In 1977, a series of strokes incapacitated Weissmuller. Then on January 20, 1984 he suffered a pulmonary edema and died at the age of 70. As he was lowered into his grave at the cemetery in Acapulco, a recording of his Tarzan yell was played three times as he had requested.
As far as I can determine, none of his Olympic or World records have been withdrawn, even though Weissmuller was not truthful about his birthplace. His athletic and acting legacy remain legendary to this day.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Weissmuller was one of the first underwear models. He worked for BVD and promoted their lines of underpants and swimming trunks.