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John C. Burroughs

Johnny Weissmuller ... the Two Career Star
David Fury

    As difficult as it is to achieve fame and reach the pinnacle of success in a particular field, Johnny Weissmuller did it twice; he was the greatest swimmer of all time, and then became eternally famous and internationally loved and remembered as "Tarzan" on the silver screen.

    America had some truly legendary sports heroes during those exciting "Roaring Twenties," including Babe Ruth in baseball, Jack Dempsey in boxing, Jim Thorpe in football, and the handsome six-foot three-inch Adonis of swimming, Johnny Weissmuller. Johnny was the dar-ling of the print media in the 1920s, earning nicknames like "Human Hydroplane," "Prince of the Waves," "Flying Fish," "Aquatic Wonder," "King of Swimmers," and "America's Greatest Waterman."

    Few athletes in the history of sports can lay claim to being retired undefeated, as was the case with Johnny, who never lost a race in his amateur swimming career. From his debut in competitive swimming in 1921, when he won his first A.A.U. (Amateur Athletic Union) cham-pion-ship in the 50-yard freestyle, Weissmuller was the winner in every single race he ever entered through 1928, when he retired from competitive swimming to earn a living in the real world.

    So where did the great champion get his start? It was generally believed that he was born in Pennsylvania on June 2, 1904; however, Olympic historian David Wallechinsky states in his book (THE COMPLETE BOOK OF THE OLYMPICS, Penguin, 1984) that Johnny was actually born in German Swabia (now Romania) and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1908. Younger brother Peter was born in the United States, and when a matter of Johnny's citizenship came up prior to the 1924 Olympics, the baptismal documents for the brothers were switched, thus creating the confusion.

    The Weissmuller family started their new life in America in the coal town of Windber, Penn-sylvania, where his father toiled as a miner in the murky and hazardous depths of the coal mines to eke out an existence for his family. Eventually, they moved to Chicago where Mr. Weissmuller owned his own saloon for a time, and Johnny's mother was head cook at Chicago's famed Turn-Verein restaurant. Another Horatio Alger story was about to be born, as the son of poor immigrants would someday scale the heights of fame and fortune.

    Johnny and his brother Peter were avid swimmers, and later in life he disclaimed the story that he was "sickly" as a youth. "That was something we put out to inspire the kids," Johnny admitted. "I was skinny, all right, but there was nothing sickly about me. I would have filled out even without swimming." But still, drawn to the power of swimming, young Johnny joined the Stanton Park pool, where he won all the junior swim meets, and at age twelve earned a spot on the YMCA swim team (he fibbed about his age, as fourteen was the minimum to be on the team).

    Chicago's Oak Street Beach was his favorite summer hangout, and it was evident even in these early years that Johnny was a special human being when it came to aquatics. Throughout his life, Weissmuller advocated that everyone should learn swimming in childhood as a safety precaution; as a youth he witnessed a terrible boating accident and he and brother Peter pulled twenty people out of the water, although only eleven would survive the tragic mishap. Johnny felt strongly that tragedies such as this could be averted if everyone learned to swim at an early age.

    Family tragedy occurred in 1920 when Mr. Weissmuller died of tuberculosis, which no doubt was contracted during his period of employment as a coal miner in Pennsylvania. Years later, Johnny was philosophical when talking about his childhood. "I had to quit school after my father died," he recalled. "You know, your guts get so mad when you try to fight poverty and its constant and inevitable companion, ignorance. I told myself, 'I'm going to get out of his neighborhood' ... I fought my way out ... Maybe it's this drive to better oneself and one's surroundings that makes a champion out of the less fortunate boy, instead of the one born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as the saying goes."

    Young Johnny was indeed a fighter and a family man; when he quit school in the eighth grade after his father died, he worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel in Chicago to help support his family. Although that was the end of his formal education, he would continue to learn and to grow as a human being with his newly gained responsibilities as "the man of the house."

    Johnny gained a new "father-figure" around the time of his own father's death in the burly 340-pound presence of "Big Bill" Bachrach, the red-mustachioed swim coach of the Illinois Athletic Club. Bachrach, famed as a trainer of Olympic champions, began training Johnny in October of 1920, fully awakening the skills that would make him a great champion. Bachrach's fundamentals were of relaxation and form ... one had to be relaxed with perfect form to achieve optimum speed. With Bachrach's guidance, Johnny developed his revolutionary high-riding front crawl, which allowed him to guide his sleek physique through the waves like a hot knife through butter.

    Big Bill was also a con-man in the P.T. Barnum mold, exploiting his young star's potential in exhibition matches at the Illinois Athletic Club (gathering donations from wealthy businessmen who lunched there), to provide Johnny with clothes, meals and necessities. Bachrach was a strong motivating force, guiding Johnny's swimming career and his life as well. They remained friends for years after his young protege had moved out of the pool and into the jungle vines.

    Seventeen-year old Johnny Weissmuller made his amateur debut on August 6, 1921, winning his first A.A.U. race (50-yard freestyle), and splashed his way to victory in every race he would enter from 50 to 500 yards, right up until the Olympics of 1924, staged in Paris. At age twenty, Weissmuller looked almost invincible as well as being the world record holder in the 100-meters. But the defending Olympic champion was thirty-three year old Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii, who had also won the gold in 1912 and 1920; this would certainly be a great challenge for the world's two top swimmers.

    Also entered for the United States was Sam Ka-ha-na-moku, Duke's young-er brother. With little thought to a rivalry among the Americans, Duke turned to Johnny before the start of the race and said, "Johnny, good luck. The most important thing in this race is to get the American flag up there three times. Let's do it!" And they did, Johnny winning the gold in 59 seconds flat, with Duke and Sam coming in second and third, respectively.

    After his convincing victory, the appreciative throng of over seven thousand fans stood and called for Johnny to make an ap-pear-ance, until it was announced that he would appear again later in the afternoon. Johnny had won the 400-meter freestyle two days earlier and then participated on the winning U.S. 800-meter relay team. At the Amsterdam games in 1928, he carried the flag at the traditional opening ceremonies, and then repeated his victories in the 100-meter freestyle and the 800-meter relay.

    During the decade of the 1920s, Johnny won 36 individual National A.A.U. championships and 67 World Championships. He was the first swimmer to break the one-minute mark in the 100-meters, and his world record of 57.4 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle set in 1924 would last for ten years before being broken. Among his record setting performances were 51 world records and 94 American records (all individual). Weissmuller was chosen American Swimmer of the Year in 1922 (a non-repeat award; if eligible, he would undoubtedly also have won in 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927 and 1928). Johnny was also Helms Trophy Winner in 1923 (Athlete of the Year, North America), and was elected to the Helms Swimming Hall of Fame in 1949.

    With the successful 1928 Amsterdam Olympics under his belt, Johnny headed for Florida and performed in various water shows at posh hotels and resorts, receiving minimal com-pen-sation for travel and expenses. He also met Bobbe Arnst, a local singer who caused the tall swimmer to swoon in her direction, and they were soon married.

    Under the advice of Bill Bachrach, Weissmuller decided to turn pro and signed a contract with B.V.D. to promote their swimwear. With his B.V.D. salary at a princely (for the times) $500 per week, Johnny actually had some folding money in his pocket for the first time in his life ... and he liked it!

    Johnny also appeared in his first motion picture in 1929 (a cameo as himself), GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL, and the first of several Grantland Rice CRYSTAL CHAMP-IONS. He also co-authored two articles in 1930 for THE SATURDAY EVENING POST (with Clarence A. Bush) entitled: "My Methods of Training," and "Diet and Breathing to Swim," which were fascinating reading and important technique hints for serious swimming students.

    In 1931, MGM was casting for their new Tarzan film, TARZAN THE APE MAN, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' heroic jungle character. Several actors were considered for the role but were rejected, and fate's sometimes fortuitous hand tapped Johnny Weissmuller on the should-er to be the new ape-man. Screenwriter Cyril Hume, who was working on the screenplay for the new Tarzan picture, was mightily impressed with Weissmuller's championship form in the pool (at the hotel where both were staying). Hume immediately contacted Metro director W.S. (Woody) Van Dyke, who wanted a new actor for his Tarzan: "a man who is young, strong, well-built, reasonably attractive, but not necessarily handsome, and a competent actor."

    Johnny certainly filled the bill; if God had ever created a man who was physically perfect for a particular movie role, it was Weissmuller for the part of Tarzan. The absolute symmetry of his smoothly muscled physique had made him a champion as the world's greatest amateur swimmer ... but he certainly wasn't musclebound. And his deep brooding looks, that animal hunger in his eyes, and snarling expressions ... would bring fear to most any man or beast who aroused the displeasure of the ape-man.

    After Metro worked a compromise with B.V.D., Weissmuller was signed on October 16th, 1931, to the standard seven year contract to be the new cinema Tarzan; his salary was to be $250 per week. With virtually no acting experience, the ex-swimmer fell into the role of Tarzan like he was made for it; his sleek, muscular, yet symmetrical physique was like that of a lion, and his noble face and black mane of hair indeed gave Tarzan a regal "King of the Jungle" appearance.

    Johnny didn't need to be a great acting talent to portray Tarzan because he filled the role so naturally. He was able to capture the essence of invincibility that made his movie portrayal legendary. Here's how he played the character of Tarzan (author's opinion):

The ape-man's ignorance was only of the ways of the civilized world ... call him naive, uneducated, perhaps childlike in his puzzlement of things he did not understand. But in his world, his realm, Tarzan was cunning, jungle-wise, in-tel-ligent and absolute ruler of his kingdom. He ruled not only with his superior physical skills, but with a jungle savvy that clearly defined him as the Lord of the Jungle. Tarzan's "subjects" respected him, but above all they feared him, for he was indeed King of the Beasts.
    Weissmuller himself originated the famous yell that became the standard used in most of the Tarzan pictures, including the films made after he retired from the role. Starting with Johnny's own cry, MGM sound technician Douglas Shearer mixed in a strange variety of unrelated sounds, timed a split-second apart, including a hyena's yowl played backwards, a camel's bleat, the pluck of a violin string, and a soprano "high C." In their review of the film, the NEW YORK TIMES said of the Tarzan yell, "... a peculiar cry, a noise like blowing on a comb covered with paper."

    Years later in a television interview, Weissmuller recalled the origin of his Tarzan yell. "When I was a kid I used to read all the Tarzan books, and they had kind of a shrill yell for Tarzan. And I never thought I'd ever make Tarzan movies, but when I finally got it [the role of Tarzan] they were trying to do yells like that. And I remembered when I was a kid I used to yodel at the picnics on Sundays, and I said, 'I know a yell!'" At this point, the former Tarzan actor broke into his famous jungle cry which has become familiar to movie-goers.

    Whereas Johnny Weissmuller was considered the archetypal actor for the role of Tarzan, the perfect Jane was also found to swing through the trees next to Johnny. She was the lovely twenty-year old Irish actress Maureen O'Sullivan. The curvy, sensual, and talented brunette played Jane in six films with Johnny, and made over sixty feature films in her lengthy career. In a 1991 letter to me, Miss O'Sullivan fondly recalled her relationship with her handsome twenty-eight year old co-star: "We were dear friends. He was simple, unpretentious, without conceit ... a wonderful big kid."

    Later, in 1992, Maureen was kind enough to give me further insight into her friendship with Johnny Weissmuller: 

"I did get to know Johnny well, of course. It was not difficult; he was a big overgrown kid. I never saw him less than happy. He had three wives that came and went during our jungle years. Johnny seemed the same happy-go-lucky person when they left as when the arrived. Of his love life he said, 'Tarzan has a G-string and women like to hang on.' He never spoke of his Olympic triumphs or of the medals he had won. Nor did he speak of the countries that had honor-ed him. I think he lived completely for the moment, happy with our make-believe life, with the crew and with all the animals. Perhaps because he was a simple soul, they all adored him. Johnny like practical jokes such as giving me a birthday cake that blew up when I tried to cut it! Stage chemistry is an interesting thing. Johnny and I were different, but on camera something must have been right."
    Released in March of 1932, TARZAN THE APE MAN was a huge financial and critical success, and twenty-seven year old Johnny Weissmuller was a sensation as the screen's newest Tarzan. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive, as attested by the following reviews:

    LITERARY DIGEST: "Fame as a champion swimmer may help Mr. Weissmuller to the eminence he seems bound to achieve, but his acting qualities will also help. A subtle touch of the animal nature in Tarzan is indicated in his frequent turning of the head, in his alertness in the presence of danger. It was something shown by Nijinsky in his impersonation of the Fawn. Athletically, he competes with exalted predecessors."

    NEW YORK EVENING POST (Thornton Delehanty): "As Tarzan, Mr. Weissmuller makes his bow to the movie-going public, and as Tarzan he will probably remain bowing through a whole series of these pictures, even though the public may clamor to see him in Clark Gable roles ... There is no doubt that he possesses all the attributes, both physical and mental, for the complete realization of this son-of-the-jungle role. With his flowing hair, his magnificently proportioned body, his catlike walk, and his virtuosity in the water, you could hardly ask anything more in the way of perfection. And for the portrayal of Tarzan, nothing short of perfection would be permissible."

    "As the English girl who has gone to Africa with her father in search of treasure, Maureen O'Sullivan gives one of her most charming performances. One can understand why Tarzan swings her around that way in the trees, and why he calls out to his elephant friends to save her when she is about to be devoured by a horrible gorilla. She helps to make this infatuation of Tarzan's the most plausible thing in the picture."

    PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE (Katherine Albert): "The most vital statistic of all is the fact that a lad who had never been in a picture before (Johnny Weissmuller), who had been interesting in nothing but swimming all his life, and who frankly admits he can't act, is the top-notch heart-flutterer of the year."

    NEW YORK SUN (John S. Cohen, Jr.): "Johnny Weissmuller is the ideal choice, representing as he does, the movie maiden's prayer for a cave man, ape man, and a big fig-leaf-and-bough man. Tall, built like a Greek statue, ... TARZAN is a first-rate show."

    NEW YORK TIMES (Mordaunt Hall): "JOHNNY WEISSMULLER, CRACK SWIMMER MAKES HIS FILM DEBUT AS A WILD MAN OF THE JUNGLE. ... Youngsters home from school yes-ter-day found the Capitol a lively place, with all sorts of thrills in the picture TARZAN THE APE MAN, and Johnny Weissmuller as the hero, a so-called ape man ... Mr. Weissmuller does good work as Tarzan and Miss O'Sullivan is alert as Jane."

    Even author Edgar Rice Burroughs was pleased with TARZAN THE APE MAN, as was not the case with the majority of the Tarzan films made over the years. After the preview in February, 1932, Mr. Burroughs sent director Woody Van Dyke a letter thanking him for the marvelous finished product (quoted by Robert Fenton in THE BIG SWINGERS): "This is a real Tarzan picture. It breathes the grim mystery of the jungle; the endless, relentless strife for survival; the virility, the cruelty, and the grandeur of Nature in the raw."

    Burroughs continued by describ-ing Weissmuller as "a great Tarzan with youth, a marvelous physique, and a magnetic per-son-al-ity." And of Maureen O'Sullivan whom he felt was perfect for Jane, Mr. Bur-roughs said: "I am afraid that I shall never be satis-fied with any other heroine for my future pictures ..."

    Meanwhile, MGM had the hot-test new star of the year on their hands, and seeing his obvious appeal to women, "requested" that Johnny end his marriage so they could cash in on his sexuality. Metro reportedly paid Bobbe Arnst $10,000 to return to her singing career. Soon thereafter, while in New York promoting his hit film, Johnny met and swiftly fell in love with hot-blooded Latin actress Lupe Velez, and married her in 1933.

    Weissmuller's second Tarzan film, TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934) was equally as successful as the original, and there was no doubt now that this would be a series of films over many years. Johnny remained the number one movie Tarzan for a total of seventeen years ... starring in a dozen Tarzan adventures ... leaving the series then only with deep reservations.

    Independent producer Sol Lesser, who produced Weissmuller's final six Tarzan films for RKO, had this to say about his Tarzan star: "Weissmuller not only had the physique but he had that kind of face ... sensual, animalistic and good-looking ... that gave the impression of jungle ... outdoor life. Undoubtedly, Johnny was the greatest of all Tarzans."

    Although at the triumphant beginning of Johnny's career in 1932 there were Clark Gable-like roles predicted for the young star, none were ever offered; he was pretty much stereotyped into his Tarzan character for the rest of his career. His only "straight" acting role came in the film SWAMP FIRE (1946), about which Johnny wryly observed: "I played a Navy lieutenant in that one ... I took one look and went back to the jungle."

    Johnny Weissmuller, the motion picture hero, was not called upon to serve his country as a soldier during WWII, but he did help to fight the war in his own way in the propaganda film, TARZAN TRIUMPHS (Tarzan fighting the Nazis who came to Africa to conquer the natives and steal their oil and wealth). He also aided the war effort in other ways, such as visiting hospitals and military bases with other performers, washing dishes at the Hollywood Canteen near Sunset Boulevard, and, for two years, teaching recruits how to swim out from underwater while covered with flaming petroleum. The U.S. War Finance Program honored Johnny with a citation for his patriotic efforts in 1945.

    Johnny loved doing his Tarzan role over the years, feeling it was "right up my alley. It was like stealing. There was swimming in it, and I didn't have much to say." On another occasion he observed: "The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete. They know I wasn't make-believe." Johnny would do his Tarzan yell for just about anyone who asked, always warmly obliging his adoring public.

    Immediately after retiring from his Tarzan role, Johnny traded his loin-cloth for jungle fatigues and assumed the role of "Jungle Jim" in sixteen films for Columbia Pictures, between 1948-1955. The comic strip character of "Jungle Jim" had been created by Alex Raymond who also created "Flash Gordon," and was a popular Sunday newspaper strip for three decades. JUNGLE JIM became a television series for Columbia's TV arm, Screen Gems, for the 1955-56 season; the 26 episodes played over and over on network and syndicated TV for many years. After his JUNGLE JIM series ended in 1956, Johnny retired from films, making only an occasional cameo movie appearance. In 1950 his great swimming career was crowned when he was judged to be the Great Swimmer of the First Half-Century (1900-1950), by the Associated Press. It's almost a shame that his greatness as a swimmer is partially overshadowed by his larger-than-life image as Tarzan of the movies.

    In the late 1950s, Johnny returned to Chicago and started his own swimming pool company, and lent his name to other business ventures. He was never a great businessman and, fortunately, the residuals from JUNGLE JIM kept him solvent for many years. His main fault as a businessman was that he believed everything that people told him! He was inherently naive. The result was some bad business deals that drained him of much of his earnings. In the mid-1960s he went to Florida to be curator at the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, and for a time (in 1973) he was a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

    Johnny was probably the greatest swimmer of all time, and unabashedly admitted as much in a 1972 TV interview after the Munich Olympic games where Mark Spitz won seven gold medals. "I was better than Spitz is," he said with frank honesty. "I never lost a race ... never. The closest I ever came to losing was on the last lap of the 400 in 1924 when I got a snootful of water. But I knew enough not to cough. If you don't cough, you can swallow it."

    In 1974 Johnny broke a hip and leg, and while in the hospital he learned he also had a serious heart condition. A number of disabling strokes over the next few years left him broken but not beaten. Thousands of cards and letters from his fans (along with a daily swimming regimen) helped speed a partial recovery. His final public appearance was in 1976 when he was inducted into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame.

    Johnny loved life and the fairer sex. He married six women in the following order: Camille Louier, singer-actress Bobbe Arnst, Latin-born film star Lupe Velez, socialite Beryl Scott (the mother of his three children), golfer Allene Gates, and German-born Maria Brock whom he married in 1963. Johnny and Maria remained together for the rest of his life, enjoying a harmonious and loving relationship.

    For several weeks in 1979, Johnny was hospitalized at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. After several strokes, he and Maria moved to Acapulco and lived quietly until his death on January 20th, 1984. He was buried in Acapulco at his own request, since it was the location of his last Tarzan film. At his funeral, a tape of his trademark Tarzan yell was played while his coffin was lowered into the ground.

    Johnny Weissmuller always had a wonderful sense of humor, just like a big kid, and the role of Tarzan was perfect for a man who never really grew up. One of his favorite lines of advice to new Tarzan actors who came after him was "Don't let go of the vine."

     ... David Fury