Johnny Weissmuller ... the
Two Career Star
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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:
"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."
(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."
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 ..."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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."