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Johnny Weissmuller - 8/3
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Johnny Weissmuller - 8/3

As a public figure, Johnny Weissmuller is remembered today for two separate achievements, and each is impressive in its own right. He was one of the greatest swimmers of the 20th century, winning several Olympic gold medals and smashing world records. He was also the most famous actor to have played Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic character Tarzan in the movies. The writer William Janz wrote in 1980, "When we say Tarzan, we mean Weissmuller." Although today, Johnny Weissmuller the actor may not be as familiar to younger audiences as he once was, Johnny Weissmuller the Olympic champion still inspires young swimmers, like nine-time world champion marathon swimmer Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria. In 2009, Stoychev visited the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (where Weissmuller was once Director) and spoke admiringly of him. "The wax figure of Johnny Weissmuller was the first thing I saw. He was swimming with his head above the water all the time and he still swam 100 m freestyle [in] less than a minute."

Who was Johnny Weissmuller? Depending on the source, he was either John Peter Weissmuller or Peter John Weissmuller, born in Windber, Pennsylvania or he was Peter Janos Weissmuller or Johann Peter Weißmüller, born in Freidorf, Banat, Austria-Hungary (now Timisoara, Romania) on June 2, 1904; he came to the United States at the age of 3. It has been suggested that he claimed to be born in the United States so that he would qualify for the US Olympic team. Wherever he was born and whatever his real name may have been, what is known is that he grew up on the mean streets of Chicago. "When I was a kid, if I thought about what I would be when I grew up I would probably have said a cop - or maybe a hood. Hoods were real big in those days, back there in Chicago. And I was always what was the most regular thing to be." In his later years, he would debunk the stories of his childhood created by Howard Strickling, head of the MGM publicity machine. "He had me taking up swimming to get over a childhood illness that left me skinny and underweight. Bull! I don't think I was ever sick a day when I was a kid and as for being underweight, I bet my folks wished I had of been. I was always a big horse, and a real problem to feed. And Howard also told everybody I went to the University of Chicago, too. Well, I did. To use their swimming tank, you know. Later. But as for being a student there - they tell me you got to graduate at least from grade school to do that. And I never did."

Weissmuller frequently ditched school to go to Lake Michigan and swim. At 15, he was spotted in that lake by Bill Bachrach, a swimming coach at the Illinois Athletic Club, who later told an interviewer that Weissmuller did a few laps while Bachrach timed him. "He had the gawkiness of an adolescent puppy, and he was awkward. Also the stroke he used was the oddest thing I think I ever saw - no form, nothing. But the stopwatch told it all; nearly record time, and the kid wasn't even trying." He was soon under Bachrach's coaching and in 1922, he won the national 50 and 200 yard championships. Bachrach said that until he retired from swimming, "Johnny never lost a race. Never!"

When asked what he was most proud of, Weissmuller named the 67 swimming records he held. 50 of those records remained on the books for almost twenty years. Weissmuller set records in the 100 and 400 meter freestyle in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, beating Duke Kananamoku. In the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Weissmuller won the 100 meters again, which he called his most exciting moment in sports. During that race, he did what he'd always feared, swallowing a mouthful of water while swimming. "I knew the lights would go out and I wondered what in the hell I'd do if it ever happened to me. Sure enough, it happened as I made the turn, the only turn, of course, in the race. I dipped down and came up with a lungful of water. We were all even. I felt like blacking out. I swallowed the stuff, and lost two valuable yards. Those other guys were really churning. Lucky for me, we still had 40 yards to go. If we'd have had only 10 I'd never had made it." Weissmuller won the race and also served as anchorman for the US Relay Team that won the Gold Medal.

After his swimming career was over, he became a model for BVD underwear for $500 a week, with a five year contract, but in 1931, only two years into his contract, he went to Hollywood. At 6'3" and with an impressive physique, Weissmuller was made for the movies. Soon after he arrived, the writer Cyril Hume spotted him in a swimming pool and suggested he try out for a film he was working on, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Weissmuller said later, "I laughed at him. I knew I couldn't act." Hume approached him again the next day and asked him to reconsider. The screen test was made, in which Weissmuller was asked to take off his shirt. The director looked him up and down, "much like a horse doctor examines a sick animal and then he said, 'This is the man we have been looking for,' and that is how I came to be in the movies."

Despite Weissmuller's doubts about his acting ability, the film and the series made him a star and for the rest of his life - and beyond - he would be associated with the role. Weissmuller said of the experience, "I went to the back lot at MGM, they gave me a G-string and said, 'Can you climb a tree? Can you pick up that girl?' I could do all that, and I did all my own swinging because I was a YMCA champion on the gymnastic rings." Apart from the physical feats, Tarzan was most famous for his yell, which the MGM special effects department created from the recorded sounds of a camel, a dog, a hyena, a violin G-string, and Weissmuller yodeling.

The Tarzan films were not entirely faithful adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs' books. Originally, Tarzan was an English lord and well-spoken, but the Tarzan of MGM spoke haltingly and seemed, for all his physical feats, to be childlike. The public didn't care - Tarzan the Ape Man was a smash. For a time, it was also surprisingly modern. In the days before the Hollywood censors cracked down on sex in the movies, Tarzan and His Mate (1934) featured a nude underwater swimming scene of Maureen O'Sullivan (actually a double) with Weissmuller. O'Sullivan later claimed that she had to leave town for a while until the scandal blew over.

When the film's self-governing Production Code was enforced, the costumes got more modest and the sexual aspect of the Tarzan/Jane relationship was toned down. Throughout the series, Maureen O'Sullivan was often pregnant with one of her seven children, and according to Weissmuller, had to be filmed "carrying baskets of fruit in front of her." Tarzan and Jane also became parents in the series, adopting a child, Boy (Johnny Sheffield), in Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). Sheffield remembered Weissmuller fondly, saying. "He was like a father to me. He was always looking out for me. We worked with a lot of live animals, and a lot of times, when they got tired, the animals would get feisty. There was this one big chimp who got pretty mad one day and was about to bite me while we were on the set. But Big John stuck his leg between me and the chimp, and he was the one who was bitten."

Looking back on his time as Tarzan, Weissmuller admitted, "It was like stealing. There was swimming in it, and I didn't have much to say. How can a guy climb trees, say 'Me Tarzan, you Jane,' and make a million?" But he did. What he didn't get were residuals when the films aired on television or a percentage of the profits - until late in his career. Weissmuller was also frustrated with almost twenty years of monosyllabic dialog. "I really wanted to say a line or two, and besides, somebody had finally gotten some basic fact about income tax through my thick head. I didn't own a bit of the Tarzan shows - I just had a salary - so I went looking for something else." When his contract with MGM was over, Weissmuller moved over to RKO studios for the Jungle Jim series in 1948 and Sheffield came with him (Maureen O'Sullivan left the Tarzan series after Tarzan's New York Adventure in 1942). Of course, Weissmuller had tried to escape the Tarzan character by appearing in Swamp Fire in 1946 but it didn't bring better acting opportunities. "I played a Navy lieutenant in that one. I took one look [at it] and went back to the jungle." His last Tarzan film, Tarzan and the Mermaids had been released in 1948, and now, for the first time in 16 years, he was no longer associated with the Tarzan franchise. Weissmuller began the Jungle Jim series for Columbia that same year, which he described as "Tarzan wearing a shirt, but they were making money for me, so I didn't mind too much. Kind of missed Tarzan, though." Jungle Jim would become a television series for the 1955-56 season with Weissmuller in the title role.

When his film and television career was over, Weissmuller went back to Chicago and opened up a swimming pool company that bore his name. He then moved to Florida in the 1960s to serve as Director at the Swimming Hall of Fame. In 1973, he became a greeter for a Las Vegas hotel until a fall broke his leg. During his hospitalization, he suffered the first of a series of heart attacks and strokes. These caused him a long stay in the hospital, before being transferred to the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. There, he is reported to have frequently done his "Tarzan yell" in the middle of the night, which disturbed the other residents. This caused a petition for conservatorship to be filed and he had to be removed from the hospital. He moved to Acapulco in May 1979, and lived there with his sixth wife until his death on January 20, 1984 at the age of 79.

by Lorraine LoBianco

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