Born on this day in 1904, Johnny Weissmuller was a gold medal Olympic swimmer before he went on to become famous for playing Tarzan. On his birthday, we look back over his life and career.
Born Johann Peter Weissmüller in what is now Medja, Serbia, Weissmuller immigrated with his family to the United States aboard the S.S. Rotterdam when he was just one year old. His family settled in Pennsylvania, where Johnny’s father Peter worked as a miner. After the family relocated to Chicago, Peter owned his own bar while Weismuller’s mother became head chef at a successful restaurant. But when Peter’s business went south, he began drinking heavily, and eventually Weismuller’s mother Elizabeth got a divorce.
Young Johnny Weissmuller first started swimming on the advice of his doctor, in order to treat the polio he had contracted at age nine. After dropping out of high school, he found work as a lifeguard at Lake Michigan and as a bellboy at the Illinois Athletic Club. It was there Weissmuller attracted the attention of the club’s swim coach, William Bacharach. Bacharach would coach Weissmuller to national championships in the 50-yard and 220-yard races in 1921. Nearly a year later, Weissmuller set the world record in the 100-meter freestyle.
Having listed his place of birth as Windber, Pennsylvania, Weissmuller qualified for the U.S. team and competed in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. He won three gold medals – and even took home an extra bronze as a member of the U.S. water polo team. He would add two more golds to his medal tally in 1928. By the time he climbed out the pool for good, he’d won 52 U.S. championships and set 67 world records – in every freestyle event from the 100 yards to the half mile – finishing his amateur career without ever losing a single race.
Following his swimming retirement, Weissmuller became a model and spokesman for BVD, posing in its underwear and swimsuits. He might have led a relatively uneventful post-competition life, had his career not taken a new twist in 1929. That year, a 25-year-old Weissmuller took a cameo role in the Ziegfeld Follies film Glorifying the American Girl. Playing Adonis, his non-speaking role involved being costumed in nothing but a fig leaf.
MGM negotiated Weissmuller out of his BVD contract – in part by agreeing to let some of its female starlets to pose in BVD garments – and signed him to a seven-year deal. He probably didn’t know at the time he’d spend those seven years – and many more – acting opposite chimpanzees.
Beginning with 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man, Weissmuller would portray the loin-clothed king of the jungle 12 times. He appeared in almost all of those films with Maureen O’Sullivan playing Jane, while no fewer than 8 different chimpanzees portrayed Cheetah over the years. The massive success of the films allowed Weissmuller to build himself an 8,700 square foot mansion in Los Angeles that included a 300-foot serpentine swimming pool (famous later residents included Marion Davies and Mick Jagger).
“How can a guy climb trees, say ‘Me, Tarzan, you, Jane,’ and make a million?” he once reflected. “The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete. They know I wasn't make-believe."
Nevertheless, Weissmuller did have higher aspirations as a thespian, expressing a desire to take on Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckling roles where he could at least speak in complete sentences (Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs so disliked MGM’s treatment of Tarzan – though he admired Weissmuller – that he had his own, much less commercially successful versions with an articulate Tarzan produced).
In 1948, Weissmuller finally got out of the loincloth, but he wasn’t able to get out of the jungle. He would appear as hunter Jim Bradley, a.k.a. Jungle Jim, a character based on a popular newspaper comic strip, in an additional 13 films and a TV series. This time, the chimpanzee co-star was called “Tamba” rather than Cheeta. In one of Hollywood’s more extreme examples of typecasting, in a career spanning over 40 years, Weissmuller played only five different roles.
After retiring from acting, Weissmuller moved back to his boyhood home of Chicago and started a swimming pool company, but it wasn’t much of a success. In 1965 Weissmuller retired to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, though he came out of retirement for a time in to work as a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
In 1974, Weissmuller died from respiratory failure at the age of 79. At his request, a recording of his famous Tarzan yell was played as his coffin was lowered into the ground.