Johnny Weissmuller

Johnny Weissmuller (June 2, 1904 – January 20, 1984) was an Austro-Hungarian-born American competition swimmer and actor. He was known for playing Edgar Rice Burroughs' ape man Tarzan in films of the 1930s and 1940s and for having one of the best competitive swimming records of the 20th century.

Johnny Weissmuller
Johnny Weissmuller circa 1940
János Weissmüller

(1904-06-02)June 2, 1904
DiedJanuary 20, 1984(1984-01-20) (aged 79)
OccupationSwimmer, actor
Years active1929–1976
Bobbe Arnst
(m. 1931; div. 1933)

Lupe Vélez
(m. 1933; div. 1939)

Beryl Scott
(m. 1939; div. 1948)

Allene Gates
(m. 1948; div. 1962)

Maria Brock Mandell Bauman (m. 1963)

Weissmuller was one of the world's fastest swimmers in the 1920s, winning five Olympic gold medals for swimming and one bronze medal for water polo. He was the first to break the one minute barrier for 100-meter freestyle, and the first to swim 440-yard freestyle under five minutes. He won fifty-two U.S. national championships, set more than 50 world records (spread over both freestyle and backstroke),[1] and was purportedly undefeated in official competition for the entirety of his competitive career. After retiring from competitions, he became the sixth actor to portray Tarzan, a role he played in twelve feature films. Dozens of other actors have also played Tarzan, but Weissmuller is by far the best known. Weissmuller's distinctive Tarzan yell is still often used in films in his legacy.

Early life

Johann Weißmüller was an ethnic German on his father's side, the elder son of Peter Weißmüller and his wife Elisabeth (née Kersch), both Banat Swabians, an ethnic German population in the southeastern part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Johann had one sibling, a younger brother, Peter. His generally accepted birthplace was in Szabadfalva (Freidorf), Austro-Hungarian Empire, today part of Timișoara (Temeschwar), Romania. The records of St. Rochus Church in Freidorf show that Johann, son of Peter and Elisabeth (née Kersch) Weissmüller, was baptized there on June 5, 1904, three days after his birth. According to the contemporary laws, his name was recorded as János Weissmüller.[2] However, the ship's roster from his family's arrival at Ellis Island lists his birthplace as Párdány, Kingdom of Hungary (present-day Međa, Žitište, Serbia, near the Romanian border).[3][4][5][6]

The passenger manifest of SS Rotterdam, which left its namesake city on January 14 and arrived at Ellis Island in New York on January 26, 1905, lists Peter Weissmüller, a 29-year-old laborer, his 24-year-old wife Elisabeth, and seven-month-old Johann as steerage passengers. The family is listed as Germans, last residence Timișoara. After a brief stay in Chicago visiting relatives, they moved to the coal-mining town of Windber, Pennsylvania, where they intended to join their brother-in-law, Johann Ott. On November 5, 1905, Peter Johann Weissmüller was baptized at St. John Cantius Catholic Church in Windber.[7] Peter Weissmuller worked as a miner, and his younger son, Peter Weissmüller Jr., was born in Windber on September 3, 1905. In the 1910 census, Peter and Elizabeth Weisenmüller, as well as John and Eva Ott, were living at 1521 Cleveland Ave in the 22nd Ward of Chicago, with sons John, age six, born in Timisoara and Peter Jr., age five, erroneously entered as born in Illinois. Peter Weissmüller and John Ott were both brewers, Ott emigrating in 1902, Weissmüller in 1904.

At age nine, young John Weissmüller contracted polio. At the suggestion of his doctor, he took up swimming to help battle the disease. After the family moved from western Pennsylvania to Chicago, he continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swim team.[8][9]

According to military draft registration records for World War I, Peter and Elizabeth were apparently still together as late as 1917. On his paperwork, Peter was listed as a brewer, working for the Elston and Fullerton Brewery. He and his family were living at 226 West North Avenue in Chicago. In his book, Tarzan, My Father, Johnny Weissmuller Jr. stated that although rumors of Peter Weissmüller living to "a ripe old age, remarrying along the way and spawning a large brood of little Weissmüllers" were reported, no one in the family was aware of his ultimate fate.[9] Peter signed his consent for 19-year-old John "Weissmuller"'s passport application in 1924, preceding Johnny's Olympic competition in France. In the 1930 federal census, Elizabeth Weissmüller, age 49, has listed with her, sons John P. and Peter J., and Peter's wife Dorothy. Elizabeth is listed as a widow.



Johnny Weissmuller
Weissmuller in 1924
Personal information
Height6 ft 3 in (191 cm)[10]
Weight190 lb (86 kg)[10]
ClubIllinois Athletic Club[11]

As a teen, Weissmuller attended Lane Technical College Prep High School before dropping out to work various jobs including a stint as a lifeguard at Oak Street Beach on Lake Michigan. While working as an elevator operator and bellboy at the Illinois Athletic Club, Weissmuller caught the eye of swim coach William Bachrach, who trained Weissmuller; in August 1921, Weissmuller won the national championships in the 50-yard and 220-yard distances. Although foreign-born, Weissmuller gave his birthplace as Tanneryville, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, and his birth date as that of his younger brother, Peter Weissmuller. This was to ensure his eligibility to compete as part of the United States Olympic team, and was a critical issue in being issued a United States passport.[8]

On July 9, 1922, Weissmuller broke Duke Kahanamoku's world record in the 100-meter freestyle, swimming it in 58.6 seconds.[12] He won the title for that distance at the 1924 Summer Olympics, beating Kahanamoku for the gold medal.[13] He also won the 400-meter freestyle and was a member of the winning U.S. team in the 4×200-meter relay.[14]

As a member of the U.S. water polo team, he won a bronze medal. Four years later, at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, he won another two gold medals.[15][11] It was during this period that Weissmuller became an enthusiast for John Harvey Kellogg's holistic lifestyle views on nutrition, enemas and exercise. He came to Kellogg's Battle Creek, Michigan sanatorium to dedicate its new 120-foot swimming pool, and break one of his own previous swimming records after adopting the vegetarian diet prescribed by Kellogg.[16]

In 1927, Weissmuller set a new world record of 51.0 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle, which stood for 17 years. He improved it to 48.5 seconds at Billy Rose World's Fair Aquacade in 1940, aged 36, but this result was discounted, as he was competing as a professional.[1][11]

In all, Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal, 52 United States national championships,[1] and set 67 world records. He was the first man to swim the 100-meter freestyle under one minute and the 440-yard freestyle under five minutes.[upper-alpha 1] He never lost a race and retired with an unbeaten amateur record.[1][11][17] In 1950, he was selected by the Associated Press as the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th century.[1]

Upon moving to the prosperous Bel Air section of Los Angeles (specifically to an area known today as East Gate Bel Air), Weissmuller later famously commissioned architect Paul Williams to design a large home with a 300-foot serpentine swimming pool that curled around the house, and which still exists.[18]


In 1929, Weissmuller signed a contract with BVD to be a model and representative. He traveled throughout the country doing swim shows, handing out leaflets promoting that brand of swimwear, signing autographs and going on radio. In that same year, he made his first motion picture appearance as an Adonis, wearing only a fig leaf, in a movie entitled Glorifying the American Girl. He appeared as himself in the first of several Crystal Champions movie shorts featuring Weissmuller and other Olympic champions at Silver Springs, Florida. He co-starred with Esther Williams in Billy Rose's Aquacade during the New York World's Fair 1939–41, pursuing her for two years.[19]

His acting career began when he signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and played the role of Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). The movie was a huge success and Weissmuller became an overnight international sensation. The author of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was pleased with Weissmuller, although he so hated the studio's depiction of a Tarzan who barely spoke English that he created his own concurrent Tarzan series filmed on location in Central American jungles and starring Herman Brix as a suitably articulate version of the character.

Weissmuller starred in six Tarzan movies for MGM with actress Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane and Cheeta the Chimpanzee. The last three also included Johnny Sheffield as Boy. Then, in 1942, Weissmuller went to RKO and starred in six more Tarzan movies with markedly reduced production values. Sheffield also appeared as Boy in the first five features for RKO. Brenda Joyce took over the role of Jane in Weissmuller's last four Tarzan movies (the first two RKO films had not featured Jane). Unlike MGM, RKO allowed Weissmuller to play other roles, though a three-picture contract with Pine-Thomas Productions led to only one film, Swamp Fire, being made, co-starring Buster Crabbe. In a total of 12 Tarzan films, Weissmuller earned an estimated $2,000,000 and established himself as what many movie historians consider the definitive Tarzan. Although not the first Tarzan in movies (that was Elmo Lincoln), he was the first to be associated with the now traditional ululating, yodeling Tarzan yell. During an appearance on television's The Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s, Weissmuller explained how the famous yell was created. Recordings of three vocalists were spliced together to get the effecta soprano, an alto and a hog caller.

Edgar Rice Burroughs himself paid oblique tribute to Weissmuller's powerful screen persona in the last Tarzan novel[20] that he completed, albeit with a misspelling of the actor's name.

But what seemed a long time to them was a matter of seconds only. The tiger's great frame went limp and sank to the ground. And the man rose and put a foot upon it and, raising his face to the heavens, voiced a horrid cry--the victory cry of the bull ape. Corrie was suddenly terrified of this man who had always seemed so civilized and cultured. Even the men were shocked.

Suddenly recognition lighted the eyes of Jerry Lucas. "John Clayton," he said, "Lord Greystoke--Tarzan of the Apes!" Shrimp's jaw dropped. "Is dat Johnny Weismuller? [sic]" he demanded. Tarzan shook his head as though to clear his brain of an obsession. His thin veneer of civilization had been consumed by the fires of battle. ...[21]

When Weissmuller finally left the role of Tarzan, he immediately traded his loincloth costume for a slouch hat and safari suit for the role of Jungle Jim (1948) for Columbia. He made 13 Jungle Jim films between 1948 and 1954. According to actor Michael Fox, Weissmuller shot two Jungle Jim films consecutively with nine days filming for each with a break of two days between, then he would return to his home in Mexico.[22] Within the next year, he appeared in three more jungle movies, playing himself due to the rights of the name "Jungle Jim" being taken by Screen Gems. In 1955, he began production of the Jungle Jim television adventure series for Screen Gems, a film subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. His costars were Martin Huston and Dean Fredericks. The show produced only 26 episodes, which were subsequently played repeatedly on network and syndicated television. Aside from his first screen appearance as Adonis and the role of Johnny Duval in the 1946 film Swamp Fire, Weissmuller played only three roles in films during the heyday of his Hollywood career: Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and himself.

After films

According to the book by Weissmuller's son, Tarzan, My Father, while playing golf in Cuba in 1958 during the Cuban Revolution, Weissmuller's golf cart was suddenly surrounded by rebel soldiers. Weissmuller was unable to communicate who he was until he got out of the cart and attempted the trademark Tarzan yell. The soldiers then recognized him and shouted '"¡Es Tarzán! ¡Es Tarzán de la Jungla!" Johnny and his companions were not only not kidnapped, but the guerillas gave him an escort to his hotel.[23]

Weissmuller was an accomplished amateur golfer and played in two official PGA Tour tournaments, at the 1937 Western Open at Canterbury Golf Club outside Cleveland (87–85=172, missed the cut) and the 1948 Hawaiian Open (79–75–79–76=309) to finish in 37th place.

In the late 1950s, Weissmuller moved back to Chicago and started a swimming pool company. He lent his name to other business ventures, but did not have a great deal of success.

He retired in 1965, moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was founding chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) and was inducted into the ISHOF that same year.[1]

In September 1966, Weissmuller joined former screen Tarzans James Pierce and Jock Mahoney to appear with Ron Ely as part of the publicity for the upcoming premiere of the Tarzan television series.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Weissmuller was involved with a tourist attraction called Tropical/Florida Wonderland, a.k.a. Tarzan's Jungleland, on U.S. Route 1 in Titusville, Florida.

Weissmuller's face appeared in the collage on the iconic front cover of The Beatles' 1967 record album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Based on his interest in natural lifestyles, Weissmuller opened a small chain of health food stores called Johnny Weissmuller's American Natural Foods in California in 1969.[24][25]

In 1970, he attended the British Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where he was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. That same year, he appeared with former co-star Maureen O'Sullivan in The Phynx (1970).

Weissmuller lived in Florida until the end of 1973, then moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he worked as a greeter at Caesars Palace along with boxer Joe Louis for a time.

In 1976, he appeared for the last time in a motion picture, playing a movie crewman who is fired by a movie mogul (played by Art Carney) in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, and he also made his final public appearance in that year when he was inducted into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame.

Personal life

Weissmuller had five wives: band and club singer Bobbe Arnst (married 1931, divorced 1933); actress Lupe Vélez (married 1933, divorced 1939); Beryl Scott (married 1939, divorced 1948); Allene Gates (married 1948, divorced 1962); and Maria Baumann (from 1963 until his death in 1984).

With his third wife, Beryl, he had three children, Johnny Weissmuller, Jr. (1940–2006), Wendy Anne Weissmuller (born 1942), and Heidi Elizabeth Weissmuller (1944–1962), who was killed in a car crash. He also had a stepdaughter with Baumann, Lisa Weissmuller-Gallagher.

Declining health and death

In 1974, Weissmuller broke both his hip and leg, marking the beginning of years of declining health. While hospitalized he learned that in spite of his strength and lifelong daily regimen of swimming and exercise, he had a serious heart condition. In 1977, Weissmuller suffered a series of strokes. In 1979, he entered the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California for several weeks before moving with his last wife, Maria, to Acapulco, Mexico, the location of his last Tarzan movie.[26]

On January 20, 1984, Weissmuller died from pulmonary edema at the age of 79.[27] He was buried just outside Acapulco, Valle de La Luz at the Valley of the Light Cemetery. As his coffin was lowered into the ground, a recording of the Tarzan yell he invented was played three times, at his request.[26] He was honored with a 21-gun salute, befitting a head-of-state, which was arranged by Senator Ted Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan.


His former co-star and movie son Johnny Sheffield wrote of him, "I can only say that working with Big John was one of the highlights of my life. He was a Star (with a capital "S") and he gave off a special light and some of that light got into me. Knowing and being with Johnny Weissmuller during my formative years had a lasting influence on my life."[28]

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Johnny Weissmuller has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, adjacent to the star of Maureen O'Sullivan.

In 1973, Weissmuller was awarded the George Eastman Award,[29] given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.

The Piscine Molitor in Paris was built as a tribute to Weissmuller and his swimming prowess.[30]


Johnny Weissmuller in Film
Year Film Role Notes
1929 Glorifying the American Girl Adonis Cameo appearance in the segment 'Loveland'
1931 Swim or Sink Himself Short subject
Water Bugs Himself Short subject
1932 Tarzan the Ape Man Tarzan
The Human Fish Himself Short subject
1934 Tarzan and His Mate Tarzan
1936 Tarzan Escapes Tarzan
1939 Tarzan Finds a Son! Tarzan
1941 Tarzan's Secret Treasure Tarzan
1942 Tarzan's New York Adventure Tarzan
1943 Tarzan Triumphs Tarzan Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan Triumphs
Stage Door Canteen Himself
Tarzan's Desert Mystery Tarzan Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan's Desert Mystery
1945 Tarzan and the Amazons Tarzan Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Amazons
1946 Tarzan and the Leopard Woman Tarzan Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Leopard Woman
Swamp Fire Johnny Duval
1947 Tarzan and the Huntress Tarzan Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Huntress
1948 Tarzan and the Mermaids Tarzan Complete title: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Mermaids
Jungle Jim Jungle Jim
1949 The Lost Tribe Jungle Jim
1950 Mark of the Gorilla Jungle Jim
Captive Girl Jungle Jim Alternative title: Jungle Jim and the Captive Girl
Pygmy Island Jungle Jim Alternative title: Pygmy Island
1951 Fury of the Congo Jungle Jim
Jungle Manhunt Jungle Jim
1952 Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land Jungle Jim
Voodoo Tiger Jungle Jim
1953 Savage Mutiny Jungle Jim
Valley of Head Hunters Jungle Jim
Killer Ape Jungle Jim
1954 Jungle Man-Eaters Jungle Jim
Cannibal Attack Johnny Weissmuller
1955 Jungle Moon Men Johnny Weissmuller
Devil Goddess Johnny Weissmuller
1970 The Phynx Himself
1974 The Great Masquerade Sepy Debronvi
1976 Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood Stagehand No. 2 (final film role)
Year Title Role Notes
1956–1958 Jungle Jim Jungle Jim 27 episodes

Published works

  • Weissmuller, Johnny; Bush, Clarence A. (1946) [1930]. Swimming the American Crawl (2nd ed.). Putnam. Autobiography, excerpts of which were published in the Saturday Evening Post.

See also



  1. Because of the easily-remembered benchmark numbers, these are like Roger Bannister's breaking of the 4 minute mile.


  1. International Swimming Hall of Fame, Honorees, Johnny Weissmuller (USA). Retrieved March 13, 2015.
  2. Profile,; accessed November 12, 2015.
  3. "Interview with Johnny Weissmuller, Jr". Archived from the original on March 23, 2006.
  4. Johnny Weissmuller profile, Encyclopædia Britannica; accessed November 12, 2015.
  5. France-Presse, Agence (February 17, 2007). "Serbia: Monument to Tarzan". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  6. Bjelogrlic, Aleksandar (March 28, 2007) Rocky Inspires Success in Serbia. Businessweek
  7. Arlene Mueller (August 6, 1984). "Johnny Weissmuller Made Olympian Efforts to Conceal His Birthplace". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved November 12, 2015.
  8. Rasmussen, Frederick N. (August 17, 2008). "From the pool to Hollywood stardom". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  9. Weissmuller, Johnny; Reed, William (2002). Tarzan, My Father. Burroughs, Danton. ECW Press. pp. 25–28. ISBN 1-55022-522-7.
  10. Johnny Weissmuller.
  11. Johnny Weissmuller profile,; accessed November 12, 2015.
  12. Safire, William (2007). The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. Macmillan. p. 943. ISBN 0-312-37659-6.
  13. Christopher, Paul J.; Smith, Alicia Marie (2006). Greatest Sports Heroes of All Times: North American Edition. Encouragement Press, LLC. p. 204. ISBN 1-933766-09-3.
  14. "Johnny Weissmuller". Retrieved February 23, 2019.
  15. Kirsch, George B.; Othello, Harris; Nolte, Claire Elaine (2000). Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 488. ISBN 0-313-29911-0.
  16. Schaefer, Richard A (2005). "Chapter Thirteen THE FIVE-HUNDRED-DOLLAR SEED". LEGACY: Daring to Care: the heritage of Loma Linda. Retrieved November 12, 2015.
  17. Simonton, Dean Keith (1994). Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. Guilford Press. p. 156. ISBN 0-89862-201-8.
  18. Johnny Weissmuller Residence/Nicolosi Estate, Los Angeles, CA.,; accessed November 12, 2015.
  19. Williams, Esther; Diehl, Digby (2000). The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography. Harcourt Trade. ISBN 0-15-601135-2.
  20. Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion", Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., 1947.
  21. Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion" (1947), Chapter VII.
  22. Weaver, Tom (2004) "Michael Fox Interview", pp.106–107 in It Came from Horrorwood: Interviews with Moviemakers in the Science Fiction and Horror Tradition McFarland. ISBN 0786420693
  23. Weissmuller, Johnny (February 2, 2008). "Tarzan in Acapulco". Tarzan, My Father. Toronto, Canada: ECW Press. ISBN 978-1-55022-834-2.
  24. Richmond, Akasha (2006). Hollywood Dish: More Than 150 Delicious, Healthy Recipes from Hollywood's Chef to the Stars. Penguin. ISBN 1440628149.
  25. Weissmuller, Johnny (2008). Tarzan, My Father. ECW Press. p. 178. ISBN 1554905354.
  26. Fury, David (1994). Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to "Tarzan" on Screen and Television. McFarland & Company. p. 57. ISBN 0-89950-771-9.
  27. Sisson, Richard; Zacher, Christian; Cayton, Andrew Robert Lee (2007). The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Indiana University Press. p. 902. ISBN 0-253-34886-2.
  28. Weissmuller, Johnny, Jr.; Weissmuller, Johnny; Reed, William (2002). Tarzan, My Father. Burroughs, Danton. ECW Press. p. 83. ISBN 1-55022-522-7.
  29. "Awards granted by George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film". George Eastman House. Archived from the original on April 15, 2012. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  30. "MAMBO: TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY WEISSMULLER" (Video). January 8, 2012. Retrieved April 4, 2017 via YouTube.

Further reading

  • Fury, David A. Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Artist's Press. 2000) ISBN 0-924556-02-1
  • Weissmuller, Johnny Jr. Tarzan My Father, Toronto: ECW Press 2002
Preceded by

Tedford Cann
Men's 200-meter freestyle
world record-holder (long course)

May 26, 1922 – April 12, 1935
Succeeded by

Jack Medica
Preceded by

Arne Borg
Men's 400-meter freestyle
world record-holder (long course)

June 22, 1922 – December 9, 1924
Succeeded by

Arne Borg
Preceded by

Duke Kahanamoku
Men's 100-meter freestyle
world record-holder (long course)

July 19, 1922 – March 2, 1934
Succeeded by

Peter Fick
Preceded by

Boy Charlton
Men's 800-yard freestyle
world record-holder (long course)

July 27, 1927 – May 30, 1930
Succeeded by

Jean Taris
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