Off the Block – Johnny Weissmuller

Johnny at a swim meet in 1924

Johnny at a swim meet in 1924

Johnny Weissmuller was born as Peter Johann Weißmüller in Freidorf, today a district of the city of Timisoara in Romania, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Weissmüller would later claim to have been born in Windber, Pennsylvania, probably to ensure his eligibility to compete as part of the US Olympic team.  Weissmüller was one of two boys born to Petrus Weissmüller, a miner, and his wife Elisabeth Kersch.  Records show the family arrived in New York on January 26, 1905 when Johnny was 7 months old.

According to Johnny’s son, Johnny (who was born in modern-day Romania) and Pete (who was born in Pennsylvania 8 months after Johnny and their parents immigrated to the United States) switched identities so that Johnny could compete at the U.S. Olympic trials, a plan hatched by their mother.  For the rest of his life, Johnny feared that the Amateur Athletic Union, the governing body for competitive swimming at the time, would learn of the deception and strip him of his records and medals.

At age nine, young John Weissmüller contracted polio.  So, as a sickly child, he took up swimming on the advice of a doctor.  He grew to be a 6’ 3”, 190-pound champion athlete.

To help out the family, after school he worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel in Chicago and trained for the Olympics with a swim coach at the Illinois Athletic Club, where he developed his revolutionary high-riding front crawl.  He made his amateur debut on August 6, 1921, winning his first AAU race in the 50-yard freestyle.  Johnny Weissmuller has one of the best competitive swimming records of the 20th century.  He was one of the world’s fastest swimmers in the 1920s.  He was the first man in the world to swim 100 meter Freestyle in less than a minute.

It was during the 1920s that Weissmuller became an enthusiast for John Harvey Kellogg’s holistic lifestyle views on nutrition and exercise.  He came to Kellogg’s Battle Creek, Michigan, sanatorium to dedicate its new 120-foot swimming pool, and would go on to break one of his own previous swimming records after adopting the vegetarian diet prescribed by Kellogg.

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.

He was a winner of five Olympic gold medals for swimming and one bronze medal for water polo at the Olympic Games in 1924 (Paris) and 1928 (Amsterdam), and broke the record in each gold-medal race.  He won fifty-two U.S. National Championships, set more than fifty world records, both in freestyle and backstroke, and was the holder of every freestyle record from 100 yards to the half-mile.  From 1921-1929 he won every freestyle race he entered.

In 1970, he attended the British Commonwealth Games in Jamaica where he was presented to Queen Elizabeth.

Johnny was inducted into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame in 1976, and into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, as a charter member.

Actor life

In his first picture (1929), he appeared as an Adonis, clad only in a fig leaf.  After great success with a jungle movie, MGM optioned two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories.  Cyril Hume, working on the adaptation of Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), noticed Weissmuller swimming in the pool at his hotel and suggested him for the part of Tarzan.  Weissmuller was under contract to BVD to model underwear and swimsuits; MGM got him released by agreeing to pose many of its female stars in BVD swimsuits.  The studio billed him as “the only man in Hollywood who’s natural in the flesh and can act without clothes”.  The film was an immediate box-office and critical hit.  Seeing that he was wildly popular with girls, the studio told him to divorce his wife and paid her $10,000 to agree to it.  After 1942, however, MGM had used up its options; it dropped the Tarzan series and Weissmuller, too.  He then moved to RKO and made six more Tarzans.  After that he made 16 Jungle Jim (1948) programs for Columbia.  He was the first Tarzan who spoke.

Johny Weissmuller - Official Publicity Photo

Johny Weissmuller – Official Publicity Photo

In the late 1950s after retiring from acting, Weissmuller moved back to Chicago and started a swimming pool company.  He also lent his name to other business ventures, but did not have a great deal of success.  He retired in 1965 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

He retired from movies to run a private business in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Weissmuller had a close call in Cuba during the time of the Cuban Revolution.  While playing golf, he and his friends found themselves suddenly surrounded by a group of Fidel Castro’s soldiers intent on kidnapping them, or worse.  Thinking fast, Weissmuller immediately gave his trademark Tarzan yell.  The soldiers immediately recognized it and were so delighted to meet Tarzan that they began to clap and escorted the group back to a safe area, where Weissmuller was presented a $100 bill.

Johnny in 1970 with Cheeta the Chimpanzee

Johnny in 1970 with Cheeta the Chimpanzee

When Weissmuller was introduced to Cheeta the Chimpanzee in his Tarzan films in 1931 (he worked with 8 chimpanzees altogether), the chimp’s trainer told him to show no fear or the animal would attack him.  As Weissmuller, dressed in his Tarzan loincloth and hunting knife, walked up to the animal, it bared its teeth, growled at him and lunged as if to attack him.  Weissmuller took the knife out of the sheath and held it in front of the chimp’s nose, to make sure he saw and smelled it.  He then slammed the animal on the side of the head with the knife handle.  He put the knife back in its sheath and held out his hand to the chimp.  It glared at him, bared his teeth again, then changed its mind, grinned at Weissmuller and jumped up and hugged him.  Weissmuller never had any further problems with the chimp–although other cast and crew members did–and it followed him around like a puppy dog during all the pictures they worked together.

In 1974, Weissmuller broke a hip and leg.  While hospitalized he learned that, in spite of his strength and lifelong daily regimen of swimming and exercise, he had a serious heart condition.

His daughter, Heidi, died in a car crash on November 19, 1962, which also killed her unborn child.  According to his son, Weissmuller never got over the loss of his daughter and unborn grandchild.

He died in January, 1984, the month after the last surviving silent Tarzan, James Pierce, died.At his request, a recording of his trademark Tarzan yell which he invented, was played as his coffin was lowered into the ground.

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