Hollywood has seen its share of memorable actors and characters come and go, such as Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy and Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. However most folks will probably tell you the character they remember most is the one with the distinctive yell like a “noise being blown on a comb covered with paper”. The character is Tarzan, The Ape Man. The actor- Johnny Weissmuller.
Peter Jonas (John) Weissmuller was born June 2nd, 1904, in Freidorf, Hungary although he would later claim Windber, PA as his official birthplace. Johnny Weissmuller took up swimming at a very young age, and shortly after arriving in Chicago he was making regular visits to Fullerton Beach. In 1916, Weissmuller made the YMCA swim team after lying about his age. Following World War I he received the chance to audition for William Bachrach, the legendary swimming coach of the Illinois Athletic Club, a club famed for its swimming teams. Weissmuller tried convincing Bachrach he was a skilled swimmer and after a month, Bachrach agreed to train him. His training began in late 1920, and he learned to better his skill from the great legends of the sport such as Norman Ross and Hawaii swimming and surf legend Duke Kahanamoku.
Weissmuller proved to be an exceptional swimmer throughout the early 1920’s. During the 1924 Olympic Games is Les Tourelles, France, he set a world record in the 400-meter, and won three Gold Medals, impressing the president of the French Republic so much that Weissmuller was given a special medal in recognition of his performance. In addition to his 1924 Olympic achievements, he won two more gold medals in the 1928 Olympic Games. Weissmuller officially retired from competitive swimming in 1929, but later that year appeared in a short film called Crystal Champions.
Not too long after, Weissmuller secured a contract with BVD swimwear at $500 per week for five years, touring the country giving swimming exhibitions and promoting the product. During an assignment in New York he met John Harkrider, a designer responsible for creating the finale to Paramount’s Glorifying The American Girl (1929), starring Mary Eaton. Harkrider suggested that Weissmuller appear in the film as Adam, to Eaton’s Eve, however he later was cast as Adonis, wearing only a fig leaf. The associates at BVD were not pleased, and forced Paramount to cut the scene.
Love found Weissmuller in 1931, as he fell quickly for Ted Lewis band singer, Bobbe Arnst. Their short marriage was a whirlwind of disaster and the two were divorced in June of 1932 in Los Angeles. Despite Weissmuller’s romantic hardships, he was invited to lunch at MGM by screenwriter Cyril Hume. Hume had aspirations of bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ loin-clothed hero, Tarzan, to the screen. MGM had already tried and failed to fit Charles Bickford and Clark Gable in the role, and needed someone fast. Weissmuller, of course, had made a name for himself as a world-class athlete, so the name on the screen would not seem strange to audiences. With a little convincing and contract negotiating, Weissmuller was signed to MGM. It’s noted that MGM forced BVD to break their contract after suggesting that all its female stars pose in BVD swimwear.
Tarzan had been brought to the silver screen once before, in 1918, but without many accolades. MGM was looking to have a blockbuster film. Tarzan, the Ape Man was released in 1932, an extravagant big money production that was a marvelous success, based primarily on the story by Burroughs. The movie even met Burroughs’ approval and MGM knew they had something big on their hands. As a result, they launched a series of films. 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate caused quite a stir, as Weissmuller’s cast mate, Maureen O’Sullivan, appeared “naked” in an underwater skinny-dipping scene. The film, geared more towards an adult audience, embraced the more erotic element of the couple’s relationship. The film of course was released before the pre-Code days, and so MGM took certain liberties in creating an authentic Tarzan and Jane. However, as the industry’s production Code came into effect in 1936, Tarzan and Jane were made to be more wholesome and “married” in Tarzan Escapes! The couple finds and raises a son, Boy (Johnny Sheffield) in the next film, Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939) thus moving the film series into the genre of family entertainment. Sheffield would become a fixture in the series until 1947.
While the Tarzan series was beginning its meteoric rise, Weissmuller was courting Lupe Velez, the Mexican goddess, and the two secretly were married in October 1933. Various sources report that MGM had a role in arranging the wedding, even paying for Weissmuller’s divorce to Arnst. But, just as his marriage to Arnst was a disaster, so to was his marriage to Velez. The two constantly fought, in and out of home, and Velez filed for divorce numerous times, only to make the marriage work again. However in 1938 the honeymoon was officially over and six years later Velez committed suicide.
By 1941, MGM was losing interest in the series. The great producer, Irving Thalberg, had championed the films while he was alive, but passed away in 1936. MGM was undergoing many changes and believed Tarzan just wasn’t a sure thing. In 1941, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure was released and was followed by 1942’s Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Both films were panned by critics, the Burroughs’s family was becoming more disappointed and O’Sullivan was through playing Jane. MGM agreed to give over the rights to Sol Lesser, a director who was trying to get the franchise from MGM since the mid-thirties.
RKO Studios released Tarzan Triumphs in 1943 without O’Sullivan, and it fared well on the big screen. The movie came at a time when emotions over Nazi atrocities ran high, and audiences cheered when Tarzan grunted “Now Tarzan make war!” RKO tried to capitalize on the success of the film and its war theme and released another film, Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, the same year but it was a commercial flop. Later, in 1945 Tarzan and the Amazons was released, showcasing Brenda Joyce as Jane, and a new “Cheetah”, Tarzan’s monkey friend. Weissmuller also starred in 1946’s Tarzan and the Leopard Woman and 1947’s Tarzan and the Huntress for Lesser. Weissmuller was searching for more financial stability, something Lesser couldn’t give him, so after 1948’s Tarzan and the Mermaids was filmed in Acapulco, Mexico, the two parted ways and Weissmuller’s career as Tarzan came to an end.
Sam Katzman of Columbia Pictures heard about Weissmuller’s departure and asked him to play the part of Jungle Jim, one of the comic strip properties Katzman owned. Weissmuller agreed, but there was a minor hitch in the deal, the first picture had to be a success. Jungle Jim was released in 1948 and did well, and Weissmuller did 16 Jungle Jim adventures from 1948 through 1955. In 1950, before the release of Captive Girl, also starring famed swimmer Buster Crabbe, a media event helped Weissmuller get back some of his notoriety as the sporting world voted him as the best swimmer in the first half-century. Weissmuller starred in other Jungle Jim films like Mark of the Gorilla (1950), Fury of the Congo (1951), Voodoo Tiger (1952), Valley of the Headhunters (1953), Cannibal Attack (1954) and Jungle Moon Men (1955). After seven years, the series faded off screen with the release of 1955’s Devil Goddess. Weissmuller’s film career was unofficially over but he starred in the failed TV series for Jungle Jim.
In the 20 plus years he appeared on film, he appeared in two non-jungle flicks- Stage Door Canteen (1943, as himself) and Swamp Fire (1946), which starred Buster Crabbe. The films never garnered Weissmuller any fame or compensation.
In 1969, Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan reunited for a brief cameo in The Phynx, but the film was shelved and never saw light of day. And Weissmuller would have one more cameo in the Paramount film spoof, Won Ton Ton, the Dog That Saved Hollywood (1976), before leaving the screen forever.
Weissmuller died a poor, sick man on January 20, 1984, from a pulmonary edema, but he left a legacy behind him. His swimming accomplishments are still recognized, having won every free style race he entered from 1921 to 1929, and he is still revered as an actor for his defining role as Tarzan. The man, who was an original endorser of Wheaties, “The Breakfast of Champions”, and whose face appeared on the sleeve of The Beatles “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, will always be remembered. Once asked to comment on his career, Weissmuller replied, “How can a guy climb trees, say “Me, Tarzan, you, Jane,” and make a million? The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete. They know I wasn’t make-believe.” Indeed, he was not.