Johnny Weissmuller tied the knot while still married to another woman: Inside his troubled private life

Johnny Weissmuller initially rose to fame in the 1920s as a promising young swimmer.

Of course, at that point, no one could have guessed that the five-time Olympic medalist would eventually go on to become one of the most recognizable film stars – in one of the most recognizable and legendary roles – of all time: The original Tarzan.

Now, Weissmuller didn’t only become a legend because of that role. He actually claimed that the “Tarzan Yodel” was also his creation, though there are several stories regarding who really invented it.

After working on Tarzan and starring as Jungle Jim, the Romanian-born actor pretty much disappeared. But his Tarzan legacy would follow him to the grave, with his final wish even including a nod to his character. Here’s all you need to know about the legendary actor.

Johnny Weissmuller was born Johann Peter Weissmüller on June 2, 1904, in the tiny village of Freidorf. Today, Freidorf is close to the Romanian city of Timisoara, but at that point the town was part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire.

When he was only serving months old, he and his family left Europe for America, and after a twelve-day trip from Holland, they arrived at Ellis Island in late January 1905.

Johnny Weissmuller – early life, swimming career

Weissmuller grew up in German-American communities in Pennsylvania and Chicago, and found his true passion at an early age.

At age seven, Johnny Weissmuller started swimming lessons at Fullerton Beach on Lake Michigan. After that, he lived in the water and learned new techniques to improve.

´It turned out that Weissmuller was a true talent. He joined Northside YMCA at 11 – lying about his age, as 12 was the lower age limit – where he began competing. Johnny won every race and also excelled in the high jump and running.

At this point, Johnny was only a child. But when he became a teenager, his great results began to attract attention.

A coach recruited him to the Hamilton Club, before advising Johnny to head to the Illinois Athletic Club, where the best of the best in the country were training.

At 16, while working as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel, he joined the Illinois Athletic Club. Weissmuller eventually landed a tryout in front of famous swimming coach Bill Bachrach, who was very impressed.

“He had the gawkiness of an adolescent puppy,” Bachrach recalled of the tryout.

“Also, the stroke he used was the oddest thing I ever saw… but the stopwatch told it all; nearly record time. By the time he got out and dried off, he was an official member of the Illinois Athletic Club.”

As the years went by, Johnny’s gift became evident for all to see. As reported by the Kansas City Star in 1922, he held more world records than any other American swimmer by age 17. Not only was he a raw talent, but also a fierce competitor.

“Before a race he asks me what the record is for the distance. I tell him,” Bachrach said. “‘All right,’ he says. I’ll break it.’ Records don’t mean anything to him. Although I’ve trained the boy and taught him and watched him.”

Five Olympic gold medals and 67 world records

“I wouldn’t venture to guess what his limits are in speed,” he added.

“No matter how fast he swims he seems to be able to break his own new record whenever he wants to. He is the strongest swimmer in the world in spite of his youth, and I expect to see him lengthen his distances and go right along breaking records as he grows older.”

The world would see precisely how good Johnny was not long after. At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, he won three gold medals and a bronze in water polo. Four years later, he won another two gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.

In addition, Johnny won 52 US National Championship titles, setting 67 world records along the way. Moreover, in 1950, he was voted the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th century by 250 sports journalists from the Associated Press.

But even though Weissmuller’s legacy as one of the most excellent swimmers of all time could be considered by many as enough of a remarkable achievement, the Romanian-born athlete would ultimately to move on to a get even more fame in an entirely different field of work.

In the early 1930s, the MGM movie studio had a script lying around that they had intended to turn into a film. The movie’s name was Tarzan, and it was considered an exciting project, though casting directors hadn’t been able to settle on who was going to be their lead star.

A big problem was that many movie stars of the day looked awkward, dropping from trees and running around in a small loincloth (Tarzan’s signature clothing).

How Johnny Weissmuller got the part of ‘Tarzan’

At the time, Weissmuller had already appeared his first film role, a non-speaking part in a flick called “Glorifying the American Girl.” Nevertheless, casting agents for the Tarzan film noticed him and brought him in for an audition.

Ultimately, Johnny decided to audition – but it turned into something he hadn’t expected.

“I didn’t realize what was going on,” Weissmuller said. “They asked me if I could climb a tree and I said yes, and they asked me could I pick up a girl and walk away with her and I said yes … and that’s all there was to the test. I had the part.”

Casting agents were thrilled; the job was his for the taking. Interestingly, though, if he hadn’t been stubborn, his real name might have been eliminated from movie history books.

“They called me a week later and they said: ‘You’ve got the job as Tarzan.’ I went into the office and they said: ‘What’s your name?’ I said: ‘Johnny Weissmuller.’ [The producer] said: ‘Well, we’re going to have to change that,’” he recalled.

“I said: ‘No, you’re not going to change my name.’ Then one man next to him said: ‘You know who that guy is? He’s got all the world’s records in swimming.’ [The producer] said: ‘Well that’s wonderful; let him have his name and put some swimming in the picture!’”

Of course, Johnny Weissmuller had the muscles and body type to portray Tarzan, but he had to learn the art of acting. He took voice and elocution lessons in Hollywood, and it soon became clear that the acting business was perhaps more difficult than it had first seemed.

How much money did Johnny Weissmuller make as Tarzan?

“I’m not used to saying lines yet. I’ve got. a little speech I have to make from the stage now. And I’m scared stiff,” Weissmuller said in 1932.

“I’d just like to tell ’em that I want to get my clothes off as fast as possible and get into the water where I know my stuff.”

Tarzan the Ape Man was released in 1932, and in the following years, Johnny Weissmuller rose to fame in Hollywood. He became one of the most profitable actors at MGM, starring in a total of 12 Tarzan films.

Though MGM might have been able to find a more skilled and trained actor, they loved Weissmuller. By 1939 his salary had risen to $2,500-a-week, and even though he didn’t work on Tarzan films all year round, he got his salary regardless.

He estimated his total movie earnings at around $2 million.

That said, during his time at MGM, the studio never allowed him to appear on shows or make any personal appearances, all to preserve the illusion of him being Tarzan to the youngsters.

Though immensely popular as the loin-clothing-wearing hero, suffice it to say that Weissmuller wasn’t about to win an Academy Award for his acting. In fact, almost all experts agreed that he wasn’t very good in front of camera at all.

For example, in the Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel wrote: “Weissmuller was a wooden actor with a halting speech pattern that worked just fine for the monosyllabic role of the ape-man created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

And, funnily enough, it seems like Weissmuller agreed to a certain extent.

“It was up my alley. There was swimming in it, and I didn’t have much to say,” he said.

Who was the creator of the “Tarzan Yell?”

Tarzan’s clothing, appearance, and performances in the films became something of a trademark, but it was arguably the “Tarzan Yell” that remains the movies’ most well-known signature.

The yell was first introduced in Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes, where it was described as “the victory cry of the bull ape.”

These days, almost everyone has heard it somewhere or other. In fact, it’s evolved into other film productions that haven’t been connected to Tarzan at all. Interestingly, when it comes down to who really created the Tarzan yell, the mystery thickens.

Johnny has claimed to be the founder of the battle cry. As described by Yahoo, he had read Tarzan books as a kid and always imagined the yell sounding like a yodel. But there are differing opinions on that.

Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burrough’s grandchild, Danton Burroughs, claimed that Weissmuller had only mastered the yell in later films.

Instead, it originated by compounding recordings of a camel’s bleat, a soprano singing high-C, violin chords, a yodeler, and a hyena’s howl.

Weissmuller changed his story occasionally, despite often insisting that he was the creator. In 1939, he said the sound came from “three men with iron lungs.”

Journalist Bill Moyers also claimed it was “a recording of three men, one a baritone, one a tenor, and one a hog caller from Arkansas — all yelling at the top of their lungs.”

Even though opinions on who created the yell differ, Johnny – who learned to perfectly imitate the yell – did a fantastic job as Tarzan.

But the role also had its downsides.

Johnny Weissmuller – life off-screen & later film career

Speaking with The Sydney Morning Herald in 1938, Johnny revealed that people expected him to play Tarzan off-screen as well, which in the end created a lot of disappointment.

“At parties people expected me to grab the prettiest girl and depart by the way of the chandelier and the nearest tree,” he said.

“Every cook we ever had looked on me with undisguised scorn after the first meal just because I failed to eat a meal that would choke a horse.”

He added: “Once to please a bunch of boys I attempted the Tarzan yell… Well, for three weeks, I couldn’t speak either on screen or off.”

The ‘Tarzan Yell’ became a part of Johnny, following him to his grave in 1984. In fact, his last wish was for a recording of it to be played at his funeral. As reported by The Guardian, the yell sounded off while his coffin was lowered into the ground.

After starring in his last Tarzan film in 1948, Weissmuller moved on to take on another similar character. He starred in the low-budget Jungle Jim series, where the character was pretty much Tarzan, though with clothes.

He appeared in a total of 16 films. However, in the last three, the character changed his name to “Johnny Weissmuller” and not “Jungle Jim.”

In 1956, he also appeared in the series Jungle Jim, which lasted for 26 episodes. Johnny’s last film credit was in 1974, when he starred in The Great Masquerade.

After retiring from the acting business, Weissmuller started his own swimming pool company and chain of health food stores.

Johnny Weissmuller – marriage, divorces, wives, children

He also lived in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he was a host at Caesars Palace Hotel in the early 1970s. Moreover, he helped disabled children through the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Johnny was a celebrity for all his grown-up life. At the same time, his personal life was quite eventful. He was married five times, but the romances were hardly easy things to negotiate.

His first wife, Bobbe Arnst, played an essential role in getting him the Tarzan role, but only 18 months after they married in 1931, their union ended.

Documentarian John Cork wrote that Weissmuller had fallen in love with a woman named Lupe Velez, who would later become his second wife.

Reportedly, though, the MGM studio played its part in the divorce between Johnny and his first wife. They took action to get it over with quickly, wanting to keep public notice to a minimum.

“When Johnny was in New York for the premiere of the first Tarzan movie, he met Lupe Velez. They started an affair. When he got back, Bobbe threatened to sue for divorce, naming Lupe.

That’s when MGM stepped in and offered her money (the sum of $10,000) to make the divorce not involve infidelity.”

Instead, Bobbe claimed mental issues as the official reason for the divorce, which was finalized in 1933.

The same year, he married Lupe Velez, and their marriage became known for its many altercations. The couple argued constantly, only to make up shortly afterward.

The tragic passing of his two children

According to a feature in LA Mag, it was said that makeup artists in the Tarzan movies became adept at covering marks Lupe inflicted on Weissmuller.

The couple divorced in 1939.

Johnny next married his third wife, Beryl Scott. The two were married for eight years and welcomed three children, Wendy, Heidi, and John.

In 1962, Heidi, 19, passed away when the car she was driving went out of control and overturned. Weissmuller’s son, John, meanwhile, became an author and wrote a book about his dad, named Tarzan, My Father. In 2006, tragedy struck as he passed away, age 65, of liver cancer.

In 1948, the Tarzan actor left Scott to marry young golfer Allene Gates. According to an article in San Pedro News Pilot, they had already tied the knot before his divorce with his previous wife was finalized.

Gates and Weissmuller remained married for eight years. In 1962, Weissmuller then married Maria Brock Mandell Bauman. The two remained an item until his passing.

Johnny Weissmuller – cause of death, burial place

In his later life, beginning in the mid-1970s, the famous swimmer and actor contracted a heart ailment and suffered a series of strokes.

Johnny passed away at his home in Acapulco, Mexico, on January 20, 1984, at age 79. He lived just a few miles from the lake where his last Tarzan film had been filmed.

He died of pulmonary edema and was laid to rest at the Valley of the Light Cemetery in Acapulco, Mexico.

The funeral was attended by hundreds of local residents, however, no Hollywood colleagues and few relatives came to mourn him. As reported by UPI, his wife, Maria was “appearing grim and upset,” and would not speak to reporters.

During the funeral, Maria spoke in Spanish, saying that her husband wanted to live his last years in Mexico. She cried, ending her speech by screaming “Viva Mexico” three times.

Johnny Weissmuller was loved by many and was even honored with a 21-gun salute, arranged by Senator Ted Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan.

There have been several actors to portray Tarzan on-screen. However, none of them have been as legendary as Johnny Weissmuller was.

Both as a swimmer and actor, he will always be remembered with the greatest of joy.

Please, share this article to honor him!


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