Peter Johann Weissmüller was born June 2, 1904 in Hungary (the village is now in Serbia).
His family left Europe aboard the S.S. Rotterdam, which arrived in New York on January 26, 1905. They then went to the coal mining town of Winber, Pennsylvania to join family already there.
At the age of nine, Weissmuller contracted polio. At the suggestion of his doctor, he took up swimming to help battle the disease.
Not long after, the family moved to Chicago when his father found work as a brewer. There, Weissmuller continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swim team.
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 a Lake Michigan beach.
Then, while working as an elevator operator and bellboy at the Illinois Athletic Club, Weissmuller caught the eye of swim coach William Bachrach.
Bachrach trained Weissmuller and in August 1921, Weissmuller won the national championships in the 50-yard and 220-yard distances.
Though he was foreign-born, Weissmuller gave his birthplace as Tanneryville, Pennsylvania, with the name and birth date of his younger brother, Johnny. He began competing as Johnny Weissmuller to ensure his eligibility to compete as part of the United States Olympic team.
Then on July 9, 1922, Johnny Weissmuller broke Duke Kahanamoku’s world record on the 100 meter freestyle, swimming it in 58.6 seconds, also becoming the first man to break the one minute barrier.
Johnny was issued a passport in May of 1924, allowing him to compete in the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics. In Paris, Johnny won the gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle, beating Kahanamoku. He also won gold in the 400 meter freestyle and the 4 x 200 meter relay. As a member of the US water polo team, Johnny also won a bronze medal.
Four years later, at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, he won another two Olympic titles. In all, Johnny Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal, fifty-two United States National Championships, and set sixty-seven world records. He never lost a race and retired with an unbeaten Amateur record.
Then in 1929, Johnny 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 the radio.
Also in 1929, Johnny made his first motion picture appearance as an Adonis, wearing only a fig leaf, in a movie entitled Glorifying the US Girl. Johnny also appeared as himself in the first of several Crystal Champions movie shorts featuring Weissmuller and other Olympic champions at Silver Springs, Florida.
Johnny’s big break came in 1932 when he signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and played the role of Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man. The movie was a huge success and Weissmuller became an overnight international sensation.
Johnny went on to star 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, Johnny Weissmuller went to RKO and starred in six more Tarzan movies with markedly reduced production values. Unlike MGM, RKO allowed Johnny 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.
Over the twelve Tarzan films he starred in, Johnny Weissmuller earned an estimated $2,000,000 and established himself as what many consider the definitive Tarzan. Although not the first Tarzan in movies (that honor went to 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, Johnny explained how the famous yell was created. Recordings of three vocalists were spliced together to get the effect—a soprano, an alto, and a hog caller.
When Johnny Weissmuller finally traded in his loincloth, he portrayed Jungle Jim in the 1948 Columbia film of the same name, this time wearing a slouch hat and safari suit.
Johnny would go on to make thirteen Jungle Jim films between 1948 and 1954. According to actor Michael J. Fox, Johnny Weissmuller would shoot two Jungle Jim films back to back with nine days filming for each with a break of two days between, then he would return to his home in Mexico.
In 1955, Johnny began production of the Jungle Jim television adventure series for Screen Gems, a film subsidiary of Columbia. His costars were Martin Huston and Dean Fredericks. The show produced only twenty-six episodes, which were subsequently played repeatedly on network and syndicated television.
Aside from a first screen appearance as Adonis and the role of Johnny Duval in the 1946 film Swamp Fire, Johnny Weissmuller played only three roles in films during the heyday of his Hollywood career: Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and himself.
In 1950, Johnny Weissmuller was selected by the Associated Press as the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th Century.
Johnny Weissmuller was married five times, and had three children with his third wife.
In 1974, Johnny 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, Johnny 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.
On January 20, 1984, Johnny Weissmuller died from pulmonary edema at the age of 79. 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.
Now WE know em