Johnny Weissmuller: Wet Behind the Ears

Old movie buffs will get the joke in our subtitle: Johnny Weissmuller (1904-84) was a famous swimmer. But there’s a certain application to his screen career, as well: yes, he amassed 38 screen credits between 1929 and 1976…but the number of characters he played can be counted on one hand.

János or Johann Weissmüller was born in Austria-Hungary (a portion that is now part of Romania). He came with his parents to America when he was less than a year old. The family settled in Western Pennsylvania; Weissmuller’s father worked as a coal miner. Johnny took up swimming as a kid to counteract the effects of polio. He first gained international fame as an Olympic athlete during the 1920s, winning five gold medals for swimming, and a bronze one for water polo.

His fine physique and good looks led naturally to other opportunities, first as a model in print ads and product endorsements, then the movies. A part as Adonis in a water ballet number in Glorifying the American Girl (1929) was his first screen appearance. In 1932 followed his most famous role Tarzan the Ape Man. He remains the actor most identified with this iconic part. Other famous actors who played him (e.g. Buster Crabbe) played lots of other roles for the most part and thus diversified their images. Weissmuller WAS Tarzan, and his were the classic pictures the ones which introduced the famous Tarzan yell, and featured Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. It isn’t often remarked upon in this context but it seems to me the nearly-naked Weissmuller was a pioneering male sex symbol, ranking with Sandow and Valentino. Were there any OTHER male stars who went around perpetually shirtless in the 1930s? I don’t think so.

In the middle of his run as Tarzan, Weissmuller headlined in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, along with fellow swimming stars like Crabbe and Esther Williams.

After a dozen Tarzan pictures over a period of 16 years, in 1948 Weissmuller took on his SECOND major screen character, Jungle Jim. Hilariously, his second film series was STILL set in the jungle, and still called upon him to wrestle with wild animals, but now his character was an explorer instead of an ape man, so he got to speak actual lines, instead of monosyllabic replies and grunts. Based on a popular comic strip, Jungle Jim was sort of a fictionalized version of Clyde Beatty. He now wore pith helmets and safari gear instead of, well, nothing, probably a concession to the fact that he was now 44 and not in the same shape he had been in 1932. Weismuller played Jungle Jim in 13 movies and 26 TV episodes through 1956.

Weismuller also appeared as himself in newsreels and cameos in films like Stage Door Canteen many times over the years. And — wait for it — on rare occasions he played characters who were not either himself, Tarzan or Jungle Jim. In Swamp Fire (1946) he played a gent named Johnny Duval. And he had a bit part in The Great Masquerade (1974) as “Sepy Debronvi”. Won Won Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) was his last movie. He was on The Mike Douglas Show in 1977, but a series of strokes later that year made further public appearances impossible.

To learn more about show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,