Johnny Weissmuller was the Olympian-turned-actor most famous for originating the role of Tarzan on screen. And in classic Old Hollywood style, his real life was every bit as wild as the famous “Ape Man’s”.
1. He Had As Many Marriages As Medals
As a five-time , Johnny Weissmuller exemplified the ideal American athlete of the early 20th century. Unfortunately, Weissmuller had nearly as many failed marriages as Olympic medals. But his broad shoulders, muscular body, and thousand-watt smile made him the perfect physical specimen to bring Tarzan to the big screen—while his personality made him fit for the jungle.
2. He Wasn’t Even American
For decades, the world looked to Johnny Weissmuller as the embodiment of American athleticism and exceptionalism. But he wasn’t even American to begin with. He was born Johann Peter Weißmüller in June of 1904 in what is modern day Romania to ethnic German parents. His heritage played a big role later on in his life.
3. His Family Had Nothing
Weissmuller didn’t spend much time in his birthland. When he was just seven months old, his young parents uprooted their small family and set sail for better shores. But it wasn't going to be easy. When they first arrived in the United States, they had nothing but $10 to their name.
But I guess they had a secret weapon as well: The future of US athletics wrapped tightly in a swaddle.
4. He Grew Up With Animals
After his Olympic career, Weissmuller became famous as Tarzan. In a funny coincidence, his real childhood wasn’t actually that different from the ape man’s. In a sign of things to come, he grew up in a rural German farm community outside of Chicago, not far from a zoo.
He spent hours with the animals, growing up alongside them.
5. He Took To The Water Like A Fish
Weissmuller’s love affair with the water started at the tender age of eight. When he first dipped his toes in the water at Fullerton Beach on Lake Michigan, he knew that he had found his calling. Even as a beginner, he entered every free city-sponsored race that he could and won. Even as his competition got stiffer, he continued his winning streak. It seemed he couldn't lose.
6. He Lied To Compete
Weissmuller displayed athletic abilities well beyond his age. Unfortunately for him, the local YMCA had a minimum age limit of 12. So, Weissmuller told a little white lie to gain entry. Underage or not, he proceeded to drown all of his swimming competitors—metaphorically, of course.
But there was trouble beneath the surface of his idyllic childhood.
7. His Father Swam Away
For reasons that we may never know, Weissmuller’s life took an unexpected turn long before he wowed the world with his swimming talents. Without explanation, when he was 12 years old, his father abandoned the family. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
He had no choice but to drop out of school in the eighth grade, find a job—and focus on his swimming.
8. He Was Mad To His Gut
Weissmuller’s father’s choice to abandon the family left an indelible impression on him. He never wanted to be poor again and, now, he had something to prove. He later recalled, “You know, your guts get so mad when you try to fight poverty”. He made a vow to himself then and there that he would get out of his neighborhood.
Even if he had to swim across an ocean.
9. His Reputation Preceded Him
Weissmuller’s ticket out of his hometown—and crippling poverty-—came sooner than he had expected. He auditioned for one of the most prestigious swimming schools in the country, the Illinois Athletic Club. Weissmuller had been so dominant in his swimming competitions to that point that, even before he turned up at the IAC, they had already heard of him. But when he first arrived, they didn't like what they saw.
10. He Was Gawky And Odd
Weissmuller auditioned for the legendary swim coach, Bill Bachrach, who had some interesting feedback for the talented youth. “He had the gawkiness of an adolescent puppy,” Bachrach said. “Also, the stroke he used was the oddest thing I ever saw”. But the kid's times didn't lie. Weissmuller was going to swim his way to stardom.
11. He Was In Before He Got Out
Weissmuller’s teenage “gawkiness” and “odd” swim strokes clearly worked for him. He nearly set a record at his audition. As Bachrach put it, “By the time he [Weissmuller] got out and dried off, he was an official member of the Illinois Athletic Club”. Weissmuller's life was going to change forever—in more ways than he realized.
Over the next year, Bachrach became the father figure that Weissmuller had lost.
12. He Attracted Attention
After just a year of training with Bachrach and refining his rough strokes, Weissmuller made his big splash in the world of competitive swimming. At the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Nationals, he stunned his competitors and the spectators alike. Not only did he shatter the existing world records, but his glistening body attracted attention.
But it might not have been his body.
13. He Lived With A Lie
According to Weissmuller’s son, Weissmuller lived in constant fear for nearly his entire life. Why? He had a secret that could destroy him. Not only had he lied about his age to get into the YMCA, but he had lied about his identity to compete in the AAU.
As legend has it, he claimed to be his brother, Pete, who, unlike him, had been born in the US. Weissmuller believed that if the secret were to come out, everything he'd ever worked for could be stripped away from him.
14. He Set Records—And Beauty Standards
With that little lie hanging over his head, Weissmuller finally got his wish to leave his hometown. He traveled the country with Bachrach, shattering world records as he went. In fact, over the course of his swimming career, he set a shocking 67 world records. But his real star power came from his picture perfect physique.
15. He Was The Star
Weissmuller grabbed international attention at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France. In addition to picking up three of his eventual five gold medals, he made his debut as an entertainer. Between races, Weissmuller dazzled the spectators with his “comedic” dives into the pool.
One reviewer wrote, “Clearly, everyone agreed, Johnny Weissmuller was the star of the 1924 Olympic Games”.
16. He Lived The Good Life
Following his Olympic success, Weissmuller enjoyed a level of fame that only film stars could equal. He continued grabbing headlines by setting new records, he hung out with Douglas Fairbanks in his off time, and he even got a private audience with the president.
In just a few short years, Weissmuller had grown accustomed to the luxurious life. But that didn't stop him from risking it.
17. He Was A Lifeguard
In July 1927, Weissmuller put his superhuman swimming talents to superhero use. While training for an upcoming event, he and his brother saw a tragic accident on Lake Michigan. The small excursion steamboat, Favorite, had capsized in an unexpected squall.
Before anyone knew what was happening, Weissmuller was already cutting a line through the water to the drowning passengers.
18. He Was The Real Aquaman
Thankfully, for nearly a dozen of the terrified passengers aboard the Favorite, the real-life Aquaman just so happened to be in their neck of the woods—or water. Seeing the trouble, Weissmuller and his brother dove into action. Together, they managed to save eleven people.
But he wasn’t fast enough. Dozens of people still drowned in the accident.
19. He Won Anyway
Despite his heroic actions, the sinking of the Favorite left a deep scar on Weissmuller. No matter how fast he was, he simply hadn’t been fast enough to save more people. Mere days later, however, he did the unthinkable. Weissmuller bottled up his grief and competed in the Chicago Marathon swimming event. Of course, he won.
20. He Led The US
Weissmuller refused to drown in sorrow and self-pity. The very next year, he competed in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. He led the American athletes as the standard bearer during the opening ceremony and marched alongside General Douglas MacArthur.
It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of Weissmuller. Even at 6’4, there just wasn’t enough of him to go around.
21. He Had Imperial Friends
Following the 1928 Olympic Games, where he snagged a few more gold medals, Weissmuller got the opportunity of a lifetime. Crown Prince Chichibu of Japan invited Weissmuller to take part in his wedding celebrations with an exhibition swim meet. Just for fun, he pitted Weissmuller against Japan’s best swimmers.
But the Crown Prince had a trick up his sleeve.
22. He Took Cold Showers
Crown Prince Chichibu thought that he had outsmarted Weissmuller. The water in Japan was considerably colder than what Weissmuller was accustomed to swimming in. But Weissmuller wasn’t just good to look at—he was also pretty smart. He trained for the exhibition swim meet by taking twice daily ice baths. His strategy worked.
23. He Turned Down A Prince
To everyone’s amazement, Weissmuller left his Japanese competitors in the dust—or, more accurately, in his wake. Stunned, Crown Prince Chichibu offered Weissmuller the opportunity to coach the national Japanese swim team. Flattered, Weissmuller politely refused. But there were some offers that were too good to turn down.
24. He Was Undefeated
Despite his success, Weissmuller knew that there wasn’t much money in amateur sports and he wanted to cash in on his celebrity—and Adonis-like body. So, he made the decision to announce his retirement from swimming in early 1929. The newspapers marked the somber decision, saying, “After dominating the amateur aquatic world for eight years or more, Weissmuller retires undefeated”.
But they hadn’t seen the last of him yet. Not by a long shot.
25. He Threw It All In His “Trunks”
Weissmuller decided to turn his name recognition and lean swimmer’s body into cold hard cash. He picked up a contract as a model and spokesperson for BVD swimwear, even modeling the first ever male “swim trunks”. It wasn’t long before his perfectly cut body and winning smile caught the attention of Hollywood executives—and silver screen sirens.
26. He Was An “Adonis”
After spotting Weissmuller’s glistening body emerging from a pool, a Hollywood producer knew he had found a star. He cast Weissmuller for a cameo role as the aptly-named “Adonis” in 1929’s Glorifying the American Girl. But, while the world was accustomed to seeing Weissmuller in next-to-nothing swim outfits, they were not prepared for his big reveal on the big screen.
27. He Showed Off His “Eel”
Because of his contract with BVD, Weissmuller only appeared very briefly in one scene in Glorifying the American Girl. But his cameo was long enough to leave a lasting impression and audiences certainly got an eyeful of their favorite swimmer—and his eel. He appeared wearing nothing more than a fig leaf covering his sizable German sausage.
28. He Took A Dip In The Hollywood Pool
Later that year, Weissmuller was enjoying a swim at the Hollywood Athletic Club's pool. A mesmerized crowd, drawn like moths to his aquatic flame, marveled at his prowess—and his muscles. Little did Weissmuller know, however, that while he practiced his breaststroke, there was someone in the crowd eyeing him very intently.
29. He Was The Perfect “Ape Man”
It just so happened that MGM's wordsmith, Cyril Hume, was standing by the pool. As the writer for the upcoming Tarzan the Ape Man film, he was part of a manhunt. The entire studio had gone in search of a demigod to embody Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic character.
And Weissmuller, as a perfect physical specimen, fit the bill perfectly.
30. His Name Was Too Long
Weissmuller auditioned for the role of Tarzan but, even before his screen test, MGM executives knew that they had found their “pe Man. There were just a few problems before they could start filming. First of all, the film’s producer, Bernard Hyman, complained that Weissmuller’s name was simply too long for audiences to remember.
31. He Changed The Marquee
Hyman clearly never watched the Olympics. Some of his fellow producers kindly pointed out that Weissmuller was not just any old hunk: he was the world’s most famous swimmer. Surprised to learn that he had a star athlete in his presence, Hyman changed his mind. “All right then,” he relented, “we’ll just lengthen the marquee”.
His parting words for Weissmuller were, “And, put lots of swimming in the film!”
32. He Was The “Perfect Male”
Following his unbelievable swimming career, the world was already obsessed with Weissmuller. But, once they got a look at him beating on his chest in nothing but a loincloth, the obsession turned into fanaticism. Headlines such as “Is this the world’s Perfect Male?” and “Johnny Weissmuller has the World’s Finest Physique” became commonplace.
Yet despite his fame, he still risked life and limb for the role of “Tarzan”.
33. He Did His Own Stunts
Weissmuller didn’t just look the part of Tarzan. He acted it as well. Throughout his 17-year run as the character, Weissmuller always insisted on doing his own stunts—even with the wild animals on set. He rode untamed rhinos and elephants and forged deep connections with the animals on set. But he had to work hard to earn their respect.
34. He Was Into Monkey Business
Just like the real Tarzan, Weissmuller had to stand his ground and assert his dominance with the animals he worked with. Especially difficult, however, were the chimpanzees used to play “Cheetah” throughout the years. As chimpanzees are notoriously vicious and unpredictable, Weissmuller took big risks every time he stepped on set with one.
35. He Faced Down A “Cheetah”
In 1931, when Weissmuller first met the chimp meant to play “Cheetah,” the encounter nearly ended in bloodshed. The ferocious animal bared its teeth at Weissmuller in preparation for a full-on attack. But Weissmuller kept his cool, took out his hunting blade and held it in front of the chimp’s face. What he did next was either brilliant or reckless.
36. His Best Friend Was An Ape
With a real-life chimp preparing to attack him, Weissmuller seemed unnaturally calm. With his hunting blade raised, he bopped the chimp on the head, sheathed his blade and then extended his hand in a gesture of friendship. After a tense moment, the chimp grinned and took Weissmuller’s, kicking off years of genuine friendship.
37. He Had Monkey Bodyguards
Not all of Weissmuller’s co-stars had the same rapport with the animals on set. Maureen O’Sullivan, who played “Jane” alongside Weissmuller, recounted some of her run-ins with the wildlife. She claimed that the chimps were particularly protective of Weissmuller and jealous of anyone who came around, leaving her with “lots of scrapes and bites”.
38. He Had A Famous Yell
Almost as famous as Weissmuller’s flawless and rugged body was the Tarzan yell. As the go-to call of the wild, it’s unquestionably one of the most recognizable sounds in all film history. But there is a question as to how exactly that famous yell came about. In fact, it’s not even clear that Weissmuller was the one who thought it up.
39. He Didn’t Do His Own Voice Acting
According to one version of the story, sound recordist Douglas Shearer came up with the famous sound. Supposedly, Shearer recorded Weissmuller’s normal yell, altered it then played it in reverse. According to Shearer’s version of the story, the only thing hanging from a vine was Weissmuller’s credibility.
But there’s another version of the story.
40. He Yodeled
Various sources insist that Weissmuller came up with the famous Tarzan yell all by himself. Maureen O’Sullivan, for one, insisted that Weissmuller came up with the yell all on his own. Weissmuller himself claimed that he based the yell on the yodeling that he learned in his German hometown as a kid.
For him, the hills were alive with the sound of love.
41. He Had A Secret Marriage
Up until his Tarzan days, Weissmuller had been focused on his career as a swimmer. But, with his newfound mega stardom, he couldn’t ignore the ladies for long. In 1931, he had a secret marriage to the actress Bobbe Arnst. We don’t know much—if anything—about their marriage except that it must have been a pretty terrible one.
42. His Wife Celebrated Her “Freedom”
It didn’t take the tabloids long to learn that Weissmuller and Arnst had gotten hitched—even if they skipped town to do it. But the details of their nuptials were hard to come by. Until 1933, that is, when Arnst threw herself a lavish “freedom party” after divorcing from Weissmuller.
It’s possible that was just as “apish” in real-life as he was on screen
43. He Was Heating Up
The collapse of Weissmuller’s first marriage couldn’t have made MGM studio executives any happier. With the Tarzan films heating up at the box office, they wanted equally hot headlines for their scorching star. As such, MGM studio executives arranged for Weissmuller to meet fellow studio actress, Lupe Vélez.
44. He Dated A “Spitfire”
The tabloids had dubbed Vélez the “Mexican Spitfire”—and for good reason. Weissmuller’s new girlfriend had developed a reputation for being “petite and gorgeous”. Fans also noted her obviously sensual appeal and scintillating humor. It was “emotional instability and wild parties”, however, that earned her the nickname.
The real-life Tarzan had met his match.
45. He Was A Fool
Weissmuller and Vélez dated on and off for a few months. No one really took the romance seriously as Weissmuller was only recently divorced. Additionally, Vélez seemed to be spending as much time with Errol Flynn as she was with Weissmuller.
But, in Weissmuller’s own words, he was a “ready-made fool” who fell madly in love.
46. He Was Cruel
In late 1933, Weissmuller and Vélez tied the knot in Las Vegas. Their marital troubles started almost as soon as the dice stopped rolling. After just 10 months of marriage, Vélez filed for divorce. In the proceedings, she cited “brutality” as the reason for her decision. A week later, however, Weissmuller swam his way back into her good graces and she withdrew the papers.
But that was just the first lap.
47. His Marriage Was Hot And Cold
About six months after filing for divorce a first time, Vélez filed to split from Weissmuller once again. True to form, however, the couple reconciled a month later and it looked like they were going to make it work. However, by 1938, Vélez had filed for divorce a third time, ominously citing “brutality” once more.
A year later, Weissmuller and Vélez were no more. From what we can tell, “brutality” was putting it mildly.
48. He Had Bruises And Bite Marks
One of the makeup artists who worked with Weissmuller on his Tarzan films could verify Vélez’s claims of “brutality”. But, it looked like she had been the cruel one—not Weissmuller. The hunky former Olympian used to show up to the set with bite marks, bruises, and scratches all over his perfect body from his fights with Vélez.
Believe it or not, Weissmuller actually got off easy.
49. His Wife Got Rid Of His Dog
Weissmuller loved animals in real life as much as his Tarzan character did on screen. So, when Vélez made a horrific confession, Weissmuller knew that it was time to end their marriage. During one of their particularly heated arguments, Vélez made the absolutely horrifying admission that she had “offed” Weissmuller’s dog.
He had to get even.
50. He Flew The Bird
In retaliation for Vélez dispatching his dog, Weissmuller went after one of her pets. He put his love of animals aside and embraced his hatred for her. Though he never shared the details of how he did it, Weissmuller “offed” Vélez’s pet parrot. Fortunately, Weissmuller’s other marriages didn’t end with the wholesale butchery of household pets.
But that doesn’t mean that they ended well.
51. He Met A Nicer Woman
As he was finalizing his divorce from Vélez, Weissmuller met Beryl Scott, a 21-year old socialite. The two had very little in common except for a strong desire to have children. Just days after finalizing his second divorce, Weissmuller married Scott and promptly had three kids with her. Then he swung to the next open vine.
52. He Had Other Interests
No one knows the details of Weissmuller’s marriage to Scott except to say that they had very different interests. For example, Scott seemed to be interested in raising a family in peace and quiet. Weissmuller, on the other hand, seemed to be interested in other women. Namely, the highly accomplished amateur golfer, Allene Gates.
53. He Settled Down
Weissmuller had met Gates at the California Country Club where he liked to golf. By all accounts, they started off as friends but, as his marriage to Scott disintegrated, Weissmuller wanted more. Shortly after finalizing his divorce from Scott, Weissmuller married Gates. It looked like he had finally found his real-life “Jane”.
54. He Was Still Wild
With Gates, Weissmuller enjoyed a life of leisure. In fact, it looked like Gates had done the unthinkable in taming the real-life Tarzan. They traveled the world together, playing in golf tournaments and exhibitions and sharing their love of amateur sport. But, try as he might, Weissmuller could not suppress his wild nature.
55. He Took A Leap Of Faith
Weissmuller had earned his reputation as a wild man both on and off the screen. He frequently stayed in the “Johnny Weissmuller Suite” at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba. The staff became accustomed to watching the former Olympian jump from the balcony of the suite and dive into the pool two stories below.
But that wasn't the riskiest thing he did in Cuba.
56. His Yell Saved Him
Weissmuller’s Olympic and film careers had turned him into an international star. But, no where did his star shine quite as brightly as it did in Cuba. And thank goodness for that, because when he visited the country for a celebrity golf tournament, the only reason he left with his head still on his shoulders was because of his Tarzan yell.
57. He Ran Into Revolutionaries
While traveling in an open tour car, a band of violent revolutionaries fighting for Fidel Castro stopped Weissmuller and the other celebrity golfers. Taken by surprise, the bodyguards laid down their arms in front of the revolutionaries. As the situation grew even more tense, Weissmuller knew that he had to do something.
58. He Made Friends With Revolutionaries
In an act of sheer bravery—or wild abandon—Weissmuller did the only thing he knew how. With the muzzles pointed in his direction, Weissmuller stood up in the vehicle and gave his famous Tarzan yell. The revolutionaries instantly recognized Weissmuller and insisted on being his company to and from the celebrity golf tournament.
59. He Was Too Old
Eventually, the age difference between Weissmuller and Gates became too much for them to bear. Additionally, Weissmuller found himself back in the poor house just like when he was a child. His business manager had swindled him out of his millions and Gates, not interested in being with a poor “ape man”, up and left.
But this wasn't rock bottom just yet. Not by a long shot.
60. He Lost It All
In one fell swoop, Weissmuller had lost his (fourth) wife and his fortune. But, in November 1962, he learned what real loss felt like. His daughter, Heidi, had fallen asleep at the wheel and fatally crashed her car. But it was even worse than it seemed. Not only did Weissmuller lose his daughter on that fateful road, but he also lost his unborn grandchild.
61. He Finally Found His “Jane”
Weissmuller’s son said that the aged Olympian and actor never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter and unborn grandchild. The devastating tragedy had taken the wild right out of him. He did, however, finally manage to find some peace with the German-born
Maria Bauman Mandell.
The two married in 1963 and remained together until Weissmuller’s passing.
62. He Was Breaking Down
By 1974, Weissmuller was clearly no longer the perfect physical he had once been. He broke both his hip and his leg, heralding an era of diminishing vitality. Despite the Herculean strength that once defined him and a steadfast devotion to daily swims and exercises, his health was failing him.
Ten years later, he succumbed to pulmonary edema at the age of 79.
63. He Was The Real Deal
Weissmuller received a hero’s farewell. Just as he had requested, Senator Ted Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan arranged for a rare 21 time salute at his funeral. Even though he wasn’t a legendary actor, he was a legend in his own right. As he put it, “The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete. They know I wasn't make-believe”.