Johnny Weissmuller: from Olympic gold to cinema stardom

Competitive swimmer who became a Hollywood leading man

black and white photograph portrait of Johnny Weissmuller who wears a swimming singlet
by
Aisha Villegas (opens in new window) (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision)

Johnny Weissmuller was born János Weißmüller on June 2, 1904 in Freidorf, in former Austria-Hungary (now Romania).

Soon after, when Johnny was only seven months, his family emigrated to the USA, embarking on a twelve day trip on the S.S. Rotterdam to Ellis Island. The family settled in Chicago, where he would later discover his passion for swimming.

black and white photograph of a man in a swimsuit

When Weissmuller was nine years old, he contracted polio.

Following doctor’s orders, Johnny started taking swimming lessons on Lake Michigan to recover and build stamina. He later joined the YMCA swim team at the age of twelve, discovering his love for swimming and excelling in this sport almost immediately.

It wouldn't be long before he was invited to join the Illinois Athletic Club, one of the best swim teams in the country. After a year of intense training, Weissmuller entered competitions in 1921 and immediately began winning Amateur Athletic Union races and breaking world records.

black and white photograph, a male and female swimmer sitting poolside

The Olympics

Weissmuller swam his way into the record books, becoming America's first swimming superstar by winning five Olympic gold medals and setting more than 50 world records.

He first joined the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, where his American citizenship was questioned by an Illinois congressman. Using his brother’s Pennsylvania baptismal records, the swimmer obtained his American passport under his brother’s name Peter John Weissmuller.

colour poster for 1924 Olympic Games with topless men holding their arms up and text Paris 1924

Nonetheless, he emerged as a star athlete at the games, winning gold in the 100- and 400-metre freestyle, as well as the 4×200-metre freestyle relay. He also helped the United States win a bronze in water polo.

Four years later, he joined the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games, where he took gold in the 100-metre freestyle and 4×200-metre freestyle relay. His merits would later earn him a spot in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965.

black and white photograph of three men, one of whom wears sports clothing

A star is born

Weissmuller parlayed his success in the pool into Hollywood stardom.

Leaving his impressive swimming career behind, he retired from competitions and continued to rise as a star by performing around the world in water shows. He supplemented his live appearances with print advertisements (modeling swimsuits) and radio and movie performances.

In 1932, he signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, and after a name change to Johnny Weissmuller, he played the role of Tarzan in the movie Tarzan the Ape Man.

colour vintage poster with headline text 'Tarzan e il cimitero degli elefanti' and illustration of Tarzan in loincloth with hands raised to his mouth, the character Jane is behind him

Weissmuller starred in twelve Tarzan films produced in Hollywood between 1932 and 1948, becoming the actor most commonly associated with the Tarzan character.

black and white photograph of Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan posing on a tree branch
black and white photograph of a man playing Tarzan holding a woman over his shoulders

In the late 1950s, Weissmuller retired from Hollywood after a short run of the television series Jungle Jim, though he made occasional cameo appearances until the mid-1970s.

He passed away on January 20, 1984. Despite dominating a single sport as few had, his identity as the quintessential movie Tarzan remains his most memorable legacy.

black and white photograph of Johnny Weismuller and Lupe Velez in front of a large ship

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