Before Johnny Weissmuller became famous for his film portrayal of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and, in later years, Jungle Jim, he was, unquestionably, the greatest swimmer in the history of the world. Even today, many observers regard Johnny as the greatest merman of all.
By the age of twenty-four, Weissmuller won five Gold Medals during two Olympics in the 100, 400 and 800-meter events, plus a Bronze medal in water polo. In addition, Johnny shattered sixty-seven world-swimming marks and remained unbeaten through his entire nine-year amateur competition.
When Johnny played Tarzan, his engaging and genuine diffidence seemed to be a constant apology for his Olympian strength and talent. Nonetheless, his inner confidence and winning attitude captured the essence of the Ape-Man. Everyone loved his portrayal; especially little kids like me. So much so, that Johnny's deserved fame as Tarzan eclipsed his incredible athletic achievements. Only a physically gifted person possessing enormous dedication, perseverance and direction could have combined these two career accomplishments.
Growing up in Chicago during the time of Al Capone and prohibition, Johnny resisted pressures to join street gangs in his neighborhood. His gentle nature and a desire for self-improvement nudged him continuously in the right direction. In the absence of a father, Johnny and his younger brother worked several jobs to support their mother. But they seldom missed a day of swimming.
At seventeen, Weissmuller had the perfect swimmer's physique - 6'3", 190 pounds, large hands and big feet. He was lean, muscular and lithe, much like the big jungle cats that were destined to play a role in his later career. He loved to swim in Lake Michigan - or anywhere for that matter. Once, while swimming in Lake Michigan, a large party boat capsized. Johnny dove repeatedly into the depths, bringing twenty-four people to the surface, saving eleven lives.
Although self taught, he was fast. Word soon spread. A Chicago swimming coach asked Johnny to swim 100 yards. He did so - within a few seconds of the world mark. Visibly unimpressed, the coach convinced Johnny that he must learn to swim properly over several arduous years. Johnny quickly agreed with all the provisos; he knew it was the chance of a lifetime.
Initially, Johnny was made to practice his upper body stroke with his legs tied to an inner tube. After almost a year, he was allowed to practice his kick. Obviously, the coach was aiming high and it was necessary to build a strong foundation. Conditioning the mind was as important as the training the body. Training was rigorous, but Johnny was dedicated, obedient, patient and self-sacrificing.
After almost two years of demanding daily practice, it all came together, and the coach finally entered Johnny in a sanctioned race against two world record holders. He won! And, from that day on, he never lost a race of any kind! He devoured all comers as he traveled about under the auspices of the Chicago Athletic Club. After breaking records continuously all around the world for nine years, it came time for Johnny to resign his amateur standing in order to earn a living. At twenty-four, he was world famous - but poor.
However, it didn’t take long for Hollywood to discover Johnny Weissmuller. He was the personification of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Ape-Man, with one exception – he was not allowed to portray the intellectual quality that the author attributed to Tarzan in his book. Nevertheless, Hollywood had it right. Never mind the intellectual stuff. Go with "Me Tarzan - You Jane".
The producers provided Tarzan and Jane a leather loincloth and bikini, respectively, built them a cozy tree house and surrounded them with exotic wildlife. In his role as Tarzan, Johnny developed a deep brooding countenance and an animal sensitivity in his expression. Moviegoers loved his method, responding enormously at the box office over the next twelve years.
Johnny was bright, resourceful and fun loving. He lived by simple truths and principles, never imposing himself on others. In this respect, he was very much like John Wayne and Ward Bond - two of his closer friends. Johnny's squeaky-clean image encouraged General Mills to put him on the "Wheaties" box along with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. While Johnny was as strong and hardy as they come; he had alluring good looks and projected an animal magnetism on the screen. The studios were so protective of their creation that they restricted Johnny solely to the role of Tarzan.
I was about eight or nine years old when I first saw Johnny in the flesh at the Lakeside Golf Club pool in the neighborhood of Toluca Lake. One morning at the pool, Tarzan suddenly came out of nowhere, as if a swinging vine had propelled him. He announced himself by way of his famous high-pitched yell. "Ahahaaahahaha". On a full run, he dove magnificently into the pool where a bunch of us kids were playing. He surfaced, swinging his great mop of brown hair to the side and began to swim mightily in our direction. With his head well above the water, his piercing brown eyes were unmistakable.
All the kids screamed, "Tarzan".
Copyright © 2003, Robert D. Harrell, all rights reserved
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Horseshoe Bay, TX
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Robert Harrell was born in the early 1930's. An avid sailor and golfer, he lives in Horseshoe Bay, Texas.