Johnny Weissmuller was born in Windber, Pennsylvania, in 1904, the son of a hardworking coal miner of Austrian descent. But soon, Johnny’s father saved his ducats and moved the clan to Chicago, where he opened a profitable saloon. Nearby Oak Beach was a lure for the young, strapping Johnny. (A lucky thing for Chicago – one day Johnny and his brother saved 20 people involved in a boating mishap.)
It was at the same beach that Weissmuller was discovered by Illinois Athletic Club coach Bill Bacharach, who saw a physique that could be sculpted to Olympic status. Under Bacharach’s constant tutelage and training, Weissmuller thrived.
Weissmuller went on to win an amazing 36 national and 67 world championships along with five Olympic gold medals. He set an astounding 94 American and 51 world records. His biggest feat? Johnny was the first swimmer to break the one-minute mark in the 100-meter freestyle.
Cyril Hume, a screenwriter, ‘discovered’ Weissmuller in a hotel pool. By October, 1931, the 27-year-old former Olympian was hot, inking a seven-year movie contract – for $250 a week.
When movie fans think of Tarzan, they don’t think of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the landmark series. They think of Johnny Weissmuller and his animal-like call of the wild. They thought of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, and of Cheeta the Chimp and Boy. By the time he finished his 11 films in 16 years, Weissmuller was the screen idol who was Tarzan. There seemed to be nobody else.
Later, Weissmuller traded his loin cloth for jungle fatigues and became adventurer Jungle Jim, borrowing from a character featured in a popular radio show and comic strip. He saved damsels in distress and got to the bottom of strange voodoo curses. But his earlier films had left an indelible image: at least one critic dismissed these films as “Tarzan with clothes on.”