Johnny Weissmuller was born Peter Johann Weismüller in Timişoara, Romania in 1904. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was just months old. They moved to Windber, Pennsylvania where his father worked as a coal miner.
After several years, they moved to Chicago, Illinois. His father owned a bar for a time and his mother became head cook at a restaurant. His father then worked as a brewer. Weissmuller played and swam along the beaches of Lake Michigan and joined the local YMCA swim team when he was 12 years old.
When Weissmuller left school, he worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago and trained for the Olympics with a swim coach. It was during this time that he developed his revolutionary “heads-up” crawl stroke. In 1921, he won his first AAU race in the 50-yard freestyle.
Though he was foreign-born, Weissmuller took his brother’s name “Johnny", who had been born in the U.S., and gave his birthplace as Windber, Pennsylvania, to ensure his eligibility to compete as part of the United States Olympic team.
In 1922, Weissmuller broke the world record in the 100-meters freestyle. He won the gold medal at that distance in the 1924 Summer Olympics, as well as the 400-meter freestyle and the 4 x 200 meter relay. As a member of the American water polo team, he also won a bronze medal. Four years later, at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands, he won another two gold medals.
In all, he set 67 world records. Johnny Weissmuller never lost a race and retired from his amateur swimming career after the 1928 Olympics undefeated.
In 1929, Weissmuller became a model and product spokesman. He also appeared in his first film, at the age of 25, for Paramount Pictures.
In 1932, Weissmuller signed a seven year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and played the role of Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). The movie was a smash and the 6'3" Weissmuller soon became an international sensation.
He starred in six Tarzan movies for MGM with actress Maureen O'Sullivan. In 1942, he went to RKO and starred in six more Tarzan movies. After 16 years, he traded in the loin cloth for safari wear and made 13 Jungle Jim movies between 1948 and 1954.
In 1955, he began production of the Jungle Jim television adventure series which ran for twenty-six episodes. His last film appearance was in 1972.
Weissmuller was married six times:
- Camila Louiee, divorced;
- Bobbe Arnst, singer/actress, 1931-1933, divorced.
- Lupe Velez, singer/actress, 1933-1939, divorced.
- Beryl Scott, 1939-1948, three children, divorced.
- Ailene Gates, 1948-1962, divorced.
- Maria Bauman, 1963-1984.
Weissmuller died of a heart attack in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1984. He was 79 years old.