On this Day in Movie History, June 2, 1904: Johnny Weissmuller Born

It was on this day, June 2, 1904, Johnny Weissmuller (born Janos Weißmüller) was born. An Austrian-Hungarian-born American swimmer, born in Timisoara, Romania, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (though he would later claim to have been born in Windber, Pennsylvania, probably to ensure his eligibility to compete as part of the US Olympic team) Weissmuller was one of the world’s best swimmers. In the 1920s, he won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal, as well as fifty-two US National Championships and set sixty-seven world records.

A sickly child, he took up swimming on the advice of a doctor. He grew to be a 6′ 3″, 190-pound champion athlete

After his swimming career, he became the sixth actor to portray Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ape man Tarzan in films, a role he played in twelve motion pictures. Dozens of other actors have also played Tarzan, but Weissmuller is by far the best known.

In his first picture, Glorifying the American Girl (1929), he appeared as an Adonis clad only in a fig leaf. After great success with a jungle movie, MGM head Louis B. Mayer, via Irving Thalberg, optioned two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. Cyril Hume, working on the adaptation of Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), noticed Weissmuller swimming in the pool at his hotel and suggested him for the part of Tarzan. Weissmuller was under contract to BVD to model underwear and swimsuits; MGM got him released by agreeing to pose many of its female stars in BVD swimsuits.

The studio billed him as “the only man in Hollywood who’s natural in the flesh and can act without clothes”. The film was an immediate box-office and critical hit. Seeing that he was wildly popular with girls, the studio told him to divorce his wife and paid her $10,000 to agree to it.

When Weissmuller was introduced to the first Cheetah in his Tarzan films in 1931 (he worked with 8 chimpanzees altogether), the chimp’s trainer told him to show no fear or the animal would attack him. As Weissmuller, dressed in his Tarzan loincloth and hunting knife, walked up to the animal, it bared its teeth, growled at him and lunged as if to attack him. Weissmuller took the knife out of the sheath and held it in front of the chimp’s nose, to make sure he saw and smelled it. He then slammed the animal on the side of the head with the knife handle. He put the knife back in its sheath and held out his hand to the chimp. It glared at him, bared his teeth again, then changed its mind, grinned at Weissmuller and jumped up and hugged him. Weissmuller never had any further problems with the chimp–although other cast and crew members did–and it followed him around like a puppy dog during all the pictures they worked together.

After 1942, MGM had used up its options; it dropped the Tarzan series and Weissmuller, too. He then moved to RKO and made six more Tarzans. After that he made 16 Jungle Jim (1948) programmers for Columbia.

In the late 1950s after retiring from acting, Weissmuller moved back to Chicago and started a swimming pool company. He also lent his name to other business ventures, but did not have a great deal of success. He retired in 1965 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was Founding Chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

His character’s distinctive, ululating Tarzan yell is still often used in films.

1917 – Max Showalter (actor: With a Song in My Heart, Bus Stop, It Happened to Jane, The Music Man, Sixteen Candles, Racing with the Moon; died July 30, 2000)

1926 – Milo O’Shea (actor: The Playboys, Only the Lonely, Broken Vows, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Verdict, Sacco & Vanzetti, Paddy, Barbarella, Ulysses)

1937 – Sally Kellerman (actress: M*A*S*H, The Boston Strangler, Brewster McCloud, Fatal Attraction, Meatballs III, Murder Among Friends, Boris and Natasha, Columbo: Ashes to Ashes)

1941 – (Walter) Stacy Keach Jr. (actor: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Conduct Unbecoming, Sunset Grill, Texas, Road Games, The Long Riders, Brewster McCloud; narrator: Plague Fighters, Olympic Glory, Savage Seas, World’s Most Amazing Videos; host: Missing Reward, Case Closed)

1943 – Charles Haid (actor: Hill Street Blues, Delvecchio, Altered States, The Fire Next Time, Children in the Crossfire)

1944 – Marvin Hamlisch (Academy Award-winning pianist, composer: for adapted score: The Sting [1973]; original score and song: The Way We Were [1973]; Grammy Award-winner: The Way We Were & Best New Artist; Tony Award-winner: A Chorus Line [1976])

1948 – Jerry Mathers (actor: Leave It to Beaver, The Trouble with Harry, Back to the Beach)

1950 – Joanna Gleason (actress: For Richer for Poorer, F/X 2: The Deadly Art of Illusion, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Heartburn, Into the Woods, Love & War, Hello Larry, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Boogie Nights, Bette; daughter of TV quiz show host Monty Hall)

1955 – Dana Carvey (actor, comedian, impersonator: Saturday Night Live, Clean Slate, It Happened in Paradise, Wayne’s World)

1955 – Gary Grimes (actor: Summer of ’42, Class of ’44, Culpepper Cattle Co.)


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