- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

Of all the stars who glittered in the Roaring Twenties’ so-called Golden Age of Sports — Ruth, Dempsey, Grange, Tilden, Jones, et al — only one became more famous after his competitive career was over.

And today he has been virtually forgotten except for, perhaps, an unintelligible screech in an old-timer’s memory.

In August 1928, during the Summer Games in Amsterdam, Johnny Weissmuller gained his fourth and fifth career Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter freestyle and the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay. It was a fitting climax to a career that saw him win 52 U.S. national championships, set 67 world records and go undefeated in a decade of events ranging from 50 yards to a half-mile.

Weissmuller also tried the backstroke, setting records in those events, too. Later he explained why, perhaps with tongue in cheek: “I got bored, so I swam on my back where I could spend more time looking around.”

At 24, Weissmuller was the best male swimmer in history. And then …

“UMGAW-A-A-A-A!”

Unexpectedly, Hollywood beckoned, and the handsome, 6-foot-3 swimmer turned into “Tarzan the Ape Man” in the movie of that name, emitting this blood-curdling cry — actually, an electronic blend of a hyena’s howl played backward, a camel’s bleat, a violin and a soprano’s high C — whenever the script demanded. (Though, for the record, he never uttered the infamous “Me Tarzan, you Jane” line to co-star Maureen O’Sullivan.)

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Weissmuller acted — if that’s the word — in 12 Tarzan pictures, six for MGM and six for RKO, before yielding the franchise to Lex Barker. So effective was he in the role than Barker and all the other Tarzans who followed seemed mere carbon copies. Even Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created the character in a 1919 book, was said to be a fan.

Such admiration was not quite universal. Elmo Lincoln, the original Tarzan in silent films, told Burroughs, “The studio seemed to think [‘Tarzan the Ape Man] was a comedy. Why do they portray Tarzan without dignity?”

Well, for one thing, Elmo baby, it’s hard to take seriously a character who consorts with chimps and swings on vines.

After that, Weissmuller covered up his loincloth to play Jungle Jim for years in movies and on television. When he died at age 79 in 1984, following a series of strokes, very few people remembered he once had been a swimmer of unparalleled accomplishments.

Tarzan’s constant companion in the early movies was a chimpanzee named Cheetah, who spent much of his time between takes trying to bite and scratch actress O’Sullivan. Presumably, the lovely Maureen took it like a trooper. Years later, during the brief first marriage of her daughter, Mia Farrow, she became the only person ever related, so to speak, to both Tarzan and Frank Sinatra.

Asked at that time what she thought of her fiftysomething son-in-law, O’Sullivan replied with some heat, “Frank should have married me.” It is unlikely that she ever expressed similar sentiments about Tarzan.

Nonetheless, Weissmuller did all right in that department, at least in terms of numbers. He was married five times and MGM reportedly paid one of them, Bobbe Arnst, $10,000 to divorce him because the studio thought Johnny would be a better box-office draw if he were single.

Weissmuller was a fascinating fellow practically from the cradle. He was born in Romania, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1904, and moved to the United States with his family when he was 7 months old. Later, Weissmuller would claim to have been born in Pennsylvania, probably to ensure his eligibility for the U.S. Olympic team. Today such a revelation would be scandalous; back then nobody seemed to notice.

At 12, Weissmuller joined a YMCA swimming team in Chicago, where the family had moved, and immediately became a standout. After training with a coach at the Illinois Swim Club, where he developed his unique, high-riding crawl stroke, he won his first race against adult competition in 1921. The following year, he broke Duke Kahanamoku’s world record in the 100-meter free. He defeated Kahanamoku himself to win gold at the 1924 Olympics in Paris and added gold medals in the 400 free and the 4 x 200 relay. Suddenly, America had a new sports idol.

After retiring from competition, Weissmuller signed on as a spokesman and model for BVD swimwear in 1929. He gained his first movie role as an Adonis in something called “Glorifying the American Girl” and appeared as himself in several short subjects. Then Tarzan swung into view.

“I was in Los Angeles, and [MGM] asked if I would like to take a screen test,” Weissmuller recalled years later. “I told them no, but they said I could go to the lot and meet Greta Garbo and have lunch with Clark Gable. Any kid would want to do that, so I said OK. … There were 100 actors trying for the part. … Then someone called me and said, ‘You got it.’ I said, ‘Got what?’ They said, ‘You’re Tarzan.’”

First, though, the producer wanted his man to shorten his name to “Jon Weis,” the better to fit on a marquee. Fortunately, the director butted in and said, “Don’t you ever read the papers? This guy is the world’s greatest swimmer.”

Said Weissmuller years later: “So you see why I owe everything to swimming. It not only made my name, it saved my name. Who ever heard of ‘Jon Weis,’ marquee or no marquee?”

Today, although he and Mark Spitz qualify easily as the best American male swimmers ever, very few young people have heard of Johnny Weissmuller. And perhaps only one word adequately describes this sad state of affairs:

“UMGAW-A-A-A-A!”

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