Friday, May 22, 2015

Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984)

Birth name: Peter Johann Weißmüller
Birthdate: Thursday, June 2nd, 1904
Location: Freidorf, Hungary

Died: Friday, January 20th, 1984
Location: Acapulco, Mexico
Cause of death: Pulmonary edema

Best known for: If ever there was an actor known for just one singular role, and none of any others he might have played, it's Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in several films of the 1930s and 40s. His previous career as a championship swimmer should not be overlooked, however - he won three gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics and a further two at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. He also bagged a bronze as part of the US water polo team in 1924.

Johnny in his first Tarzan film,
aged 28, and his last, aged 44.
You could tell it was time for
him to hang up his loincloth
Starting with 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man, Johnny played the Lord of the Jungle in 12 films until 1948, when he was 44 years old and perhaps a little too long in the tooth to be flinging himself off vines and wrestling with men in gorilla suits. So what happened to Johnny post-Tarzan? Well, obviously unable to leave the jungle behind properly, he took on the role of Jungle Jim in 13 films between 1948 and 1954, as well as in 26 episodes of a TV series (1955-56).

However, Johnny's acting career does not stretch much beyond these two iconic jungle-based roles. These two aside, during his heyday he only ever played one other role, that of Johnny Duval in 1946's Swamp Fire.

He did, however, continue to crop up in productions as himself, something he probably found quite easy to play. He can be seen in 1954's Cannibal Attack, as well as 1955's Jungle Moon Men and Devil Goddess, all before his final appearance in the Jungle Jim TV series on March 19th, 1956.

Then what? Well, Johnny tried to go into business as a swimming pool supremo, but the venture bombed, and in 1965 he announced his retirement, aged 61, and moved to Fort Lauderdale in Florida. The following year he joined other screen Tarzans to help launch the Tarzan TV series (which starred Ron Ely in the title role), and although he'd been asked to play Tarzan's father in the show, he declined.

In the early 1970s Johnny unfortunately tried his hand at business again and got embroiled in the doomed Tarzan's Jungleland / Florida Wonderland theme park, which ultimately closed down in 1973 when Johnny and the other investors couldn't see eye to eye.

A 66-year-old Johnny in The Phynx,
with fellow Las Vegas casino greeter
Joe Louis
In 1970, Johnny appeared as himself in The Phynx, an ill-advised comedy musical in which a rock band gets wrapped up in politics and espionage while on tour in Albania. Where does Johnny fit in? Well, Communists have apparently kidnapped a bunch of American stars and imprisoned them in Albania, including Johnny and Maureen O'Sullivan (reuniting Tarzan and Jane from several of Weissmuller's films), Ed Sullivan, James Brown and Richard Pryor. It might not win any Oscars, but any film with a cast like that surely deserves some love?

In 1973 Johnny moved to Las Vegas and became a greeter alongside boxer Joe Louis at the Caesar's Palace casino for a time. Next up was 1974's The Great Masquerade (aka The AC/DC Caper and Murder on the Emerald Seas), in which Johnny plays Sepy Debronvi in a comedy about a cop (Robert Perault) who is sent undercover aboard a cruise ship in order to unmask a beauty queen killer who inexplicably dresses as a clown. To do this, Perault dresses as a drag queen. Yes, you read that right. The posters for the film are real gems, sporting taglines like "He's the queen of the ball - it's a gay celebration!" and "Oh the humiliations of a cop in drag!". Although Johnny's not in it, you can experience the DVD trailer here.

Interviewed for MGM's 50th anniversary
show on May 29th 1974. Johnny is aged 70
After making this film Johnny broke both his hip and his leg, at the age of 70, beginning years of ill-health. While being treated he discovered he had a serious heart condition, despite all those years of playing sport and keeping fit.

Johnny's cameo in
Won Ton Ton, aged 72
Two years later, in May 1976, Johnny joined another roster of fading film stars - including Ethel Merman, Art Carney, Virginia Mayo, Jackie Coogan and Joan Blondell - in Michael Winner's now cult Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved the World, which was to be his final screen role (as Stagehand 2, incidentally). Following this, Johnny made only one more public appearance, on the Mike Douglas Show on January 7th, 1977.

It was in 1977 that Johnny suffered a series of strokes, and in 1979, at the age of 75, he was admitted to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in California and stayed for several weeks before being discharged and moving to Acapulco in Mexico, where he had filmed his final Tarzan movie - Tarzan and the Mermaids - in 1948.

Spending his final five years in declining health in retirement in Mexico with his fourth wife Maria Bauman, Johnny died of pulmonary edema on January 20th, 1984, aged 79. He was buried at the Valley of the Light cemetery just outside Acapulco, and as his coffin was lowered into the ground, a recording of that famous Tarzan yell he invented (but never performed himself vocally on screen) was played three times at his request.

I know you're wondering whatever happened to his famous Tarzan co-star Cheeta too. Well, there were several chimpanzees with the claim to having played Cheeta - some are legitimate, such as Jiggs (1929-38), the original Cheeta who died of pneumonia; some are contested, such as Org (1931-2011), who it is claimed was never in an actual film, but was actually a resident at the ill-fated Florida Wonderland. At the end of the day, we're not going to argue over which chimp was which - if you're still interested, go here!

Here's a cracking photo to end on - a reunion of Tarzans from a 1975 edition of The Mike Douglas Show. Johnny may not look as svelte as he used to be here, but he entered into the spirit of the occasion, which was great. From left: Johnny Weissmuller (here aged 71, Tarzan 1932-48; presenter Mike Douglas; Gordon Scott (aged 49, Tarzan 1955-60); entertainer Totie Fields; Jock Mahoney (aged 56, Tarzan 1962-63 & 1966-67); Buster Crabbe (aged 67, Tarzan 1933); Denny Miller (aged 41, Tarzan 1959); and James Pierce (aged 75, Tarzan 1927).

What do you call a collection of Tarzans? A yodel?
A bit of trivia: Here's a fascinating look at Johnny's home in Acapulco where he spent his final years. The narration is in Spanish, but you get a visual tour of the house and some memorabilia too.

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