Johnny Weissmuller

(1904—1984) American swimmer and actor

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A US champion swimmer at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games, who acted in Hollywood films in the role of Tarzan. Weismuller's switch of professions represented the rise of the celebrity sport star in the expansive age of the mass media (cf. swimmer turned Hollywood star Esther Williams, b. 1921), and the exploitation of the (all but) naked athletic body; the athlete turned actor had little to do in the Tarzan movies beyond swing among trees, beat his chest, and emit jungle-like sounds and cries. An obituary in the UK's Daily Telegraph evokes a poignant image of Weismuller's past glories in his elder years in a home for retired actors in Hollywood: afflicted by a stroke, he would howl out his Tarzan call in the middle of the night, lost in the memory of his sporting and filmic celebrity; upsetting the other patients, he was committed to a mental hospital. Later, friends recalled him pacing his garden trying, without success, to emit his trademark Tarzan cry. Born in Austro-Hungary, Weismuller was the son of immigrants to the USA. A sickly child, swimming from the age of 12 on the advice of a doctor, he grew to 6 feet 4 inches, was educated at the University of Chicago, and won three gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics, and two more at Amsterdam in 1928. He broke 67 swimming records and never lost in competition. He made nineteen Tarzan films between 1932 and 1949, at around $100,000 a performance (‘I blew it on boats and good living’, he later recalled), and in his early seventies worked as a celebrity greeter for Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure — Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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