Historical Markers
Johnny Weissmuller Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Johnny Weissmuller

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Jefferson Avenue. Extension and Graham Ave. Windber (Pa. N. 160)

Dedication Date:
September 13, 1999

Behind the Marker

He, Tarzan. Such was the breadth, depth and scope of Johnny Weissmuller's one-trick pony of a film career. Still, if Hollywood - and movie audiences everywhere - so identified him with the grunting, vine-swinging king of the jungle that he would remain as fixed in celluloid as a fly in amber, Weissmuller never seemed to care. Quite the contrary. "It was up my alley," he explained. "There was swimming in it, and I didn't have much to say."

Peter John Weissmuller didn't need to say much; swimming was his real language. His five Olympic gold medals, sixty-seven world records, fifty-one national titles, and his anointment by American sportswriters as the swimmer of the first half of the 1900s, not only spoke for him, they continue to frame a remarkable story.

Johnny Weismuller with Swimming Teammates.
Johnny Weissmuller (on left) with teammates on the American Olympic swimming...
It begins with his identity. Was Johnny Weissmuller Johnny Weissmuller or was he actually his younger brother? Throughout his life, Weissmuller maintained he was born in Windber - like his brother - but his real birthplace - in 1904 - was in Freidorf, then in Hungary, now part of Romania. Years later, his parents apparently switched his records with his younger brother's to establish an American origin for Johnny that then satisfied U.S. Olympic Committee nationality requirements. What is certain is that Weissmuller's parents were originally from Austria, and like so many turn-of-the-century opportunity-seekers, immigrated to America in 1907 when their oldest son Johnny was three. Settling in Windber, southeast of Johnstown, Weissmuller's father found work in the coal mines, but soon moved the family west to Chicago, where Johnny went to both parochial and public schools, before dropping out after the eighth grade.

Though he later would mature into a stunningly handsome 6-foot-3 sporting god and matinee idol, young Weissmuller was anything but an Adonis as a kid. In fact, he was so sickly, fragile, and scrawny that the family doctor ordered special diets - and swimming - for his health. The prescription worked. By sixteen, Weissmuller had won his first national swimming title (and, amazingly, had lost the last race of his long competitive career), and by seventeen, he had set his first world records. At eighteen, he crashed a barrier that had been deemed impossible - one minute for the 100-meter freestyle - then picked up his first three Olympic gold medals (plus a bronze as a member of the American water polo team) in Paris at twenty. By the time he turned professional - performing exhibitions and endorsing products - after the Amsterdam games of 1928, he had won enough hardware to stock a home-improvement chain.

Already famous, Weissmuller, to his own surprise, was on the brink of even bigger stardom, simply by being in the right place at the right time. Luck, rather than his gold medals brought him into Hollywood's focus. The year was 1932, and MGM studios was preparing to shoot Tarzan the Ape Man - the first talking Tarzan after several successful silents - based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's classic novel about an abandoned baby raised by apes in the African jungle. All it needed was a star.
Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan Movie, with Boy and Cheeta.
Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), and Boy (Johnny Sheffield),...

Director William S. Van Dyke was having trouble finding the right combination of athleticism and good looks he envisioned for the lead when the picture's writer, Cyril Hume, spotted Weissmuller - then in Los Angeles to promote a line of bathing suits - at the swimming pool of the Hollywood Athletic Club. Hume invited him to test for the role. At the studio, Van Dyke asked the swimmer to strip down to his underwear, which Weissmuller, no stranger to near nakedness, did. "Then," Weissmuller remembered, "They asked me could I climb a tree and I said yes, and they asked could I pick up a girl and walk away with her and I said yes…and that's all there was to the test. I had the part."

Co-starring Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, the movie was an immediate hit, spawning a franchise built around showcasing Weissmuller's agility in and out of water and as much of his beefcake physique as the censors deemed appropriate. After eleven more Tarzan pictures - five for MGM, including Tarzan and His Mate and Tarzan Finds a Son, and another six for RKO - Weissmuller moved to Columbia Pictures in the late 1940s to play an older, more clothed variation of his signature character in the B-movie Jungle Jim pictures, then moved with that character to television, one of the first big movie stars to test the new medium. Weissmuller broke out of the jungle mold only once - in 1946 - as a rehabbing war veteran in Swamp Fire. Although the movie is unmemorable, his co-star Buster Crabbe was another Olympic gold medal swimmer.

After Weissmuller retired from movies in the late 1950s, he returned to Chicago where his name again topped the marquee - of the Johnny Weissmuller Swimming Pool Company. He later became director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, and in the mid-1970s joined former heavyweight champion Joe Louis as a greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Married and divorced six times, Weissmuller died after a series of strokes in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1984.
Back to Top