Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Windber, Somerset County
One of the best swimmers of the 20th century, Weissmuller wrote Swimming the American Crawl (1930). He is most known for his starring role in twelve Tarzan movies.
Awards: Olympic Medal, Hollywood Walk of Fame
One of America's first athletes-turned-actors, Johnny Weissmuller was reputedly born in Windber in 1904. He won medals in swimming at the Paris Olympic games of 1924 and at the Amsterdam Games of 1928. He later starred in several Tarzan movies in Hollywood. Weissmuller died in 1984.
Sources debate whether Peter John Weissmuller was born in Windber, Pennsylvania, or in Freidorf, Romania on June 2, 1904. His parents immigrated from Romania to Chicago, Illinois. From 1965 until November 1973, Weissmuller lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with Maria, his last wife, a native of Bavaria. Earlier wives, all who sued for divorce, were Robbe Arnst, a musical comedy actress; Lupe Velez, a Mexican actress; Beryl Scott, a San Francisco socialite who bore his three children, John Scott, Wendy Ann, and Heidi Elizabeth (who died in a car crash at the age of 19 in 1962); and Allene Gates, a golfer from Los Angeles.
Weissmuller dropped out of school in the eighth grade, shortly after the death of his father. The boy learned to swim and attracted the attention of Bill Bachrach, the swimming coach of the Illinois Athletic Club. After turning professional, Weissmuller endorsed bathing suits for a while. Then Hollywood hired him as the screen industry's Tarzan, based on the character created in print by Edgar Rice Burroughs. His first three films included, Tarzan, the Ape Man, in 1932, Tarzan and His Mate, in 1934, and Tarzan Escapes, in 1936.
Later Tarzan films were box-office bonanzas, but the critics wearied of the repetitive plots and Tarzan's stunted diction. In 1949, the 45-year-old Weissmuller's girth expanding and the role was taken over by Lex Barker. Weissmuller began making new films, and later a television series, as Jungle Jim. That work lasted until the late 1950s. Weismuller's film work earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard.
At the Amateur Athletic Union national championship in 1923, he won the freestyle events at 50, 100, 220 and 500 yards and then captured the 150-yard backstroke, cutting six seconds off the world record. He won three of his gold medals at age 20 in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, winning the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyles in Olympic record times of 59 seconds and 5:04.2, and anchoring the 800-meter freestyle relay team that produced a world record of 9:53.2. In the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he won his fourth and fifth gold medals in the 100- meter race and anchoring the 800-meter relay team.
Weissmuller died from a stroke on January 21, 1984 in Acapulco, Mexico at the age of 79. He suffered a series of strokes in 1977 and had a history of heart disease.
Tarzan, the Ape Man. Dir. W.S. Van Dyke. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932.
Tarzan and His Mate. Dir. Cedric Gibbons. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1934.
Tarzan's Secret Treasure. Dir. Richard Thorpe. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1941.
Tarzan's New York Adventure. Dir. Richard Thorpe. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942.
Peter John Weissmuller. The New York Times Company. 22 January 1984. The New York Times. 23 September 2001. <http://web.lexis-nexis.com>. Web address inactive.