Vintage Hunk: Johnny Weissmuller

By: Mike McCrann

When I was growing up in the 50's I used to watch Jungle Jim on TV with former Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller. The show was fun but the aging fat Weissmuller was certainly not a any kind of sex object for a teenager just coming into his sexual (and gay) puberty.

Imagine my surprise when I started watching some of the old MGM Tarzan films on TV made during the 1930s and saw an amazingly sexy and well built Weissmuller swinging through those trees.

Certainly for a decade Johnny W was a sexy, scantily clad jungle man.

Janos Weissmuller was actually born in Hungary in 1904 and came to the United States with his parents. A bout with polio as a child caused little J to start swimming as a means of overcoming his condition. Later Weissmuller became a champion swimmer and won international fame at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics winning 5 Gold Medals. This Olympic fame led to an MGM contract and the start of the famous Tarzan series. Tarzan The Ape Man was the first in 1932 and was such a smash hit that there were 5 more MGM features and eventually 6 additional lower budget versions at RKO. The MGM Tarzan films were funny and exciting with Maureen O'Sullivan (Mia Farrow's Mom) as Jane and later sexy Johnny Sheffield as Boy. Rounding out the cast was Cheeta the loyal Chimp who was devoted to Tarzan. "Me Tarzan, You Jane" was about the most complicated dialog that Johnny W had to muster. Actually he was not much of an actor but his body and famous Tarzan yell were all he needed to make a hit movie series.

After the MGM contract ended, Weissmuller starred with Esther Williams in the Aquacade at the New York World's Fair (1939-40). In her autobiography Williams talks of Big John's constant unsuccessful attempts to seduce her. She also confirms that Big John was indeed Big in every sense of the word. By the time Johnny W hit TV with with Jungle Jim his trim figure was long gone but the show was amusing and kids loved it.

Johnny W was married 5 times and was in a serious health decline when he died in 1984. He was 79 years old. Johnny Weissmuller was never a great star but he obtained screen immortality with his sexy Tarzan films. His movie son Johnny Sheffield later wrote: "I can only say that working with Big John was one of the highlights of my life. He was a star with a capital S and he gave off a special light...Knowing and being with Johnny Weissmuller during my formative years had a lasting influence on my life."