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The Tragic Death of Johnny Weissmuller & His Son (Tarzan of the Jungle)

Johnny Weissmuller was a record-breaking Olympic swimmer. He also rose to fame as the star of at least 11 famous movies starring the beloved ape-man Tarzan. He brought a sense of athleticism and relatability to the role that few could match.

Johnny continued to dazzle fans until his sudden death in 1984. His son, Johnny Weismuller Jr, also died in 2006.

Their careers may have been cut short by medical issues, but they managed to make a major impact while they were here. The Tarzan movies are still the most frequently aired in the history of syndicated TV.

Like and subscribe for more on both of these prolific film actors. Watch our video to learn about the tragic death of Johnny Weismuller from Tarzan of the Jungle and his son.

Johnny Weissmuller’s Death

Johnny Weismuller was always in impeccable shape due to his strict workout regiment. Despite all his efforts, his health began to decline after an accident in 1974. He broke his hip and leg and was diagnosed with a severe heart condition. He also suffered a series of strokes in 1977.

Johnny Weissmuller died on January 20th, 1984 at the age of 79 from a pulmonary edema. He’s survived by his wife Maria, children John, Wendy, and Lisa, and 6 grandchildren.

His Funeral

Johnny was buried at the Valley of the Light Cemetery outside Valle de La Luz in Acapulco. He’d developed a fondness for the country over the years and wanted to be interred there.

The famous Tarzan yell he’d perfected was played 3 times as he was lowered into the ground, just as he’d requested. Senator Ted Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan also arranged a 21-gun salute for him.

Despite the theatrical nature of the ceremony, Johnny’s funeral had few attendees. It’s a bit surprising that such a memorable figure in the world of film and swimming wouldn’t have more family and friends present to honor him after his death.

Approximately 1,500 local residents, most of whom were children, joined a procession of 6 motorcycles to attend the funeral. Even a chimpanzee named Samanta attended. She was the mascot of Acapulco resident Jose Estrada who’d worked as Johnny’s double in a Tarzan movie made in Mexico. She represented his legacy on the film series and the difficult chimpanzees he worked alongside.

Johnny’s wife Maria attended his funeral, but his daughter and other family members were strangely absent. There were no other major Hollywood stars present either.

Johnny Weissmuller’s Life and Career

Janos Johann Peter Weissmuller was born in Freidorf, Romania on June 2, 1904. He and his family arrived at Ellis Island on January 26, 1905, and took a train to Windber, PA to stay with family. His brother was born there in September 1905.

The family moved to Chicago in 1908 to be with Elizabeth’s parents on their farm. Johnny lived in a single-floor shared house 4 blocks from Lincoln Park for the rest of his childhood. Frequent visits to the local zoo gave him an early love of animals, and he even joined a city program that taught him to ride horses bareback.

Johnny attended a private school named St. Micahel’s and was an altar boy there until he switched to public school at age 12. His father abandoned the family around that time, so he left school after 8th grade. He worked as a cook, delivered packages for a church supply company, and sold produce from a cart.

Johnny developed polio as a child, and his doctor recommended he take up swimming to get exercise. He had a natural affinity for the water and went on to win 5 Olympic gold medals as well as 67 world and 52 national titles. He held every freestyle record from 100 yards to the half-mile.

Johnny’s impressive physique earned him a spot modeling underwear and swimsuits for BVD. He went to New York to promote the products in 1929 and earned the part of Adonis in Glorifying the American Girl. His part was eventually cut, but he soon found another role in a short film called Crystal Champions. It was shown in 8000 theaters in the US and over 1000 theaters in Britain.

Scriptwriter Cyril Hume saw Johnny swimming in the pool at the Hollywood Athletic Club that summer. She was immediately taken by him and thought he would be perfect for the upcoming film Tarzan the Ape Man.

Cyril asked him to come in for a screen test, and he immediately got the part. He asked them to shorten his last name. When they found out he was a world-famous swimmer and Olympic champion, they decided to lengthen the marque to fit his whole name and include plenty of swimming in the film.

Filming on Tarzan the Ape Man began on October 31, 1931, and was completed 8 weeks later. It was released in March of 1932 and became one of the top-grossing films of that year. It received plenty of praise from critics and fans, making it his breakout role. 

Johnny became an international sex symbol overnight after Tarzan the Ape Man. Tabloids and magazines were filled with headlines such as “Is this the world’s Perfect Male?” and “Johnny Weissmuller has the World’s Finest Physique.” The press coverage fanned the flames of fan appeal and increased public interest in his work.

Johnny had several small roles throughout his career, but he’s best remembered for playing Tarzan for at least 16 years from 1932-1948. He brought the role to life in at least 11 films, including, Tarzan the Ape Man, Tarzan and His Mate, Tarzan Escapes, Tarzan Finds a Son, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, Tarzan’s New York Adventure, Tarzan’s Triumphs, Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, Tarzan and the Amazons, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, Tarzan and the Huntress, and Tarzan and the Mermaids.

Johnny invented the character’s signature yell, and it’s still used in films today that feature the iconic character. He based it on yodeling he’d heard in the German community of Chicago where he grew up and the opera he watched with his mother.

A variety of factors allowed Johnny to remain a massive star. They included his perfect physique, love of animals, ability to do his own stunts, and expert comedic timing.

Television brought the Tarzan films to an international audience. They now stand as the most broadcast movies of all time.

Johnny also made 16 Jungle Jim films starting in 1948. after the Tarzan franchise ended. He retired from acting in 1957 but never stopped working. He partnered in various business ventures and performed for fans in water shows throughout the 1950s.

Like and subscribe for more on the greatest classic movie stars of all time. Keep watching to learn about Johnny’s lifelong search for love and the tragic deaths of his children.

Relationships

Johnny’s looks and fame made it easy for him to begin relationships, but he occasionally had trouble keeping them. He was married 5 times throughout his life.

Johnny met actress and singer Bobbe Arnts and married her in 1931 after only 2 weeks of dating. They were divorced on October 6, 1933. MGM allegedly bribed them to split up because Johnny was so popular with female viewers.

After the divorce, he dated Lupe Velez, one of the world’s first Latina film stars. He claimed to be a “ready-made fool” who fell madly in love with her despite her reputation as an emotionally unstable party girl. They were married in October 1933 and had a tumultuous 5-year relationship.

The couple’s divorce was finalized in August of 1939. Despite their struggles, they remained friends until she died from an overdose in 1944. He was even a pallbearer at her funeral and expressed his distress after the sudden loss.

Johnny married his third wife Beryl Scott on August 20, 1939. They were legally separated until their divorce was finalized in January 1948. He made sure to stay present in the lives of their 3 children, Johnny Weismeller Jr, Wendy Anne, and Heidi Elizabeth.

Johnny’s 4th wife was Alleen Gates. They were married from January 29, 1948, to 1963.

Johnny married his 5th and final wife Maria Bauman Mandell in March of 1963. They met at a charity luncheon a few years earlier. They were both married at the time and struck up a platonic friendship until they were both single again. He legally adopted her daughter Gunda Elisabeth, who they called Lisa. The couple was married for 21 years until Johnny’s death.

Johnny Weismeller Jr.

Johnny Weissmuler Jr. was born on September 23, 1940, in San Fransico, California. He was the first child of Johnny Weissmuller Sr. and his 3rd wife Beryl.

He developed an early interest in acting like his father. His career may not have been as successful, but it did come with a wider variety of roles.

Johnny Jr. made his film debut in 1958 at the age of 18 in Andy Hardy Comes Home. He briefly joined the navy as part of an underwater demolition team. After that, he returned to Hollywood and earned roles in a series of TV westerns, including Sugarfoot, The Lawman, Death Valley Days, Wagon Train, and Gunsmoke.

He also found work in the 70s on episodes of The Streets of San Fransico. He even appeared in stage productions such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His other credits include THX 1138, American Graffiti, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, Magnum Force, and Wildfire.

Johnny Jr. also appeared in a range of documentaries about his famous father, including The Search for Tarzan, Investigating Tarzan, The One, the Only, the Real Tarzan, and Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle. He even co-authored a biography with Bill Reed titled Tarzan: My Father.

Johnny Weissmuler Jr. died of cancer on July 27, 2006 at the age of 65. He’s survived by his wife Diane, 2 children, and 4 grandchildren.

This wasn’t Johnny Weismeller Sr.’s first experience with tragically losing a child. His daughter Heidi and her unborn child both died in a car crash on November 19, 1962. He reportedly never got over the traumatic experience.

Johnny Weismuller began his life by breaking records in Olympic-level swimming and eventually had an equally powerful effect by perfecting the character of Tarzan and his signature yell. He enjoyed the trappings of fame but his family was no stranger to tragedy, including the loss of his son Johnny Weissmuller Jr.

Have you seen any of Johhny’s 11 Tarzan movies yet? Let us know in the comments below. Like and subscribe for more details about the most athletic film stars of all time.

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