‘Twice the Hero is the story of one of the absolute best and most decorated swimmers of all time, and of the man who became the most well known and beloved ‘Tarzans’ of the Silver Screen.
Born on June 2, 1904, in a region of what is now modern day Romania, Weissmuller’s parents immigrated to Windber, Pa., where his 15-month-old younger brother Peter was born. By 1908, the family moved to a farm on the outskirts of Chicago with Johnny’s mother’s parents.
The Weissmuller boys loved to swim and did so whenever and wherever they were able. Though one needed to be 12 years old, Johnny, being tall for his 11 years, managed to join a local YMCA and eventually became a champion Y swimmer in the Chicago area. At age 15, he was invited to join another local swim club. After a few months, he was given an opportunity to try out for the legendary coach Big Bill Bachrach at the Illinois Athletic Club.
This was October of 1920. Over the next year, Bachrach would teach his raw talented swimmer how to relax in the water, how to kick properly and how to swim over the water with his head held high. Over the coming months, Johnny swam in some interclub meets gaining experience on how to race.
From August 6, 1921 until his retirement from amateur completion in January of 1929, Weissmuller won 52 National Championships, and set 67 World Records and more than 100 American Records from the 50 yard to the 500 yard Freestyle events. His Olympic career was outstanding, winning the 100 and 400 meter Freestyle events in Paris, 1924 both in Olympic record time and anchoring the World Record setting 4x200 USA relay team.
Four years later in Amsterdam, he broke his own Olympic record in the 100 and again anchored a World Record effort in the 4x200 relay. He most likely would have defended his 400 title had he entered the race. Instead, he gave way to teammate Arne Borg from Sweden while Johnny himself had a place on the USA water polo team that failed to medal.
When Weissmuller retired from competition, he had never been beaten in a Freestyle race.
After his swimming career as a competitor, Johnny would go on to numerous endeavors but never far from the water he so loved. While at the 1924 Games, he and diving teammate Stubby Kruger developed a comedy diving routine that they honed over the years and would become an exhibition success in many Water Shows over the years most notably the Billy Rose Aquacades in Cleveland ‘37, New York ‘39 and the Golden Gate Exhibition in 1940.
Beyond the Olympics and the many records and awards Johnny Weissmuller was to receive, the most outstanding aquatic career step of his life began in the later part of 1931. While swimming laps at the Hollywood Athletic Club — Johnny swam nearly every day of his life — a screen writer at MGM, named Cyril Hume, noticed Johnny.
Hume was assigned to write a script for a new jungle adventure, Tarzan, the Ape Man, based on the fictional works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. After a brief screen test, where he got the part, Johnny Weissmuller would go on to star as Tarzan in a total of 12 big screen films including the first six with the starlet Maureen O’Sullivan over a period of 17 years.
A new character was created and from 1948-1954, Weissmuller stared as Jungle Jim in 13 films and then in 23 episodes of the Jungle Jim television series from 1955-56. A total of 34 films to his credit and numerous television cameo appearances.
‘Twice the Hero’ is defined by Weissmuller’s’ aquatic and Tarzan/Jungle Jim careers. Author David Fury gives us a detailed biography that includes Johnny’s personal life through the years, as well. Married five times to five different women, four of these relationships ended in divorce, (he was married to Maria Bauman for the last 20 years of his life).
Fury also writes of Johnny’s mother, his children (including the tragic early death of his daughter), and his many friendships over the years with the likes of John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and many, many others. Johnny was considered one of the top celebrity golfers in his day often shooting in the low 70s.
Johnny Weissmuller was voted the Greatest Swimmer of the first half of the 20th Century chosen by The Associated Press and the Sportswriters of America. Among those other athletes so honored for their respective achievements were Babe Ruth-Baseball, Jack Dempsey-Boxer, Jesse Owen-Track & Field, Bobby Jones-Golf, Bill Tilden-Tennis, Babe Didrikson Zaharias-Greatest Female Athlete, George Mikan-Basketball & Jim Thorpe-Duel Honors of Greatest Football player and Greatest Male Athlete.
All things considered Johnny Weissmuller was arguably more famous than the combined celebrity of Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps (taking nothing away from their achievements). Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) was known and loved throughout the world.