Weissmuller turned from pool to jungle loincloth
Posted: Sunday August 8, 2004 10:17PM; Updated: Sunday August 8, 2004 10:17PM
ATHENS, Aug 9 (Reuters) -- One of the most colourful characters in the history of any sport, Johnny Weissmuller was the first man to swim 100 metres in less than a minute during an unbeaten nine-year career.
He set 51 individual world records from 50 to 800 metres, achieved fame outside the pool by making a dozen Tarzan films and still had the energy to acquire five wives.
Weissmuller was born to German Swabian parents in present day Romania in 1904 and emigrated with his parents to the United States four years later.
He learned to swim on the beaches of Lake Michigan, was coached by Bill Bachrach at the Illinois Athletic Club and attracted international attention when he broke the minute barrier in 1922.
At the 1924 Paris Olympics, Weissmuller won three golds and went on to take a further two in Amsterdam four years later.
He fully intended to swim for the United States at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics when fate in the form of the BVD Underwear Company intervened.
An offer of $500 a week to model swimsuits proved impossible to resist at the height of the Great Depression and the Weissmuller torso soon attracted interest in Hollywood.
"One day I was in L.A. and they asked me to do a screen test for Tarzan," Weissmuller recalled. "I ran around in a little bitty loincloth. I climbed a tree.
"I picked up this girl and I carried her around. There was 150 Tarzans trying out. I went back to selling BVD suits.
"Then I got a wire: COME BACK, YOU'RE TARZAN. That's how fast your life changes."
Weissmuller made his debut in "Tarzan, the Ape Man," in 1932, the first of six films with Maureen O'Sullivan. He made six more, concluding with "Tarzan and the Mermaids" in 1948.
He then swapped his loincloth for jungle fatigues and made a series of Jungle Jim television adventures.
Weissmuller made and lost several fortunes and was reduced to working as a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas in the early 1970s.
He suffered a series of strokes in 1977 and died in Acapulco in 1984 while living with his fifth wife Maria.
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