Somebody was knocking at the door, and for Johnny Weissmuller, nursing a headache in a Chattanooga motel room, it resounded like a hundred jungle drums thump-thumping at once. Weissmuller drew himself heavily from his chair and opened the door. Before him stood half a dozen children. "Are you really Tarzan?" demanded their spokesman, a gum-chomping boy who barely came to Weissmuller's belt buckle. Weissmuller nodded and the children began to chant, more or less together, "Tarzan, give us your elephant call, your elephant call."
Wincing, Weissmuller put a hand over his eyes and peered through his fingers at the children. The headache that bothered him was the legacy of a convivial time in Jacksonville, Fla., where earlier that same morning he had finished two hectic days of personal appearances. Now, besieged by children in a motel room in another strange city, Weissmuller was not at all looking forward to a weekend of signing more autographs, shaking more hands and exchanging more pleasantries, this time with the good people of Chattanooga.
He would, of course, somehow summon the strength. For on this warm, pleasant Tennessee day, exactly two months before his 64th birthday, after nearly 40 years as a national phenomenon, Johnny Weissmuller could still pride himself on his ability to withstand the most severe physical challenge, let alone a headache. Cut in the larger-than-life mold of his old Hollywood pal John Wayne, Weissmuller has always been the man of action, the nature boy, the noblest savage, the big bruiser. He was the athlete chosen by the Associated Press in 1950 as the greatest swimmer of the half century, the kind of superlative that nobody, least of all Weissmuller himself, ever wasted on his subsequent career as Hollywood's Tarzan. "The public forgives my acting because they know I was an athlete," he says. 'They know I wasn't make-believe, like a lot of actors."
Thus forgiven, Weissmuller survives today as a pop-culture hero, one worthy of having been included in such company as Aldous Huxley, Marlene Dietrich and Lawrence of Arabia in the famous montage adorning the jacket of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. As a symbol of high camp (a term whose meaning he recently admitted he did not know), he was a guest of honor last spring at a Tarzan film festival at Yale, an event that came to an abrupt and ignominious end when black students, taking exception to the movie's portrayal of wide-eyed African natives, blocked the showing of Weissmuller's first film, Tarzan, the Ape Man.
If Weissmuller remains inseparably identified with Tarzan today, it may be because he does nothing to discourage it. On the contrary, one of his favorite everyday expressions is "Umgawa," which he defines as Tarzanese for "Let's get the hell out of here," and at home in Fort Lauderdale he cannot so much as kill a spider without declaring, "The mighty hunter, that's me." To three generations of moviegoers, Weissmuller was the bare-chested guy who swooped through the trees performing good and difficult deeds, and he is universally thought of the same way today, even though, as he recently observed, "Most of my fans were kids when they first saw me, and they're people now."
As far as Weissmuller is concerned, the young fans who clamored for his elephant call outside the motel room will probably never qualify for the latter category. At first he tried to resist their demands by means of a diversionary action. He withdrew into his room, returning with a handful of 8 x 10 glossies of his younger self clad in a breechcloth. The kids grabbed the photos but, instead of departing, they stood their ground. "Your elephant call," they persisted. "Your elephant call." Finally, in partial surrender, Weissmuller issued a perfunctory little cry.
As calls of the wild go, it was sadly dispirited. But the children, delighted with themselves at having extracted even that much, pleaded for more. "Oh no, nothing doing," replied Weissmuller in his oddly high-pitched voice. "I've got to go to work now." He shooed the children into the hallway and shut the door.
Scarcely an hour later Weissmuller was in the Chattanooga Memorial Auditorium, true to his word, at work. Exhibits for the city's fourth annual Home Show, an exposition featuring such household objects as woodburning fireplaces, circular bathtubs and electric organs, were spread over two floors, and Weissmuller was appearing in a booth in a basement area that had been the garage back when the auditorium was built in 1922. That was about the same time Weissmuller burst into public view with the first of the 67 world swimming records he was to set, and over the years both the building and the man had undergone remodeling.
In Weissmuller's case, the biggest remodeling job involved his hair, which would be snow-white today except that, as he freely admits, he has long since taken to dyeing it, his current preference being a convincing henna. Something else that has come in for alteration is his waistline. In 1948, after 16 years as Tarzan, Weissmuller literally outgrew that part and began playing the role, fully clothed, of the white hunter Jungle Jim. Lately, diet pills have helped pare his weight from 250 to 220, but he remains sensitive about his girth.