Tarzan: Johnny Weissmuller (2)

Continued from Tarzan: Johnny Weissmuller (1).

First Film Roles

So how did the boy from Banat, Pennsylvania, and Chicago end up in the jungles of MGM and RKO? Weissmuller’s first film role was set in the jungle of New York’s Broadway. On the basis of his Olympic fame, he did a cameo as a lightly clad Adonis in a Florenz Ziegfield production called Glorifying the American Girl (1929). Weissmuller was just one in a large array of famous personalities of the time portraying themselves in this chorus girl musical revue, and one of the first talkies ever made. Around the same time, the popular swimmer got a lucrative contract as a model for BVD swimwear (with the help of coach Bacharach).

book cover

The first “authorized” biography by Narda Onyx.

Narda Onyx’s book about Weissmuller, “the authorized biography” was published in 1964, 20 years before his death. Water, World & Weissmuller is out of print but available from Amazon and used-book sellers. Although riddled with errors to the extent of largely being a work of fiction, the work is a highly desired item among Tarzan fans, collectors, and researchers. Estonian-born Narda Onyx (1931-1991) was also a film actress.

In 1931 Cyril Hume, an MGM screenwriter, spotted the future Tarzan swimming in the pool of the Hollywood Athletic Club. Weissmuller thus became one of several candidates selected to audition for the leading role in MGM’s first Tarzan film. On October 12, 1931 Louis B. Mayer and Irving G. Thalberg, MGM’s production supervisor (and of German-Jewish background), signed the charming 27-year-old ex-Olympian to a seven-year contract. His first picture would be Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932). It was for this first Tarzan sound film that Weissmuller invented the apeman’s famous call of the wild.

Interview with Johnny Weissmuller Jr.
The author of Tarzan, My Father talks about his book and his father.

Even Tarzan’s trademark yell has a German connection. According to his son, Johnny Weissmuller Jr., dad’s invention of Tarzan’s melodious cry was influenced by the yodeling of his German neighbors. Weissmuller himself claimed he was a yodeling champion as a youth. (Both tales were probably invented by Weissmuller – something he did in many other cases.) MGM nevertheless felt the need to augment Weissmuller’s yowl with various animal sounds. The Weissmuller-MGM sound blend was even dubbed in for later actors who couldn’t match that wondrous Weissmuller warble. (There was also a second version for the RKO Tarzan films.) But the actor was known to do a pretty good live version of the Tarzan cry on occasion. Whatever the facts, Weissmuller was proud of his Tarzan yell. A recording of it was played at his funeral in Acapulco.

Personal Problems

Jungle Jim

Johnny Weissmuller traded in his Tarzan loincloth for a “Jungle Jim” outfit in 16 films.

Weissmuller’s personal life did not run as smoothly as his Olympic and film careers. The former athlete and movie star was out of his element when it came to business and handling money. After the movie days, his financial situation was always precarious. His so-called financial manager, Bö [“boo”] Christian Roos, took advantage of Weissmuller, although Johnny shared some blame. Roos also mismanaged the finances of other Hollywood stars, John Wayne and Red Skelton among them. They and Weissmuller mistakenly trusted Bö Roos, learning too late that their trust meant financial ruin. Once described as “the sort of man that once you shook his hand you wanted to take a shower,” Roos somehow avoided being sued or going to jail. Johnny’s good friend John Wayne, far less forgiving than Johnny, wanted to sue Roos, but his investigators failed to turn up the solid proof of fraud a lawsuit would require. (Bö’s daughter, Carolyn Roos Olsen, wrote a book (Hollywood’s Man Who Worried for the Stars) about her father that largely justifies his practices.)

Of his five marriages four ended in divorce. The public strife with wife number two, “Mexican spitfire” Lupe Velez, to whom he was married from 1933 to 1938, was a hot topic in the fan magazines of the time. His eight-year marriage to Beryl Scott produced three children, including Johnny Jr. (John Scott), but they got a Reno divorce in 1948. On the same day as his divorce, Johnny married Allene Gates who would prove to be a good mother to her stepchildren. Weissmuller’s last wife had her own German connection, but the full story of Maria Gertrude Baumann (1921-2004) is hard to pin down. Attempts by various people to clarify her background, even while she was still alive, largely came up empty.


Johnny and his wife Maria were interviewed on German TV in 1971, mostly in German. The chimpanzee (from a German zoo) later stole the show when he grabbed Maria’s blonde wig and tossed it on the floor. PHOTO: ZDF
View the video of Frau Weissmüllers Begegnung mit Cheeta.

All that is known for sure is that Maria was born in Germany, and she had relatives in Bavaria. According to Franz Baumann, when he was a child in Straubing, Weissmuller and Maria visited the Baumann family in Bavaria on two occasions. Whatever her true background may have been, it is a fact that she was married to Weissmuller from 1963 until his death in 1984. Johnny may have been attracted to Maria in part because of a common Germanic background.

During the last decade of their 21-year marriage, the longest of his five, Johnny’s health was poor, as was his financial situation. Johnny and Maria moved to Acapulco, Mexico in 1979. Weissmuller had suffered a stroke in Los Angeles in 1977 and had not been in very good health since a fall back in 1973. After several years in Mexico, Weissmuller died at his home in Acapulco on January 20, 1984. – For more about Weissmuller in Acapulco and his final resting place see Tarzan in Acapulco.

Johnny Weissmuller’s Five Wives
Listed with (dates of marriage):

  1. Bobbe Arnst (1931-1932) – Johnny’s first marriage, to this former nightclub singer, was also his shortest. Arnst was paid $10,000 by MGM as a reward for divorcing Johnny in 1932. The studio preferred Johnny single for publicity purposes, but it really wasn’t that simple. MGM drove a wedge between the pair, and the alluring Lupe Velez had already entered the picture.
  2. Lupe Velez (1933-1938, b. Maria Guadalupe Velez de Villalobos) – Known as the “Mexican spitfire,” her reputation for bedding every co-star she ever worked with, and her paranoia did not help the marriage. They were married in secret on Oct. 8, 1933 by a judge in Las Vegas, where Lupe was filming a movie. Even though she often drove him crazy, Johnny remained fond of Lupe after their divorce, and he was devastated when she committed suicide in 1944.
  3. Beryl Scott (1939-1948) – Scott, a San Francisco socialite, was the mother of Johnny’s three children. Reno was the site of Johnny’s Jan. 29, 1948 divorce from Scott. That same day he married wife No. 4 at the Donner Trail Ranch in nearby Verdi, Nevada. (“It was not unusual for a wedding to take place immediately following the divorce of one or both of the newlyweds.” – www.verdihistory.org)
  4. Allene Gates (1948-1962) – Gates was a golfer and a non-swimmer half Johnny’s age. According to Tarzan, My Father, she was Johnny’s best wife and became the mother that Johnny Jr. always wanted. They married at the Donner Trail Ranch near Reno immediately following Johnny’s divorce from wife No. 3 (above). They separated officially on July 28, 1961 when Johnny moved out of their Lorenzo Dr. home, before their divorce in 1962.
  5. Maria Gertrude Baumann (1963 until Weissmuller’s death in 1984) – German by birth, Baumann was probably born in Berlin (according to German media), but she had a great-nephew named Franz Baumann in Waldkirchen, Bavaria (near Passau). She and Johnny were living in Acapulco when he died. Twenty years later, in 2004, she was buried beside Johnny in the Valley of Light Cemetery in Acapulco. This was Johnny’s longest-lasting marriage. See Tarzan in Acapulco for more.

Note: There is no record of Weissmuller ever being married to Camille Louier/Lanier, often listed as his first wife.

Tarzan Trivia
For a full filmography of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies and all the Tarzan pictures, see our Tarzan Movies page.

  • THE TARZAN NAME: “Tarzan” means “white skin” (tar = white; zan = skin). The German name of the actor best remembered as Tarzan, Weissmüller, means “wheat/white miller.” “Weiss” – in addition to meaning “white” – may also refer to Weizen (wheat), called “Weisz” in some dialects.
  • TARZANA, CALIFORNIA: In 1919 Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs moved to an immense 540-acre ranch in southern California’s San Fernando Valley which he named Tarzana. Today Tarzana is a mostly residential community in Los Angeles on the site of the former ranch. Burroughs was forced to sell his vast Tarzana estate to suburban subdividers in the 1960s. See Tarzana – Wikipedia.
  • BOOK VS FILMS: Not one of the many original Tarzan stories written by Burroughs was ever filmed as a sound movie! Although some of the silent features were based on Burroughs’ books, all of the Tarzan movies, from 1932 on, were original screenplays based only loosely on the jungle character that Burroughs created. Looking at some of those films, one can’t help but wonder if it might not have been a much better idea to use some of the original works!
  • UNGAWA: The movie-Tarzan’s favorite utterance, “Ungawa” (also spelled “Umgawa” and several other ways), was the invention of MGM screenwriter Cyril Hume (and Weissmuller discoverer). For his books, Burroughs created a complete ape language. Hume, who adapted Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) for the screen, reduced Tarzan’s language abilities considerably by inventing the all-purpose command “Ungawa,” which could mean up, down, halt or go. Over the years Johnny Weissmuller frequently uttered the term as a sign-off following interviews. (For more about the ERB’s Language of the Great Apes see the Ape-English Dictionary (by Ed Stephan) and the Illustrated Dell Comica ERB Ape-English Dictionary from ERBzine.org (Bill and Sue-On Hillman).
  • TARZAN’S YELL: Weissmuller’s famous Tarzan yell was heard in other MGM Tarzan movies in which he did not appear. A different yell was used in the RKO films, including those with Weissmuller. The yell was based on the Austrian/Alpine yodeling that Johnny had picked up from German-speaking community in Chicago. – Comedienne Carol Burnett is known for her own Tarzan yell, which she would perform on request during her TV comedy sketch series. The Tarzan yell also has been used for comedic effect in various film and television productions, including Chewbacca in Star Wars.
  • NO RESIDUALS: Weissmuller made all of his motion pictures and television series before it was common for actors to receive residuals or earn a percentage of a film’s profits. Although the studios and producers (most notably Sol Lesser) made millions of dollars from re-releases of Johnny’s films, he never received a dime from that. His later years would have been much more comfortable if he had been able to earn money from the recycling of his Tarzan and Jungle Jim work.
  • CHEETA: Although several chimpanzees appeared as Cheeta in various Tarzan films, the chimp character was an invention of the filmmakers. No chimpanzees appear in the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Tarzan’s monkey companion Nkima appears in several of the later books.) Several different chimps were used during the shooting of any particular picture. Cheeta-Mike (aka Org) supposedly lived to be 80 before he died in 2011, but there is some doubt as to Org’s age and whether he actually appeared in Tarzan films in the ’30s and ’40s. Jiggs, the first chimp to play Cheeta, died in 1938. In recent years Johnny Weissmuller Jr. and others have made unsuccessful efforts to secure a star for Cheeta on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. – Sidenote: A cheetah is a type of wildcat. The Tarzan chimp’s name is Cheeta (no h).
  • ME TARZAN: The most famous words never spoken: Next to “Play it again, Sam” (never spoken in Casablanca), the honor should go to “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” a line never heard in any Tarzan film.

My thanks in particular to Diane and Johnny Weissmuller Jr. for their generous assistance in the first (2006) update and following updates of our Weissmuller pages. Also thanks to Caryl Traugott and Geoff St. Andrews – both well-informed Weissmuller fans and writers – for their previous help in verifying and collecting many elusive biographical details. Thanks in large part to these people, this page has some of the most accurate biographical information on Weissmuller currently available. Also see Geoff St. Andrews’ “Tarzan” Page. – HF

New York Times > Obituary: Johnny Weissmuller (1984, with incorrect birthplace)

Next | Tarzan in Acapulco

Related Pages

“TARZAN” BIOGRAPHIES from Amazon.com


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