Tarzan: My Father – Interview

A Conversation with Johnny Weissmuller Jr.

Johnny Weissmuller Jr. dead at age 65. Not long after this interview, it was with great sadness that we noted the death of Tarzan’s son, Johnny Weissmuller Jr. (John Scott Weissmuller), on July 28, 2006 in the San Francisco hospital where he was born in 1940. (See the full obituary below.) Please read the interview below to learn more about his productive life.

IINTERVIEW

caption

Johnny Weissmuller Jr. congratulates the winner of a triathlon event in Timisoara, Romania during a European book tour in 2004 for Tarzan, My Father. PHOTO by Constantin Dumitra, courtesy Johnny Weissmuller Jr.

In January 2006 I had a question about a Johnny Weissmuller biographical detail that I felt only his son could answer. I contacted Johnny Weissmuller Jr. through his publisher, and he kindly answered my question in a phone conversation. I had also read his book and liked it, so I asked him if he would be willing to do an interview about his book, and he graciously agreed to do the interview below.
HF

The German Way: What made you decide to write Tarzan, My Father? Was there any particular event that told you, “Now is the time.”?

Johnny Weissmuller Jr.: I think the newspaper accounts of his death [in 1984]. They were so full of misstatements and myths. He deserved better.

GW: I know you spent almost two decades gathering material for the book. What was the most interesting part of your research?

JWJ: The discovery that he was not an American citizen at the time he competed in the Olympics. Unbelievable that grandma and he could hatch such a plot. None of his wives were ever aware of it.

MORE at THE GERMAN WAY
Review: Tarzan, My Father
Our review of Johnny Weissmuller Jr.’s Tarzan, My Father.

GW: In the process of writing your book you must have learned a few new things about your father. What stands out? What new aspects about your dad did you discover?

JWJ: Other than his citizenship, his turbulent life with Maria, his financial irresponsibility, and never talking about his children.

caption

On a rainy day in Romania, Johnny Weissmuller Jr. holds up his father’s swim top from the Illinois Athletic Club, where “Tarzan” began his swimming career. “It is old and I was concerned about transporting it, but it is in remarkably good shape,” says Johnny junior. He and his wife were in Romania in 2004 to help promote the Romanian edition of his book and to visit his father’s birthplace.
PHOTO by Constantin Dumitra, courtesy Johnny Weissmuller Jr.

GW: In the book you were very frank about the bad as well as the good. What for you is the most important thing you want readers of your book to learn about your father?

JWJ: He was a wonderful human being but flawed by the absence of a father figure. He was loyal to a fault, trusting many he shouldn’t have. Fun-loving and irrepressible in his hope that things would turn out for the best. An unsurpassed athlete.

GW: In 2004 you and your wife traveled to Germany and Romania for Tarzan/Weissmuller ceremonies. Sometimes it seems your father is better remembered outside the US than in America. What was that like for you?

JWJ: We already knew how little the US cares for its sports icons. When they’re gone there is little recognition. The average sports fan nowadays doesn’t realize who my father ever was. Europe has more of a sense of history. The museum exhibit in Ulm, Germany and the Triathlon in Timisoara, Romania were huge events, enormous media coverage. It was wonderful to see where he grew up. Legends about him still persist. Unfortunately, many of them were burst when it was discovered he had immigrated at age three. They had him performing magnificent feats in his youth. He gave the oppressed populace hope in those trying times. The late Pope John Paul knew all about him and blessed the book, thanks to Sister Mary Catherine Espina of the Vatican. We attended a private audience when a friend of ours was married there in September 2003.

GW: How did it happen that the pope blessed a copy of the book?

JWJ: We were attending an audience with Pope John Paul, sitting with a group of Filipino nuns who recognized me. My wife Diane showed them the book. It was uncomfortably warm so I wanted to leave. Sister Mary Espina took the book from me and said, not until his Eminence blesses it. You don’t argue with a nun. We waited. We have since been corresponding with her. She is good to have around with my present health issues. Johnny was “the man” in the Philippines. Still is.

GW: Your book has been out since 2002. What kind of response have you received from readers in the U.S. and around the world?

JWJ: Very favorable. The only critical comment was from David Fury. I think he was embarassed because his own book [Twice the Hero] was flawed; he was misled by some of his sources.

GW: Any favorite reactions to your book?

JWJ: I think my book is a blueprint of how not to manage your life. I have had many people say it has changed their lives, that they wished it had been available when they were in their early teens. My father and I were very close. No one ever took that away from us. I was always his favorite person and he was mine.

GW: Thank you very much for this interview.

NOTE: Only five months after this interview, Johnny Weissmuller Jr. died in San Francisco at the age of 65. See his obituary below for more.


Johnny Weissmuller Jr. Obituary

caption

Johnny Weissmuller Jr. first published this personal biography of his famous father in 2002. It has since been updated. Read our review.

Johnny Weissmulller Jr., son of the legendary Olympic swimmer who gained screen fame as the best-known “Tarzan” actor, died at 65 of liver cancer July 28 at California Pacific Medical Center – where he was born on September 23, 1940.

He was the son of Johnny Weissmuller Sr. and Beryl Scott, the third of Weissmuller’s five wives (1939-1948). The Weissmullers lived in San Francisco while he appeared in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, but soon moved back to Hollywood; they separated in 1943, and Weissmuller Jr. was raised by his mother in Santa Monica during the tumultuous years of his parents’ separation and divorce. For many years he rarely saw his father, but they reunited when he was a teenager, and often traveled together to various homes in California and Mexico. Weissmuller Sr. died in 1984 and is buried in Acapulco.

Weissmuller Jr. was educated in Los Angeles at the Harvard Military Academy and University High School and graduated from Hamilton High. He attended both UCLA and USC on swimming scholarships, having inherited his father’s love and talent for swimming. In 1958 he joined the Navy, specializing in underwater demolition.

During his school and Navy years, he appeared in a number of supporting roles in movies (THX 138, Magnum Force, American Graffiti), television (Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Streets of San Francisco) and on stage (We’re No Angels, Bus Stop, The Hairy Ape, Mr. Roberts).

He moved to the Bay Area in 1973 where he became a longshoreman and continued acting; his most memorable role was as Chief Bromden in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which he played for three and a half years at the Little Fox Theater in San Francisco. He also met Diane Jones, “the love of my life,” whom he married in 1979 aboard the yacht Santana; they have lived in San Francisco for 30 years.

An accomplished sailor, he often crewed on yacht races, including the TransPac from San Francisco to Hawaii.

In 2002 he wrote Tarzan, My Father (ECW Press), a memoir of life with his father and their Hollywood days. He retired as a longshoreman in 2005, and was working on a book about his dockworking days when he was diagnosed with cancer. Although he underwent cancer treatments, he still managed to take some memorable trips, including one to Germany and Romania in 2005 [actually in 2004] for festivals celebrating his father’s 100th birthday; he also participated in the Gumball Auto Rally in May. He and wife Diane recently appeared in the award-winning documentary, “G.I. Jesus.”

Always involved with his father’s legacy, he was working on the recovery of some lost Olympic swimming medals for the Swimming Hall of Fame, as well as trying to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for their old pal Cheeta – the remarkable 74-year-old chimpanzee, who starred in a dozen “Tarzan” movies (one of Weissmuller’s recent get-well cards was an abstract oil painting from Cheeta). [Several chimps appeared as Cheeta. Cheeta-Mike (Org) died in 2011. Jiggs, the first chimp to play Cheeta, died in 1938. – Ed.]

He is survived by his wife Diane of San Francisco; his daughter Heidi Medsker of Denver and four grandchildren; his sister Wendy Weissmuller of Scotts Valley; his nephews Adam and Nathan Penniman of Santa Cruz, and Allene Weissmuller McClelland of Lake Arrowhead.

At his request, there will be no service; his ashes will be scattered in Acapulco. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the California Pacific Medical Center, Department of Transplantation (Attn: Jeffrey Miller, Director), 2351 Clay Street, San Francisco 94115.

More | Tarzan: Johnny Weissmuller

Related Pages
AT THE GERMAN WAY

“TARZAN” BIOGRAPHIES from Amazon.com

ON THE WEB

Legal Notice: We are not responsible for the content of external links.