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Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in 19 movies, is interviewed at Wiesbaden, Germany, in October, 1971.

Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in 19 movies, is interviewed at Wiesbaden, Germany, in October, 1971. (Joe Wesley / ©S&S)

WIESBADEN (S&S) — Tarzan's blood-curdling jungle cry was originally in Austrian yodel, says Johnny Weissmuller, the man who created it.

In Germany on a promotional tour, Weissmuller recalled here Friday how he had been told to improve a yell shortly after he became the first man to play Tarzan in a talking movie. Before Weissmuller, Tarzan had been played by Elmo Lincoln in the silents.

"My parents came from Vienna and after I was born in Chicago I learned to yodel at German picnics," Weissmuller said, in an accent that often resembles Mayor Richard Daley's.

"So I cupped my hands over my mouth and yodeled like this," and with that, in the lobby of a Wiesbaden hotel, Weissmuller gave a subdued distinctly melodious version of cry that has been heard around the world.

It was just one of an hour of anecdotes Weissmuller, 66, told about himself as he sat accompanied by his fourth wife, Maria, his European manager, a local theatrical agent and Miss Mallorca, Heide Marie Kroll.

He tried out for the role of Tarzan in 1930 because that was the only way he could get inside the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios to visit some actor friends, he explained. At the time Weissmuller, already famous as a swimmer who had won five gold medals in the Olympics in the 1920s, was making $500 a week as a traveling promoter for a newly established line of bathing suits manufactured by the company that made BVD underwear.

"I knew Wally Beery and Greta Garbo and Clark Gable and wanted to visit them while I was in Hollywood. Metro wouldn't let me inside. A guy standing out front said if I wanted, to get in I should go to a side entrance and join the line of people trying out for a Tarzan role.

"So I tried out: They asked me to run, swim and pick up a 'Jane' in both arms and that was it. They gave me a meal ticket for the commissary, which is all I wanted in the first place.

"A week or so later they offered me the part at $75 a week. They finally agreed to match what I was already making. But when the first Tarzan movie made $20 million I went right to the William Morris agency in New York which got me a $1,000 a week contract."

Weissmuller made 19 Tarzan movies before being succeeded by Lex Barker, whom he never could teach to swim properly, he says. Later he went on to make the Jungle Jim series for television. Since then Tarzan has become famous all over the world. Weissmuller says he still gets fan mail from Russia and China.

"Originally, we'd imitate jungle language in the movies by just talking plain English backwards," he said. "That worked fine until we showed one movie in Norway where whatever it was one of us said, it meant something really dirty in Norwegian.

"So, Metro went right out and brought two African chieftains to Hollywood to teach us Swahili. Did they have a ball."

Despite Weissmuller's film success he has found himself in the past in the same financial difficulties so many other often-married stars have. He seems to find it easier to explain himself in terms of Tarzan's personality.

"I blew a million; I'm gonna blow another. There's this scene in 'Tarzan Goes to New York,'" Weissmuller continued by way of illustration. "They've captured my son and taken him there and when I ask how to get to New York to find him I'm told `You need lots of clothes and money there,' and I say, `Money? What's that?' "

Weissmuller is better off financially these days, and he's in the pink physically, keeping in shape by swimming every day and playing lots of golf. He and his wife, a native of Berlin whom he met in the United States, have just moved into a new home in Titusville, Fla., opposite Cape Kennedy. He has five grandchildren.

In addition to a couple of television performances, while in Germany, Weissmuller will visit the Olympic stadium in Munich, including its swimming pool, before leaving Germany Wednesday.

Weissmuller, who didn't learn to swim until he was 12, is skeptical of German attempts to teach infants to swim. He says the chlorinated water will make them need glasses in later life.

Weissmuller still works out with the U.S. water polo team as an unofficial coach, but concedes age has taken a slight toll.

"Most of the time when I blow my whistle to coach them on something, it's really so I can get a rest."

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