ACAPULCO, Mexico -- Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medalist who rose to motion picture fame in the role of 'Tarzan,' died in Acapulco Friday, funeral home officials said. He was 79.
Weissmuller died in his Acapulco home at 11:30 Friday night with his wife Maria and his daughter Linda at his side, said Rafael Gomez, the owner and director of the Funeraria Gomez in Acapulco.
Weissmuller had attended a private health center in Acapulco since 1980 for heart problems which also were affecting his brain.
Weissmuller was one of the world's greatest swimming champions and became the chest-beating, loin-clothed king of the jungle in Tarzan movies for two decades.
Weissmuller overcame a polio attack as a youngster and went on to win Gold Medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics before turning to the silver screen and appearing in two score Tarzan films. He never lost a swimming competition.
Weissmuller had a history of heart trouble and was hospitalized in 1973 after fracturing a hip in a fall.
Born in Windber, Pa., June 2, 1904, the hulking, 6-foot-4 John Peter Weissmuller was just a tall, skinny kid when he suffered a polio attack at the age of 9.
'My doctor said I should take up some sort of exercise to build myself up,' Weissmuller recalled. 'I got into a swimming pool at the YMCA and liked it,' he said. 'And I found I had a natural flair for it.'
Working as an elevator boy and bellhop at the Illinois Athletic Club, young Weissmuller met famed swimming coach William Bachrach who turned him into an Olympic competitor.
Weissmuller gained world attention as a swimmer during the 1920s, winning five Gold Medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics and the 1928 games at Amsterdam.
He was hailed by sportswriters as the greatest swimmer of the 20th Century for a decade of competition that saw him win 52 national championships and break 67 world records.
A handsome 200-pounder in 1930, Weissmuller was working out at the Hollywood Athletic Club's pool when he was seen by novelist Cyril Hume, who was writing a screenplay for a Tarzan picture at the time.
After a screen test, the former swimmer became the daring, chest-thumping king of the jungle.
Although there were other Tarzans before and after him, Weissmuller was the most popular, beginning a string of jungle pictures with 'Tarzan the Ape Man' in 1930.
'I went to the back lot at MGM, they gave me a G-string and said, 'Can you climb a tree? Can you pick up that girl?' I could do all that,' Weissmuller recalled.
He made many of the films with Maureen O'Sullivan, who played Tarzan's wife, Jane. The last movie in the series was in 1947, 'Tarzan and the Mermaids.'
Blaming added weight and advancing years for his outgrowing the Tarzan role, Weissmuller formed his own company, John Weissmuller Productions, and in 1948 made the first of his 'Jungle Jim' movies and television shows.
The series had some of the flavor of Tarzan, but Weissmuller had traded his loin cloth for a bush suit and no longer swung through the vines or wrestled crocodiles.
Never reattaining the popularity he had as Tarzan, Weissmuller left acting in the 1950s and formed his own swimming pool company, but the venture had limited success.
Weissmuller experienced a stormy marital life and was married five times, first to showgirl Bobbie Arnst, who divorced him after only 18 months of marriage. His second wife was fiery Mexican actress, Lupe Velez. Their much publicized quarrels, separations and reconciliations also led to divorce in 1939.
He took San Francisco society girl Beryl Scott Ginter for his third wife and they had three children, John Jr., Wendy Ann and Heidi Elizabeth, who was killed in a 1962 traffic accident.
That marriage ended in divorce as did his fourth to golfer Allene Gates in 1962.
In recent years Weissmuller and his fifth wife, Maria, lived in Las Vegas, Nev., where he was a host at Caesars Palace Hotel, until his health began failing. He also helped handicapped children through the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.