Olympian and Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller: Cheered on by the Cuban Revolution

ohara shef weissmuller sheet
Maureen O’hara, John Sheffield, Johnny Weissmuller and Cheeta

Johnny Weissmuller won five gold medals in swimming over two Olympics in Paris (1924) and Amsterdam (1928). But Weissmuller became globally famous after he was recruited by Hollywood to act out on film the iconic Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ character, Tarzan.

In 1958, Weissmuller had essentially retired from acting and was enjoying the life of renowned Hollywood celebrity, and was playing at a celebrity golf tournament in one of the hotspots for American celebrities – Havana, Cuba. As this article from The Smithsonian explains, “by the 1950s Cuba was playing host to celebrities like Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. But the advent of cheap flights and hotel deals made the once-exclusive hotspot accessible to American masses. For around $50—a few hundred dollars today—tourists could purchase round-trip tickets from Miami, including hotel, food and entertainment. Big-name acts, beach resorts, bordellos and buffets were all within reach.”

Havana 1950s
Havana, Cuba in the 1950s

The Smithsonian goes on to explain that “the sugar boom that had fueled much of Cuba’s economic life was waning, and by the mid-’50s it was clear that expectations had exceeded results. With no reliable economic replacement in sight, Cubans began to feel the squeeze. Poverty, particularly in the provinces, increased.” It was very Americanization of Cuba and the diminishing economic prospects in this impoverished Caribbean nation that was an offense to a growing band of revolutionaries, headed by Fidel Castro.

According to the son of Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Weissmuller Jr, in his book, My Father, Tarzan, the Olympian was headed to the golf tournament when he and his friends were stopped by Castro’s guerrilla troops. Foreigners were susceptible to being kidnapped by the Revolutionaries, so Weissmuller was at significant risk when his car was stopped and his guards disarmed. According to the now legendary story, Weissmuller decided to identify himself in the clearest manner possible – by beating his chest with his fists and letting rip his trademark Tarzan yell.

Suddenly the guerrillas realized they were in the midst of Hollywood royalty. They dropped their guns, shouted “”Es Tarzan! Es Tarzan de la Jungla! Bienvenido!”, shook the Ape-man’s hand, and got his autograph. Not only did Weissmuller make it to the golf tournament, he got a revolutionary escort to a golf course, the symbol of American capitalism.