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Making a big splash in films is rare now

“Swimming Upstream” arrives in U.S. theaters Friday nearly two years after the Australian drama was released Down Under.

Aussie heartthrob Jesse Spencer (currently a regular on the Fox medical series “House”) stars in the true, inspirational tale of backstroke champion Tony Fingleton.

Geoffrey Rush plays his abusive, alcoholic father, who ignored Tony most of his life, and Judy Davis is his emotionally fragile mother.

Though there have been sports movies dealing with football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf and even tennis, swimming films have been few and far between. However, three championship swimmers parlayed their successful careers in water into Hollywood stardom.

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Johnny Weissmuller put his swimming prowess to great use as star of the popular “Tarzan” movies of the 1930s and ‘40s. A sickly child, Weissmuller took up swimming as a youngster on the advice of his doctor. As a 6-foot, 3-inch, 190-pound adult, Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and held 67 world and 52 national titles in freestyle swimming. Before he landed the role as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “King of the Jungle,” he appeared in the 1929 musical “Glorifying the American Girl” clad only in a fig leaf. He wore a bit more as Tarzan, though MGM billed him as “the only man in Hollywood who’s natural in the flesh and can act without clothes.”

USC graduate and 1932 Olympic freestyle medal winner Buster Crabbe was cast as Tarzan in 1933 in “Tarzan the Fearless” but found real fame in the “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” serials.

Esther Williams never got a chance to compete in the 1940 Olympics because the event was canceled due to World War II.

The L.A. native, dubbed “America’s Mermaid,” was appearing in Billy Rose’s Aquacade when she was spotted by an MGM talent scout. After appearing in supporting roles in a few films, the studio cast her in the title role in the 1944 Technicolor musical “Bathing Beauty.” Over the next decade, she swam her way through such hits as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Neptune’s Daughter” and “Thrill of a Romance.”

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-- Susan King


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