October 15, 2010
Johnny Sheffield obit
After three hit Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller in the title role and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, MGM decided to give a son to the apeman and his mate in Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). However, he had to be a foundling because, according to the Legion of Decency, the scantily clad jungle couple were not married, and presumably never had sex. "Boy", as he was named, was played by Johnny Sheffield, who has died aged 79 of a heart attack at his California home after falling off a ladder while pruning a tree.
In the Tarzan films, the fact that the orphaned offspring of a British couple killed in a plane crash in the jungle had an American accent was never explained. Neither Tarzan, whose dialogue was limited to grunts and monosyllables, nor Boy bore much resemblance to the original characters as conceived by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose novels portrayed both the apeman, Lord Greystoke, and his son, Jack "Korak" Clayton, as cultivated and articulate. Burroughs, however, complained all the way to the bank.
In the eight Tarzan films he made, from the age of seven to 16, the curly-haired Sheffield followed Weissmuller through the Culver City backlot jungle in California (amplified by stock shots), swimming, vine-swinging and imitating the famous apeman cry. Like Weissmuller, Sheffield, who had a physical grace and a carefully arranged loincloth, had to cope with a variety of wild animals, revolting natives and dastardly white adventurers.
Sheffield was born in Pasadena, California, the son of British-born Reginald Sheffield, who had also been a child actor in films, credited as Eric Desmond. His American mother, Louise, was a Vassar College graduate with a liberal arts education who loved books and lectured widely. In 1938, aged seven, Sheffield appeared in Los Angeles in the role of Pud, the juvenile lead of the sentimental Paul Osborn play On Borrowed Time, before taking over the part for a short period on Broadway. In the same year, he played Napoleon's small son in The Man On the Rock, in MGM's Historical Mysteries series of short films.
It was Weissmuller who picked Sheffield for the role of Boy out of 300 applicants. Weissmuller, whom Sheffield called Big John, "was like a father to me. He was always looking out for me. We worked with a lot of live animals, and a lot of times, when they got tired, the animals would get feisty. There was this one big chimp who got pretty mad one day and was about to bite me while we were on the set. But Big John stuck his leg between me and the chimp, and he was the one who was bitten."
Boy plays an important role in Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941), when he discovers some gold and is captured by evil natives before being rescued by Tarzan and his elephants. Unusually, Boy befriends a young African lad, one of the few black people to say something more than "Yes, Bwana!" in the films. The last of the MGM Tarzan films with Weissmuller, O'Sullivan and Sheffield was Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942), which transplanted the trio from the never-never jungle to the harsh realities of Manhattan, where Boy is held, having been kidnapped.
In 1942, RKO acquired the Tarzan franchise, as well as the services of Weissmuller and Sheffield. O'Sullivan left, citing boredom, to be replaced by Brenda Joyce. Boy, who had always called O'Sullivan "Mother", addressed Joyce as "Jane". "With Maureen I related more to Jane as a child," Sheffield recalled. "Then I became old enough to notice how attractive Brenda was."
The first RKO feature, Tarzan Triumphs (1943), struck a topical note, pitting Tarzan against a gang of Nazi agents. He declared "Now Tarzan Make War", an unusually verbose utterance, though he might have said, "Now Tarzan Make Bs", because of the diminished production values. After Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943), Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) and Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), Sheffield, by then a big Boy, was dropped by the studio.
Monogram, the Poverty Row studio, picked him up for the series of quickie movies based on the books about Bomba, the Jungle Boy, written in the 1920s and 30s under the nom de plume Roy Rockwood. Sheffield appeared in 12 of them, starting with Bomba, the Jungle Boy (1949) and ending with Lord of the Jungle (1955), all directed by Ford Beebe, splicing generous stock footage from the 1930 documentary Africa Speaks into each film. The almost identical plots usually included Bomba rescuing a young woman from some beast, animal or human.
At the age of 24, Sheffield retired from show business to study for a business degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, and invested his jungle money in real estate. He later spent many years working as a representative for the Santa Monica Seafood Company.
He is survived by his wife, Patty, whom he married in 1959, two sons and a daughter.