Johnny Sheffield, son of actor/director Reginald Sheffield, was born April 11, 1931 in Pasadena, California. At the age of seven he appeared on Broadway in the original cast of On Borrowed Time. Following this Sheffield was personally chosen by Johnny Weissmuller to play Boy, the son of Tarzan, in the MGM Tarzan film series. He played Boy in eight pictures before finally outgrowing the part.
He was quickly signed by Monogram to star in their Bomba the Jungle Boy series.
Not all his roles required a loincloth. He played in many fully clothed films including Babes In Arms (1939) and Knute Rockney (1940).
Johnny Sheffield passed away October 15, 2010 (coincidentally, the anniversary of the death of Matt Winans, the creator of this site, who passed away October 15, 2008).
** Introduction by Johnny Sheffield **
I want to begin by saying that I am pleased to have the opportunity to do this
"Bomba Movie Guide Interview" with my friend Matt Winans who has demonstrated
his knowledge and love for jungle films by publishing his "Tarzan Movie Guide"
on the World Wide Web. I met Matt electronically there in the virtual jungle of the
"Guide" and immediately fell in love with him and the Guide as far as it went when I first
read it. You see, I met Matt through an omission; he neglected to mention the
"other Johnny," me, in the Guide. Had it not been for this omission we would
probably have never met! That is another story.
In the course of our correspondence Matt mentioned that he would like
to do a "Bomba Movie Guide" and asked if I would be willing to cooperate. The
thought of being a part of one of Matt's creations on the Internet was
flattering and I agreed to do what I could to help even if that required
answering some questions. I had experienced what a lift a few "insider"
quotes had brought to Matt's "Tarzan Movie Guide" and determined to do my best
on the interview. I hope that our interview will amuse and edify the died in
the veldt "jungle buffs" out there.
- You were seven when you auditioned for the role of Boy, how did it come about?
- Father read an article in the Hollywood Reporter which asked: "Have you a Tarzan Jr. in your backyard?" He thought he did and set up an interview. I was told there were more than 300 boys applying for the job of Boy. Although I didn't know it at the time, the audition was to have two parts: first the 'Screen Test' and then the 'Swimming Test'. Had I known about the latter, I might have entered the former with a bit more trepidation.
The screen test wasn't going to be too difficult as my acting training came in the Theater, first on the west coast and then on the east coast, with my name "up in lights" on Broadway in the play "On Borrowed Time." I had "paid my dues" as an actor and all that was involved was getting used to working before a camera and the crew rather than a theater audience. My father coached me for the screen test as he had done for the Theater.
Johnny Weissmuller liked me. It was decided that he should give me a swimming test as part of the selection process. Well, I could not swim a stroke at the time, but Big John said he would give me the test anyway! Someone "up there" liked me! It was time to get in the water with Tarzan.
I'll never forget going with one of the world's all-time greatest swimmers to the Hollywood Athletic Club for the test. I went into the locker room with this undefeated Olympic champion and we suited up! Big John knew I couldn't swim; that didn't make any difference to him. He knew Tarzan would have to teach Boy how to swim anyway. Big John was really a super guy, full of life and fun to be with, and he was always kind and attentive to me. As it turned out Big John only wanted to be sure that I wasn't afraid of the water and that I was willing to try to swim. He and Tarzan could handle the rest.
We arrived poolside (Weissmuller always called it the "Tank"), Big John dove in the deep end and positioned himself about 10 feet from the edge. He told me to jump in and come to him. I took a big jump and when I reached him he had his knee up to form a bench for me to sit on. When I sat on his knee, it was like a concrete abutment and I knew I was safe even though we were in the DEEP end of that BIG WATER FILLED TANK! I was secure even though he was treading water! Johnny was smiling at me. He told me to take a deep breath and hold on. We went under and he swam back to the side of the tank with me holding on. We later did the same thing on film at Silver Springs. So you can see a portion of my swim test with Weissmuller today! It reminds me of the Athletic Club and my first swim with this Olympic champion; we enjoyed many more swims together.
When we got out of the water and toweled off, Big John announced, "This kid can swim just fine." That was it! Tarzan, the Ape Man who swings through the trees and lives way "up there" on the Escarpment, liked ME!
So you see it was my father who answered the "call" and Johnny Weissmuller liked me and picked me to be his son, Boy! It pays to have someone "up there" who likes you. I have been fortunate that way.
- What are your recollections of your first Tarzan movie, TARZAN FINDS A SON?
- It was both scary and great fun. Scary because it was all new; it was my introduction to "Hollywood," and movie making. It was great fun because I was surrounded by the best in the business at Metro Goldwyn Mayer. This was the introduction to my jungle family. As soon as I could get around Tarzan taught me to swim and showed me the ropes (uh, vines).
The soundstage was fitted out with all kinds of vine-covered ropes and rigging and I, for the first time in my life, got to swing on vines. Many fans report that the minute they got home from the movie theater they were swinging all over the place, too. Tarzan taught me to eat when I was hungry and sleep when I was tired. There weren't any arguments; I did what Tarzan told me to. He gave me values. He taught me to tell the truth; Tarzan hated a liar.
Jane blew it big time for a while in this one. She was truly sorry so Tarzan forgave her, on the spot! Repentance and forgiveness were part of my training. Tarzan taught me to love and respect the animals and how to communicate with them.
"Tarzan Finds a Son" also produced some of my favorite scenes - like the tarantula scene. The property men showed them to me long before the scene was filmed so I wouldn't be too frightened. Nice try. They scared the you know what out of me. I'll never forget them coming at me. Man, did I yell! When Dick Thorpe said, "Action," it all became REAL.
Do you remember the egg cooking lesson Jane gave Frieda? I love that scene; Frieda and her husband, Ben Ray, were personal family friends.
- Working with Johnny Weissmuller must have been a thrill, what was it like?
- Johnny Weissmuller was a Star (with a capital "S") and he gave off a special light and some of that light got into me. Knowing and being with Johnny Weissmuller during my formative years had a lasting influence on my life. I didn't know it then, but as time has passed I see very clearly how Big John was different from most and how being around him started a clock ticking in my head a lot like the one in his. Here was a champion, an UNDEFEATED Olympic World Champion. He was NEVER defeated during his swimming career! The most important thing was that Johnny Weissmuller had time for me.
This man might well have been aloof and not had any time for me other than what was written in the script. This was not the case. Johnny Weissmuller loved me and I knew it and I love him. When I was near, he always had a kind word for me when I might easily have passed by unnoticed.
We played together behind the scenes. Big John liked to drive his Lincoln Continental on location. He loved golf and in the trunk he always had his clubs. He would call me over and we would "hit a few balls" together. We played "frisbee." That was before there were commercial frisbees on the market and we used the top of a 35mm film can lid. It was fun doing things with Big John.
When we were in the water together he always had a little swimming instruction for me. He showed me how to swim so I could hold my head up for the camera; that was important. Big John stood close to me. He held my hand or shoulder and engaged my eyes with his, smiled and spoke to me softly. He encouraged me always. He instructed me and said, "you can do it, Johnny; go ahead and try."
Whether on location or at the studio cafeteria, Big John always had a place for me at his table.
We didn't always eat together, but there was a place for me. My real father saw the importance of this relationship and would allow me to go places alone with Big John. Big John took me to swimming and diving competitions, to the beach for a rough water swim, they would be having a diving contest off a pier somewhere and we would go. Sometimes we went to lunch.
When we went off together, Big John was accompanied by his friends. They were all champions. Can you imagine being at a diving or swimming event and being introduced right along with Johnny Weissmuller, Stubby Kruger and Sammy Lee? You hang around champions like that and it rubs off - especially if you are young.
The point is that Johnny Weissmuller was happy, buoyant, generous, playful, unassuming, he loved people and sports, and most of all he had a positive winning attitude ticking away in his inner self that made him a champion and that clock never lost a beat no matter what was going on around him. By working, playing and being with Johnny Weissmuller I was able to see and understand that and start a little clock of my own ticking away in me.
It was an opportunity of a lifetime. He was Tarzan, he was my coach, and most important, Big John was my friend. Wherever I go, he goes with me!
- And Maureen O'Sullivan?
- On February 15, 1993, I was in Hollywood attending the Annual American Cinema Awards. This is a really big charity event and is attended each year by hundreds of stars from the movies, television, and sports as well as producers, writers, directors, musicians, philanthropists and you name it in the World of Show Biz. The 1993 Awards Gala was extra special for me; the program read: "this marks the first reunion of O'Sullivan (Jane) and Sheffield (Boy) since they made the classic film, Tarzan's New York Adventure."
I was looking over at Milton Berle, who was sitting across from me, when I heard a voice from behind say, "Hello, Boy. How are you?" That lovely voice, Maureen's voice, took me back 51 years to the Escarpment when I was Boy, the Son of Tarzan, and Maureen was Jane, my mother! WOW! Before I turned around I could see us all together in my mind. Big John, Maureen, myself, Jackie (Cheetah), Buli and Leo we were all there. What a moment.
I remember thinking as a Boy that I really had beautiful jungle parents. Big John had a great body and Maureen had a "build" to go along with her inner beauty and lovely voice. My relationship with Maureen was as written in the script; She was Jane, my mother. That was our relationship. We didn't pal around or go places together off the set. Aside from morning and evening greetings, picture taking sessions, interviews, and an occasional lunch ours was a working relationship exactly as you saw it on the screen. She was Jane and I was her son, Boy. I would estimate that 97% of the time we spent together was working.
She was kind and caring and never put me down. She was and is a professional actress and I knew she cared for me. She never tried to upstage me, or take advantage of me for personal advantage on the screen. She never took my light or in anyway made it difficult for me to play my part. This made it easy for me and all I had to do was, show up, hit my mark, find my light, know my lines and pay attention.
Maureen has a lovely voice, a beautiful figure (Yes, Boy knew that), and a wonderful carriage. Whether we were in the kitchen with Cheetah cooking eggs or in situations of great danger, I loved playing a scene with her. She was so sincere and real as Jane. Her delivery was so pure and direct - not to the camera, but to me - that I reacted as any boy would and even though Boy was full of mischief and adventure I was compelled to obey Jane. That's how convincing Maureen O'Sullivan was as an actress. It had a lasting effect on me!
- What do you think of the Tarzan books? Did you meet Edgar Rice Burroughs?
- I have never read a Tarzan book by Burroughs. My jungle family was born in the movies. I never went outside of my personal movie experience in search of Tarzan.
Before we made "Tarzan Finds a Son," I was taken to Tarzana to meet Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs. He wanted to see who was to play Boy. Boy was not his creation and I think he was a little uneasy about the changes. I was very young and don't recall all the details of our meeting. I remember that Edgar was respected, lived in a fine home and that he and I got along famously. He approved the plan to have me play Boy. I will always remember Edgar and, as are many, am indebted to him for his creation of "Tarzan of the Apes."
- The next movie was TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE.
- "The Quiet Man" is one of my all-time favorite movies. You see there are two Maureens in my life, I love Maureen O'Hara, too! Victor McLaughlin, Ward Bond, many others, and the Duke! An amazing cast!
Well, there was another fellow in the show I knew from Tarzan's Secret Treasure. He is Barry Fitzgerald and he is always good. In a movie the cast is all important and I think Reginald Owen was convincing as the professor and Tom Conway and Philip Dorn were terrific villains. It took the Joconi, Tarzan, an African river and some giant hungry crocodiles to finish them off. Cordel Hickman as Tumbo was a pal both on and off the screen.
Fitzgerald's O'Doul portrayal added spice to the movie. Barry was always friendly toward me and I can remember Maureen, Big John, Barry and myself, on the set sitting in a circle on our canvas backed director chairs running over a scene under the direction of Dick Thorpe. These rehearsals were special for me. Usually the adults would rehearse without me as it was important that I be "in school" in order to get my daily requirement of three hours. Mr. Thorpe knew that I knew my lines and would be able to coordinate with the other actors. Mr. Fitzgerald preferred to rehearse with ALL the principals so that included me in the circle and OUT of school! Maybe that is why there will always be a special place in my heart for Mr. Fitzgerald. I feel that way about those who watched out for me as Boy and included me in.
At the end O'Doul has made it through and this "little man" so endeared himself to my jungle family that Tarzan decided that we could trust O'Doul with a little jungle style bon voyage present. The movie clearly points up the fact that Tarzan is materially, a VERY rich man. He knows about civilization, men, and money. When he is forced to make intercontinental travel - money is not a problem! We learn that Tarzan is generous. This little man, O'Doul, proved himself a friend and Tarzan wasn't about to let him off the Escarpment without letting him know that. He certainly would not let him leave empty handed.
I still want to see O'Doul's face when he gets into that jungle melon.
The real hero of the movie is Cheetah, "The Human Catapult!" Jackie sensed that something was going to happen to him if he got on the bent-over tree and he didn't want to do it. He knew he should do what he was told so he got on the branch and went sailing off over the chasm with the rescue vine in his feet. It is a good thing all went well as Cheetah was not about to get on that branch again and we all knew it. You should have seen his face.
Many scenes in this movie were filmed on location in Florida. Almost all the swimming scenes were done there. The "high dive" was taken down river from Silver Springs. Ross Allen would go ahead of us and search the bank for alligators and cottonmouth water moccasins. He found a few too. I remember one time he got a water moccasin on the bank and put it in his mouth and swam it back to the boat. A few minutes later Big John and I were working right there on the bank where Ross captured that aquatic pit viper.
No, I didn't make the dive; they said I was too young and didn't want to take a chance on injury. In the swimming scenes there is an under water shot of Happy which happened by accident and I believe it to be the only underwater shot of a young elephant swimming or any elephant for that matter. My three elephants, Sally, Happy and Queeny were on this raft near the beach at the Spring when Happy fell off! The assistant cameraman was in the "Camera Bell" at the time and alertly started rolling as soon as he saw what was happening. What a shot! And it was an accident!
Swimming with Johnny Weissmuller was a real pleasure. There were some good shots of us there at the Spring and some really good shots of us at the climax of the movie when Tarzan swam down river and rescued Jane and me from the Joconi. Big John was like a motor boat in the water. There is one cut during the rescue of me motoring along just like Tarzan that I really like.
- SECRET TREASURE was followed by one of your personal favorites, TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE. What makes this movie so special for you?
- As a rule I dislike the "professor" type analysis of films. Many things in film making are done spontaneously on the set the day of shooting that are not in the script. The changes result from the chemistry of the moment and defy analysis. I am fortunate; I get to review the movie from two aspects. First, as an eleven-year-old participant, and second, as an adult Tarzan movie fan.
I was eleven years old, well established in the part of Boy, and we were going to make a movie. That was fun for me. This movie was special as Mr. George Emerson, the M.G.M. Animal trainer and the Best Elephant Trainer in the World, was breaking in the first ever Baby Elephant Act!
Before going to the studio school, I reported to George at "The Zoo" - to feed the animals and rehearse the Baby Elephant Act! Now that was real fun for a kid like me. Sally, Happy & Queeny would circle the ring, just like in the circus, and "come in" center ring in front of me and I got to issue the trick commands - trunk, foot, up etc. - and then take the bow in front of the cheering audience.
Of course I don't think for a minute that the babies would have done any tricks if George and his assistant, Frankie Leggit, weren't right there to back me up. This was a complete elephant act with more than 20 tricks; only a few were seen in the movie, but it was enough to tempt the villains.
After this I went to school with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Mickey taught me to draw a great lion. After school it was back to the zoo for more work with the animals. Being with the animals was important for my safety and was mandatory. Big deal! That is where I wanted to be. The real fun came when shooting started.
I had my own chair and was back on the set with my jungle family again and things started to pop. Airplanes, lions, the elephant act, and the kidnaping all followed and I was the center of it all! Then we went to virtual "New York." There, as a hostage, I waited for Tarzan to arrive.
Now, as an adult Tarzan movie fan. Drama, suspense, comedy, excitement, education, adventure, and plot - this Tarzan has them all, the others don't even come close! I still get excited watching this intercontinental adventure. It is a thrill looking up there and realizing I was part of it!
What makes this Tarzan a "Classic" is the family oriented plot and freedom of choice. Tarzan operates from emotion, principles and acts through freedom of choice. He is not confined to the Escarpment; he is bringing up his family there by choice. No one in their heart takes exception to Tarzan's motives.
In a "Classic" there can be no unrest over the plot; the audience must be 100% behind the hero and 100% against the villain. Period! Who can argue against a man fighting for the survival of his family?
Who can forget the courtroom scene when Tarzan and Jane see that the system won't get Boy back and they hold a "family conference" right there in the courtroom to decide upon a family plan of action! "Jane say, Tarzan go?" "Yes, Tarzan," she replies. Tarzan states, "Tarzan get Boy back" and it's on! Cheetah cheers and Tarzan is "out of there" with the City's Finest right after him.
He went along with civilization on a legal and political level until his instincts for family preservation required him to take direct action. We see that action explode as Tarzan swings over Manhattan and heads for Brooklyn! What could be more cosmopolitan than to dive off the Brooklyn Bridge? Is that a show stopper or what? If that doesn't stop your heart, you are already dead.
There is plenty of comedy, too. What about the tailor scene in Nairobi where Tarzan is fitted out for safari to civilization or Cheetah and the cosmetics? Cheetah learned a lot on the adventure. I smile when I remember how well she uses the gavel to maintain order in the court. That's not easy to do with young elephants!
There is comedy in the movie and it changes and improves with the years. Remember 54 years have gone by since the movie was made.
"Tarzan's New York Adventure" involves the resourcefulness, and humanity of Tarzan; family and responsibility as the nucleus for human growth and happiness; the vulnerability of the family to outside influences of evil. When circumstances compelled Tarzan to venture out across this world, he demonstrated his values by action and was willing to risk it all for his family. The movie clearly demonstrates family values. Truth, Honesty, and the Umgawa Way win out over Lawlessness and Greed! Always!
I like "Tarzan's New York Adventure." . . a LOT! Maureen does too and so did Big John.
- It is well known that Miss O'Sullivan had trouble with Cheetah. Was it difficult for you working with the various animals?
- You know I really like the beginning of Tarzan's Secret Treasure! It begins with scene after scene of me and my animals. Sally, Happy, and Queeny were growing up and getting very big. There is one shot of all three of them at the river later in the show where they "trunk up," turn and take off to the river. You can see that they are young, but they are not babies anymore and fit in with the herd.
In the opening shots I rode Sally (Buli) and Jackie (Cheetah) rode along with me. You can see how well we all got along. It was important for me to be with the lions, chimps and elephants each day. Even when we traveled on the train to our Florida location I was required each day to go forward to the baggage car to feed and be with my animals. I was taught to be most careful with the lions, especially while feeding. George Emerson always said, "they just tolerate us." The animals all had a different personality and I still recognize that on the screen when I watch us together. We were close. It was very normal for me at the time, but as I watch today I think, and look at that Boy - what a life!
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©1996-2007 Matt Winans & John Sheffield
Originally Posted 11 April 1997
Last Modified 22 January 2011
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