Johnny Sheffield: Child actor who played 'Boy' to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:23

Johnny Sheffield originated the role of "Boy" in the Tarzan film series, playing the role in eight of the films, all with Johnny Weissmuller, acknowledged as the greatest screen Tarzan of the many actors who played the role. Weissmuller had made three hit films for MGM, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan Finds a Mate (1934) and Tarzan Escapes (1936), when it was decided to give his character a son. Sheffield won the role over 300 applicants, mainly because of Weissmuller's approval. Later the curly-haired youngster starred in another jungle series as Bomba, the Jungle Boy, and though the films were low-budget "B" movies, they proved popular, particularly with young audiences.

Born Jon Matthew Sheffield Cassan in 1931 in Pasadena, California, he was a son of a British juvenile actor turned character player, Reginald Sheffield, and a Vassar College graduate who lectured on the arts. In 1938, one of Broadway's biggest hits was Paul Osborn's mixture of comedy, drama and fantasy, On Borrowed Time, which focused on the loving relationship between a seven-year old named Pud and his crusty, octogenarian grandfather. Johnny Sheffield, who had been coached by his father, won the role of Pud in the Los Angeles production, and later took over the role in New York.

When his father saw an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter asking, "Have you a Tarzan Jr in your backyard?", he arranged an interview for his son, who had a flair for athletics. "Part of the selection process was a swimming test with Weissmuller," Sheffield said. "I could not swim a stroke, but Big John liked me and said he would give me the test anyway. I'll never forget going with this undefeated Olympic swimming champion to the Hollywood Athletic Club for the test. He was a super guy, full of life and fun to be with. He only wanted to be sure that I wasn't afraid of the water and that I was willing to try to swim."

MGM had decided to give Tarzan a son because Maureen O'Sullivan, who played his mate, Jane, disliked the idea of being typecast and had insisted that she be written out of the series. The studio decided to have her die but leave behind a young son, though Tarzan's original creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote 26 novels about Tarzan and Jane, threatened to sue. When news of the plan leaked out, fans protested so vehemently that MGM decided to let Jane live, giving O'Sullivan a large raise in salary as compensation.

The introduction of Boy had to be handled with finesse; the Legion of Decency would not allow Tarzan and Jane to have a child, since they were not married. Instead, Boy's parents perished when their 'plane crashed in the jungle. Their baby, the only survivor, was found and raised by the tree-house dwelling couple, who named him Boy. "Weissmuller always had time for me," Sheffield recalled, "though he could have been aloof. He showed me how to swim so that I could hold my head up for the camera; that was important."

When not filming, Sheffield would be getting to know the animals ("It was important for me to be with the lions, chimps and elephants each day"), or attending the studio school. Between Tarzan films he played small roles in other movies, including the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical Babes in Arms (1939) and Knute Rockne, All American (1940), in which he was Rockne at the age of seven.

Tarzan Finds a Son (1939) was well received, Life magazine commenting, "By the addition of a young boy to the Tarzan family, the future of the series seems assured." In Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941), Jane and Boy are kidnapped by the members of a scientific expedition who have discovered that there is gold on Tarzan's escarpment. Tarzan and his elephants come to the rescue. In Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942), the last of the MGM series, Boy was kidnapped again, by a circus owner who wants him to appear in his show, prompting Tarzan and Jane to don conventional clothes and head for the city. Underrated, the film was not a great success, and MGM failed to renew its rights to the Tarzan character or its contract with Weissmuller.

Producer Sol Lesser took the apeman, plus Weissmuller and Sheffield, to RKO (O'Sullivan refused to go). Following the State Department's request that Tarzan's adventures reflect his value for wartime propaganda. Tarzan Triumphs (1943) had its hero initially isolationist in reponse to Nazi invaders, but when Boy is kidnapped by them, he growls, "Now Tarzan make war!"

Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943) also had Nazis as its villains, with Tarzan and Boy also threatened by man-eating plants and a giant spider. Jane, whose absence had been explained by letters from England, returned to the series in Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), played by Brenda Joyce. "With Maureen I related more to Jane as a child," Sheffield said. "I was 14 now and grown up enough to notice how attractive Brenda Joyce was. We got along swimmingly from the start. I now had Brenda Joyce to tuck me in and kiss at night. Does it get any better than that?"

The lively Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) and equally engrossing Tarzan and the Huntress (1947) were great successes, but they were to be Sheffield's last portrayals of Boy, for he had become almost as large as Weissmuller. However, he was immediately signed by Monogram Studios to star in Bomba, The Jungle Boy (1949), based on Roy Rockwood's series of children's novels about a boy who grew up in the jungle. (Bomba means "a small package" in Swahili.) "The role looked like a natural extension of my jungle career and would allow me to continue my studies at UCLA," he said.

Low-budget and rapidly shot compared to the Tarzan films, they were popular with juvenile audiences, who ignored the cut-price production values and stock footage. Sheffield starred in 11 Bomba films, directed by veteran serial maker Ford Beebe, Lord of the Jungle (1955) ending the series. Sheffield then made a pilot for a TV series, Bantu the Zebra Boy, created and directed by his father, but it failed to find a sponsor, and Sheffield retired from show business, having completed a business degree, later working in farming, real estate and construction.

Married in 1959, he had three children. His wife Patti said that last Friday he fell from a ladder while pruning a palm tree. Though his injuries seemed minor, he died of a heart attack four hours later. In recent years he had written articles about his career and sold copies of Bantu the Zebra Boy on video. Asked what was the favourite of his films, he named Tarzan Finds a Son: "It was the beginning. I got my first baby elephant, Bea, rode in my first private railroad car to location in Florida, I was introduced to my fabulous tree house home, I got my own chimps to play with, I got to feed daily, for a time, Leo the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion, I was present when my contract was negotiated, and I personally picked up my first movie check!"

Tom Vallance

Jon Matthew Sheffield Cassan, actor and businessman: born Pasadena, California 11 April 1931; married 1959 (two sons, one daughter); died Chula Vista, California 15 October 2010.

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