Sheffield with Lita Baron
Johnny Sheffield's Memoirs of
A Jungle Boy
By JOHNNY SHEFFIELD
In 1947, I made my last appearance as Tarzan's son, "Boy," in a picture called "Tarzan and the Huntress" for producer Sol Lesser at RKO Pathe. That was the end of my life with my first "Jungle Family," but it also opened the way for me to find a new one.
Two years later, at age 18, I became "Bomba, the Jungle Boy" in a series of 12 films at Monogram studios that lasted until 1955 when I played the part for the last time in "Lord of the Jungle."
That was a very happy time for me. I was a grown man then, in the leading role in a series of motion pictures that played all over the world, finally in charge of my own destiny.
But before I tell you about my life as "Bomba" and the new family I came to know, let me first speak a bit about the most important people of my youth: My real "belly button" family, the Sheffields, and the wonderful make-believe dad I had for my first "jungle family": Johnny Weissmuller, the one and only immortal Tarzan.
I know you often hear about the tormented lives of Hollywood child stars. You won't hear that from me. I was blessed with an extraordinary childhood. My caring, loving, teaching parents were probably the most popular mother/father combo in my town, especially if you ever took a vote among all the children in the neighborhood.
My father, Reginald Sheffield, was a successful English stage and screen actor, director and producer whose work you may have seen, and my mother, Louise Van Loon, was a Vassar graduate with a liberal arts education. She was a great lover of books who lectured widely. Mother was my data bank and father taught me his profession. In fact, Dad had me working "on the boards" early. I was only 6 1/2 years old when I starred in the role of 'Pud' on Broadway in the hit stage play "On Borrowed Time."
Yet I had a pretty normal family life otherwise. I had a beautiful and charming older sister, Mary Alice, and a younger brother, William. They all were very supportive of me. So, as a child, I enjoyed the best of two family lives -- one real and one a marvelous fantasy. Both were -- and still are -- very near and dear to me.
By now, the story of how I came to be cast as Tarzan's son, Boy, is pretty well known. My father arranged an audition for me when they were casting the part of the orphan boy who survives a plane crash in the African jungle in the 1939 film "Tarzan Finds A Son!" Nicknamed "Boy" by Tarzan, who at least got his gender right, he grows up in the shadow of the Lord of the Jungle.
Well, so did I. Little did I know that Tarzan himself was going to teach me everything I needed to know to someday become Bomba, the Jungle Boy!
Can you think of anyone better to get you in shape to star in a jungle boy series? Who better to instruct you in the ways of a jungle king than the one who wore the crown? Is there anyone better prepared to teach you how to out-swim a crocodile than a genuine Olympic swimming champion?
I was seven when I first met "Big John" Weissmuller - I was "Little John" to him -- and over the next nine years we made eight Tarzan pictures together. We were close. Big John took a personal interest in me, becoming my second father and my coach.
On the Silver Screen or swimming for Olympic Gold, Johnny Weissmuller was an authentic superstar. He gave off a very special light for all of us to see. Champions don't think like the rest of us; they have an inner clock that runs exclusively for them. Johnny Mercer put it like this: "Ya gotta Accentuate the Positive, Eee-liminate the Negative and don't mess with 'Mr. In-between." Big John had a clock like that and he started a similar ticking in me! It has taken 50-plus years to fully understand how spending my formative years, 7 to l6, under the wing of a world champion has affected my life.
For one thing, my personal Tarzan taught me solid values right there on the screen. When I was small, learning to stand on my own, Tarzan didn't chew me out when I stumbled, saying, "Jane, Boy no good, can't stand up. Throw Boy off Escarpment!" Not on your life! My jungle father helped me to stand.
When I couldn't swim, my jungle dad didn't say, "Boy no good; can't swim! Let him drown!" No, Tarzan actually taught me to swim. When Boy got out-of-line, Tarzan was there to point it out: "Boy, Bad!" Then in a twinkle of a dad's eye I was forgiven and we went on to experience more of this life adventure. Tarzan taught me I wasn't alone; I could always give out the Tarzan yell ("AHHH-AH-AHHH!") and count on him for help when things got sticky.
From these events I learned spiritual values. From the things I could see, feel, hear, and touch, I learned about what I could not see, feel, hear or touch. I learned that I had a Spiritual Father who loved me as well and I could always count on Him for guidance and protection; all I had to do was call, although maybe not quite so loudly. I learned then and know now when and how to call for backup, thank God.
That's Sheffield as "Boy" with Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan and Cheetah in "Tarzan's New York Adventure."
Tarzan was a man of action - and he taught me when to take action. Remember "Tarzan's New York Adventure"? When Boy was kidnapped and taken from Africa, Tarzan took action. He didn't mope around. He went down to our "swimming hole," picked up a few gold nuggets to cover expenses, got on the Pan Am Clipper, and went to New York to "Find Boy!" When it came to protecting his family, Tarzan was TOPS. Once it became apparent the U.S. judicial system would fail to produce Boy, Tarzan and Jane had a "family conference" right in the courtroom on the 30th floor of the Justice Building overlooking Manhattan. I'll never forget that scene: "Jane say Tarzan find Boy?" Tarzan asks. "Yes, Tarzan," she says, eyes brimming with love, as Cheetah looks on.
WOW! Did Tarzan go into action! Right out through the courtroom window! He swung his way through Manhattan, then dove off the Brooklyn Bridge and swam for it to rescue Boy! Will you ever forget that? "Tarzan's New York Adventure" taught me the resourcefulness, and humanity of Tarzan and the principle that family responsibility is the nucleus for human growth and happiness. It also taught me that the family can be vulnerable to outside influences of evil. I bet it taught you the same. This threat to the safety of Boy and the happiness of his family compelled Tarzan to get going. He reveals his values by action and is willing to risk it all for his family.
The movie clearly demonstrates family values. Truth, honesty and what we jungle folk call the "Umgawa Way" always win out over lawlessness and greed! That's why I took the "Umgawa" philosophy with me to Monogram and that's why "Umgawa Rules" always applied in the adventures of "Bomba, the Jungle Boy."
Those are some of the things I learned from being in the Tarzan pictures. But I also learned an awful lot from the larger-than-life man who played Tarzan. For one thing, Big John taught me to have FUN! He loved to play, liked good-looking women, flashy clothes and toys. He owned a Lincoln with the "Continental Pack" on the back. He loved that Lincoln. He drove it on the studio lot and to and from location. In the trunk he kept his golf clubs and practice balls as well as some swimming gear: trunks, face plate, and swim fins.
Behind the scenes, Big John took time to play with me. On location, when I wasn't in school, he would call me and we would go over to that Continental trunk for some golf gear and would "hit a few balls" together. Tarzan loved golf. We also played a lot of "Hollywood frisbee". We used the lid from a 35mm film can to toss around, way before there were commercial frisbees on the market.
Big John loved to win and he gave me his winning attitude. He said to think of it this way: "When you step up to the starting mark, look down the line and you'll see there are two kinds of swimmers (or golfers, card players, etc.) standing there: the ones who are going to lose and YOU!" Hey, it worked for Big John.
On the set, Big John taught me how to play gin rummy. He always wanted to win at that, too, and usually did. He got a special twinkle in his eye when he got a 'fast go down" hand and stuck me with a lot of cards. He loved to lean forward a bit, get in my face and say: "GIN! Count 'em up, Boy!" Sometimes I caught him with a fist full of cards and I knew what to do, feel and say. Big John gave me his love for winning.
What was it like swimming with Tarzan? Well, think about this: Big John was never defeated in his swimming career. I know I never beat him! He was like a motorboat in the water. Carl Curtis at his Beverly Hills Swimming School taught me how to keep from drowning, but Tarzan taught me how to really SWIM.
The thing I remember most about swimming with Johnny Weissmuller was that he was always playing around in the water. He would come up close to you, put his face down in the water, and start turning his head from side to side blowing bubbles and making very loud incomprehensible sounds. Suddenly, he would sweep his head up, water flying everywhere, right in your face. With an explosive shout, he'd ask: "How old are you!?" This never failed to startle me and we would laugh. In the water, we always made "Oink Oink, Ahhnnk Ahhnnk" and other Seal-like noises to each other. That was a given among us "water men."
Big John also loved to cup his hands together underwater and pull water into his palms. Then he would lift them above water and, through an orifice made where his little fingers overlapped, he would squirt a steady stream of water right in your eyes. He would repeat that a couple of times and then, as if by mistake, he would let the water come out backwards through his thumbs and squirt himself right in the face! Then we really laughed! It makes me feel good all over just thinking about it. This little "squirt" business was always good for a belly laugh between us -- and from the spectators and crew.
Sheffield, left; Tommy Cook, Brenda Joyce, Weissmuller in 'Tarzan & the Leopard Woman."
When we swam together, Big John would instruct me in ways to improve my stroke. He had other swimming tips for me. He showed me how I should swim in places like the Chicago river. That was really funny and informative. Because of the debris and fecal matter in waterways like that, he instructed me to do a sort of breast/splash stroke using my cupped palms to splash water away from my head when reaching out for the power stroke. As yet, I have not swum in the Chicago river, but armed with this Weissmuller technique I have swum safely in other waters. So have many of our fighting men who were taught, by Big John, the same technique to swim safely in flaming waters during World War II.
He also showed me how to hold my head out of the water while swimming for the camera. That was difficult, but Big John showed me a little trick for that also. He instructed me to "slip on these Owen Churchill swim fins for the camera." You couldn't see them and it made me feel as powerful as a crocodile! So, naturally, Bomba used the same technique. Some of the swimming we did for the camera was difficult and scary. Big John coached me through it all and I improved over the years.
When Big John gave me instruction, he swam or 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." That's what it was like "in training" with this champion.
My sexual education wasn't neglected while I was playing Boy. As a lad, when my father was teaching me about the "Birds and the Bees," Tarzan was teaching me about the "Crocodiles and the Flamingos." So, by the time I reached adolescence I was pretty well informed on the subject.
I remember one day, while rehearsing a scene, Big John caught me staring at Jane's curves. I came out of it when he nudged me on the shoulder. I looked up at Big John and he was smiling.
"Pretty nice, Boy, huh?" he said quietly.
I had to agree, but, boy, was I embarrassed. Tarzan then said for all to hear: "Boy grown up, now!" I guess it was pretty obvious to the whole crew the discovery I had made. After that my education expanded quite a bit under Big John's influence.
That story was on me, but this one is on Big John: There was a time when we had a "call" other than the Tarzan "yell" on the set. On certain days, you might hear: "Brenda Swims Tonight!" echoing around the sound stage. At the time, Big John was training a young woman swimmer named Brenda - not Brenda Joyce, who later played Jane -- for a series of races. Brenda was in strict training. The idea was to reserve all her strength for the competition and that meant NO SEX just before a race. This approach was not working as Brenda was not winning. Big John told me he was going to try the opposite approach. So, when he told me, "Brenda Swims Tonight," I knew what that meant. And she WON! Soon the film crew caught on and they were delighted when Big John came on the set and announced: "Brenda Swims Tonight."
My jungle schooling stood me well through the years. Patty, my beautiful wife, and I just celebrated 41 years of marriage. On the Escarpment or anywhere else, Big John taught me a healthy attitude about sex. He had a little trouble with the marriage thing at first. I have not, so far, thank God!
Fun and Games with Big John for me was an opportunity of a lifetime. He was Tarzan, I was Boy, he was my coach, and most important, Big John was my friend. To this day, wherever I go, he goes with me! That's how it is that Tarzan always walked with Bomba and that's why Bomba always had a good time in his jungle adventures.
The point is Johnny Weissmuller was happy, buoyant, generous, playful and 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. That clock never lost a beat no matter what was going on around him. With Johnny Weissmuller as my trainer I was able to see and understand that and a little clock started ticking away in me. I started that clock in Bomba and you can start one too.
The last time I saw Big John alive I was hitting six-irons on the practice fairway at the Riviera, my home golf club in Los Angeles. The word came down that my jungle father, Tarzan, was getting ready to tee off on #1 above me. When I saw Big John's foursome crossing the barranca coming down the fairway toward me to make their second shots on #2, I cut loose with Boy's yell and Big John answered with his famous Tarzan yell. All action on the golf course stopped.
He left his group and came over to me and we talked. Big John watched me hit a couple, encouraged me, then hit a couple himself. It was like old times by the trunk of his Continental. I looked at him and he looked at me. We both looked down to the practice green where our shots were resting. Then we looked at each other again and had a great laugh. We both hit 'em pretty darn good. He ruffled my hair.
On the way back to rejoin his foursome, he turned and smiled. It never mattered what Big John was doing he always had time for me. That was the last time I saw my jungle father alive.
My training as Boy with Tarzan and Johnny Weissmuller was a special time in my life and the making of "Tarzan and the Huntress" marked THE END to my "beginning" in the movies. I took Boy's early training with me and moved on. It was time for me to swing free on my own as Bomba!
©2000 by Johnny Sheffield
IN THE SECOND CHAPTER OF HIS MEMOIRS, JOHNNY SHEFFIELD REMEMBERS THE YEARS AS "BOMBA, THE JUNGLE BOY."