Sheffield with Karen Sharpe, who later became Mrs. Stanley Kramer
Johnny Sheffield's Memoirs of
A Jungle Boy,
By JOHNNY SHEFFIELD
I was 18 when I went to Monogram Pictures to star in my own series of jungle movies after spending my youth playing the supporting role of "Boy" in the Tarzan movies. I remember thinking, "Oh, boy! It's time for me to star in my own series!" I was READY.
The first picture was to be "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," which introduced the character created many years earlier by a writer named "Roy Rockwood" in a popular series of books for young readers.
At the time, I didn't know anything about Bomba nor the author, who turned out to be a pen name for several different writers. All I knew was that a young producer named Walter Mirisch had bought the rights to the books and wanted me to play the part. Walter had chosen this property to begin his producing career at Monogram Studios. He wasn't much known at the time. In fact, he was still in his twenties. But he soon became one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, especially after he and his older brothers, Harold and Marvin, formed The Mirisch Company and started turning out films like "The Magnificent Seven," "West Side Story," "The Great Escape" and "In the Heat of the Night."
I met Walter for the first time at Monogram and we got along famously from the start. He took me in to see the Boss, Steve Broidy, to get his O.K. We talked about money and Walter told me: "It doesn't matter what the other guy is getting as long as what you're getting is enough."
Walter convinced me what he was offering me was enough, so I agreed to create the role of Bomba. (Later on in my relationship with Walter, I had to remind him of what he taught me about compensation. The time had come when I didn't think what I was getting was enough and I went on a holdout. The studio finally agreed to make it "enough.")
Walter went on to make a big name for himself in the motion picture industry, but his great success never affected our relationship. As I said, we got along famously from the first day I walked into his office 49 years ago.
My schedule for filming the "Bomba" films was arranged to allow me to go on with my education at UCLA. At school, we talked about man's impact on the environment, but in my make-believe world "beyond the Rift," Bomba was just trying to avoid man's impact - period.
For my first film, my co-star was Peggy Ann Garner, who was about the same age as I was. She was a real pro! We had a grand time together. I will never forget the scene where I show her my "digs" and pointed out how nice it would be for her to stay with me in Bomba's cave. Her line was "very cozy." I think she made me construct a shelter for her outside. Anyway, you couldn't ask for a better reading of that line - and I soon got her dressed properly, without all that underwear.
You probably noticed I first appeared with a monkey on my shoulder. That was "Otto." We were a low-budget group and couldn't afford a chimp. Otto fitted in just fine. He was well-trained and no advance coaching was required for me to work well with him. George Emerson, my animal trainer at Metro, taught me how to work with the animals. I pretty much knew by then what they would tolerate and what they would not.
The first Bomba picture has a certain environmental attitude about it that was ahead of its time. Bomba, of course, protects the animals and the wilderness and Pat (Peggy Ann Garner) talks about wanting to "live this life instead of just taking pictures of it." Did anyone else think about environmental things in those days?
Right away I was impressed with the team Walter had put together to make the Bomba films, starting with the director, Ford Beebe, one of the best action directors in Hollywood - a veteran of 200 or so westerns, serials and low budget action pictures dating back to 1916.
Ford Beebe had a full head of white hair and penetrating blue eyes that were warm and actually twinkled. When he was on the set, he wore zip-up soft leather boots and a wide-brimmed white felt western-type hat. He was my Director/Writer for every Bomba performance I made. I count myself very fortunate to have worked under his direction and tutelage.
Ford Beebe was respected by all the crew. He was in charge, but not in an overbearing or pompous way. Ford wasn't like that. He was friendly, listened to suggestions, and he didn't nit pick about a shot. It didn't have to be exactly as he saw it in his head, even though he saw the finished movie in his mind long before we started work. Ford knew exactly what he wanted to come across to the audience and he was flexible. If the scene got his point across, he would print it.
That flexibility was golden! I loved him for it. This rare characteristic in movie-making was vital to our success. When you're making action films, working with animals, and you're on a tight budget, you must have an appreciation for the overall effect of the scene and not get carried away with every detail. Forget about it; you are never going to get the animals, the actors and the action to conform to some dreamed-up notion of what exactly should happen.
In fact, more often than not on the "Bomba" pictures, all hell would break loose as soon as the director called for "action!" The animals would go one way, the actors another. The fight would end up down by the river instead of under the tree. Meanwhile, the camera operator is going nuts trying to follow it all and "stay with the money."
I hope you're getting the picture. Making a low-budget jungle movie is like trying to control chaos. If the director didn't get the shot the first time, did we have enough daylight left to try it again? The animal trainer has to be asked if he thinks the lion will "go" again. And so on.
Ford Beebe brought a wealth of experience from his days directing westerns to the "Bomba" series. It didn't take him long to make a decision. I've always felt our success was insured when Walter got Ford to head our production team.
Sure, there were times when Ford wanted to take the shot again as he felt that something important was missing, but for the most part three takes were rare for us. The crew called me "One Take Johnny." My father taught me the business well. I knew the scene, hit my mark, found my light and knew my lines. Ford told me many times that he appreciated that from me. We all appreciated Ford. He didn't have to make a complete master shot for each scene. He would let the long shots roll until he had enough footage for the film cutter to work with. Ford had the film all cut in his head and didn't need the expense of shooting a lot of extra footage that would never be used in the movie.
This was in sharp contrast to what Mr. Dick Thorpe was permitted to do with MGM money on the Tarzan pictures. At Monogram, we had to be fast. The director had to know what the next set up was going to be and communicate that to the crew clearly and decisively.
Ford worked well with people on the set. He was open to suggestions and he could compromise or change his position. He was good working with the animals. He worked his story around available stock footage. He liked to have a good time, but he was all business when he was shooting. There were no retakes after the film was completed. We had to get it in the "can" the first time around.
I remember an incident on location in Bronson Canyon that illustrates how we all worked together. Ford wanted a "down shot" from the top of a peak that looked down on the action at a cave entrance below. This location has been used a million times in the movies especially in westerns.
Ford knew the area in detail and he knew exactly what he wanted. The down shot was to be taken over my shoulder so I had to get ready for the climb along with the camera crew. The Mitchell camera was placed on a tripod so the crew could carry it up to the top of the peak. It was not going to be easy to get up there with all the equipment, even though we were taking only the essential stuff with us. It seemed like it took us an hour to get up there and set up.
We had to coordinate the action below to my action of appearing in the corner of the frame. There was a little haze so cameraman Johnny Martin, before we left on our climb, decided we would use a certain filter to cut the haze. No more was said about the filter until we were in position getting ready to shoot. Martin was reading out his equipment checklist before we "rolled," but when he called out "filter"
Buddy Davidson, the first assistant cameraman, turned red in the face and said, "Oh, the FILTER!"
It was apparent that the 'FILTER' was left far below in the camera bag. Everyone broke out laughing and I think Ford laughed the most. It was getting late and the light was going and it was going to take 25 minutes or more to go get the filter and put it on the camera, so we could make the shot. Time is money and Ford could easily have "gone off," but that was not his nature. He asked the cameraman if we could shoot without the filter. Johnny Martin said he could shoot without it, but the results would be much better using it. Ford didn't like delays, but in this case he wanted the shot and said, "All right, get the filter."
From then on whenever anything held us up someone would say: "Oh! The FILTER!" and those "in the know" would have a great laugh. That would break the tension. Newcomers would ask, "what was that all about?" We would explain, but unless you had climbed up that peak in the fading light and moved into position to shoot only to find that you were stopped cold by a missing filter, I don't think you will really understand.
I met Ford Beebe for the first time on the set the morning of the first day of filming "Bomba, the Jungle Boy." I said farewell to Ford seven years later, on the set, in the evening after completing "The Lord of the Jungle." It was always the same: When Ford had the "set up" ready for the first scene of the picture he would call for me and we would meet center stage. We shook hands, I would say, "Good morning, Ford" and he would reply "Good morning, Johnny. Are you ready to go to work?" I would say yes and then it began. After Ford OK'd the last scene of the picture and the assistant director said, "Print it," Ford would always take me to center stage and say, with a grin, "There, Johnny. We've done it again! Contact your agent." I would always reply, "Thanks, Ford. It's been a pleasure working with you. We will have to do it again sometime." After this exchange we went our separate ways.
I never saw Ford again after making "The Lord of the Jungle." I have to close my eyes to do that and there he is wearing the white hat, jaw set, a twinkle in his eyes, with a smile on his face.
Knowing how to work rapidly and know your lines was crucial when working with a director like Ford Beebe, but that was only part of what yours truly had to do in order to survive in the movie jungles of Hollywood. I also had to stay fit.
Let's face it, the camera puts a few pounds on you. That's bad enough when you have a round, 'out-of-focus,' face like mine, but Bomba ran around in a leopard skin G-String and that compounded my problem.
All my female fans have told me that if Bomba ever showed up with a flabby "bod," they would have split - abandoned me immediately -- and all those theaters would have been empty. Fortunately, I had a swimmer's build, lots of athletic friends and lived in Hollywood, the Sex Capital of the World. We could ski in the morning, surf in the afternoon and dance at night. I never went to the gym. I didn't have to, thank, God. The secrets of my "Bomba" fitness program were swimming, snow skiing, surfing and dancing, so I had no excuses for not keeping in good shape.
I'd been staying fit all my life. When I was 7, Johnny Weissmuller taught me to swim and have fun in the water. Matt Kivilin, Jr. taught me to surf while I was attending University High School in West Los Angeles. Matt, Jr. was tall, dark, handsome and the best surfer I ever saw. He was ahead of me in school and he and a few of his friends taught me to surf. Joe Kwig glued up a redwood blank (We didn't use balsa wood in our boards that long ago) and helped me shape it. Bo, Jr. -- that's what we called Matt -- had a car, so after school we would pile into it and take off for Malibu.
I was a LOT smaller than Matt and his pals and those redwood boards were heavy. Usually, one of the guys would carry my board from the car down to the beach. From there I was strong enough to drag it in the sand down to the water. These guys were the champion surfers of the time and I got to chase waves with them up and down the Southern California coast and in Hawaii.
Surfing is fun and is great exercise and so is snow skiing. It was Matt Kivilin, Jr. who took me to Waterman Mountain near Los Angeles for my first skiing lesson. Matt was an important friend in my life and I appreciate the time he spent with me in my youth and I'll never forget him. Matt is now a successful architect and builder in the West Los Angeles and Malibu areas.
On many evenings, I was back at the beach surfing and playing Hawaiian and Tahitian music for the girls around our beach fire. That's how I became a Southern California surf & ski bum. There were some other actors on the beach back then. Do you remember Irish McCalla, better known as TV's 'Sheena, Queen of the Jungle'? She was there. So was Richard Jaeckel. We had plenty of Luaus and loved Hawaiian & Tahitian music. To round out my exercise program, Benny Chapman taught me to dance Tahitian.
The Chapman family were Tahitians and they were tall, dark and beautiful. I met Benny Chapman at a Luau in Santa Monica where he and his sister were dancing. Try a Tahitian "Knife Dance,"a "Fire Dance" or a 'Siva Siva' if you want to get in shape!
Benny Chapman and his sister, Vehi, danced professionally and they were terrific. Benny's other sister, Moea, was married to a musician, Harry Baty. The "Islander Room" at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where Harry was working was not far from Monogram where I was working. Benny was dancing there with his dancing partner, Tani Marsh. The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel held quite an attraction for me and often after work "Bomba" went from "Beyond the Rift" at Monogram to join my friends there in a chorus of "Beyond the Reef."
When I think back on Bomba's physical fitness program, I can only smile. The right combination of swimming, skiing, surfing, dancing, and singing kept me in tip-top condition, so I always reported for work with a smile on my face.
Now you may be wondering if I was such a hunk in those days and Bomba always had a gorgeous starlet cast opposite him, why didn't they ever let me at least kiss the girl before the credits said The End?
Well, don't blame me. I didn't make policy or write the scripts. I was in shape for it, brother, and, believe me, I was ready!
© 2000 by Johnny Sheffield