Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Son of Tarzan: Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye....

By Jim Heffernan
Johnny Sheffield
as Bomba the Jungle Boy
Former jungle boy dies in fall from palm tree...
Not too many people think of Johnny Sheffield as a household name. You even wonder if he was a household name in his own household.

But he has always been a household name around my house. Johnny Sheffield had quite a career in the movies, first as Tarzan’s son, whose name was simply “Boy,” and later as “Bomba the Jungle Boy.”

Sheffield died Oct. 15 in California at the age of 79. Seventy-nine. Think of it. Boy at 79. Here’s some of the back story, a mix of information in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times and my own memory.

When the powers that were at MGM in the late 1930s thought they needed to beef up the Tarzan franchise (as if movies with Johnny Weissmuller as the star needed beefing up), they decided to present Tarzan and wife Jane with a son. Young Sheffield got the part.

The boy was not the issue of Tarzan and Jane, though. He was found in the jungle after surviving a plane crash that killed his parents. Luckier than Tarzan, who was raised by apes after being washed ashore in Africa following a shipwreck that claimed the lives of his parents, Boy was rescued by humans who lived in a really neat tree house in the back-lot jungle at MGM.

By naming him Boy it started a Hollywood trend that led eventually to Audrey Hepburn naming her cat “Cat” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Unfortunately, by the end of the 1940s, Weissmuller got fat and Boy grew up. Jane, played originally by Maureen O’Sullivan, had moved on to her biggest role: The real-life mother of Mia Farrow.

Oh, but I’m going way deeper into this than I intended to.

I just wanted to recall the last time I saw Johnny Sheffield in a movie. It was September 1970 in the maternity ward at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth. I had been kicked out of the labor room where my wife was laboring, and told to go to a smoking lounge to wait while she was wheeled into the delivery room. (Smoking lounge – how about that. And no hubbies in the delivery room in those days.)

I did what I was told, and lo and behold, a TV in the smoking lounge was tuned to an old movie, “Bomba the Jungle Boy” with Johnny Sheffield in the title role. So I settled in to watch Bomba swing through the jungle Tarzan-like combating greedy bad guys who – here’s a surprise – were after illicit gold. Imagine that.

Then, right in the middle of an exciting part (pygmies with poison darts had appeared on the scene), a nurse came and told me my wife had given birth to a healthy girl, our first child. Joy all around, of course, as I was escorted into still another room to meet the new baby. That child turned 40 last month.

But for 40 years I’ve wondered how that Bomba movie came out. And now Johnny Sheffield is dead, and I’m not feeling that great myself. (I’m fine; I just stole that line from somebody who said it about Elvis when he died.)

Post mortem: The L.A. Times reported that Sheffield died after falling out of a palm tree. You always hope that when you go it will be without irony. Doesn’t always work out that way though.

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