June 18, 2004
Growing up as a Jane, it was inevitable that I would be “married” to Tarzan by proxy. Jane was an uncommon name, and it seldom went unnoticed. “Hey, Jane, where’s Tarzan?”
Tarzan played by Johnny Weissmuller was the dream man for many a woman in the 30’s and 40’s, a man’s man for the guys. A stud of the first degree, Tarzan trained elephants, fought hostile natives, battled a giant octopus, rescued fair maiden Jane, and…raised a son.
In the 1939 film, Tarzan Finds a Son, Cheetah rescued a baby boy, the only survivor of a small plane crash in the jungle. And for eight movies Tarzan and Boy were inseparable, a duo, a team, a flash of figures flying through the jungle air together.
Boy was played by another “Johnny”…Johnny Sheffield. Already a professional actor at the age of seven, he was one of over 300 boys who answered the casting call. “I’ll never forget going with one of the world’s all-time greatest swimmers to the Hollywood Athletic Club for the test,” Sheffield tells Matt Winans many years later. “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.”
When Little John arrived at poolside, Big John dove into the deep end of 10-foot tank and swam out. “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.”
Swimming was just the first of many adventures for Little John. “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….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.”
While we remember today the jungle stories of Tarzan, it is touching to hear what Sheffield remembers about his real Jungle Father. “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.
“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.”
Big John loved golf and always had his clubs in the trunk of his Lincoln Continental. On the set, he would call Little John over to “hit a few balls” together, and they improvised an early form of “Frisbee,” flying the top of a 35mm film can lid. “It was fun doing things with Big John….He encouraged me always. He instructed me and said, ‘You can do it, Johnny; go ahead and try.’”
If art imitates life, we can be grateful for the relationship of a grown man and a young boy that translated into the fantasy of Tarzan and Boy. “I learned spiritual things from my jungle father… When Boy got out of line, Tarzan was there to point it out. ‘Boy, Bad!’ Then in a twinkle of dad’s eye I was forgiven and we went on to experience more of this life adventure.
“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 and that I could always count on him for guidance and protection; all I had to do was call. I learned then and know now when and how to call for backup, thank God.”
Today, when we turn on an old Tarzan film, it’s a good reminder of what really matters. In eight movies, Boy mastered the art of living in the jungle. Better still, in real life with Big John, he learned the art of living period. No wonder. He studied with the best of jungle-dwellers… a man of character, a friend, a dad.
Happy Father’s Day!
To read the full on-line interview of Johnny Sheffield by Matt Winans, go to: http://www.tarzanmovieguide.com/sheffint.htm
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