The Green Promise
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Few gentlemen, or even ladies, of a certain age can hear the term “boy actor” without immediately conjuring up the image of the great Johnny Sheffield. After all, what other actor in history of cinema gained his fame playing a character named “Boy”?
John Mathew Sheffield Cassan was born in 1931 in Pasadena , CA. The middle-in-rank of three children, his younger brother Billy would also end up in the acting trade. As a baby little Johnny was prone to illness, but his father, Reginald, was determined to change all that. Thus he created a daily regimen of exercise for his son that would eventually turn the once frail baby into a strapping and athletic boy.
Daddy Reggie was also a former child actor in his native England , and he had a hunch Johnny might do well to follow in his footsteps. And he was right. Success first came in 1938, in the form of a play entitled On Borrowed Time. Johnny was cast as a character called “Pud”, and gained much favorable critical attention both because of his inherent acting ability and his stamina in such a large role.
But Johnny’s career would take a tremendous leap a year later, when MGM decided that its already very successful pairing of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, as the Edgar Rice Burroughs created characters Tarzan and Jane, needed a little tweaking. So the studio placed an ad in Daily Variety that asked, “Have you a Tarzan Jr. in your backyard?” And, as luck would have it, Reginald Sheffield was reading the trade paper that morning and picked up the phone pronto.
Because Tarzan and Jane were not really married, they would have to “adopt” a son. And nearly three hundred Hollywood “orphans” showed up for the job. First up would be the traditional screen test, consisting of an acting scene. But then, there would also be a swimming test as well. After all, any respectable son of Tarzan would have to be able to outrace a crocodile!
Johnny aced his way through the screen test, with his charm and acting chops in fine form. But the swimming was going to be a problem - because the kid couldn’t swim a lick. But once again, luck was on his side. Johnny Weissmuller had already taken a liking to this curly-topped prospective co-star, and he decided that he would conduct the swim test himself.
So off everyone went to the famed Hollywood Athletic Club. There, Olympic medalist Big John dived skillfully into the deep end of the pool. And then he beckoned Little John ( Sheffield ) to follow him in. Naturally, the boy was scared, but Tarzan was able to talk him into the water. Then he deftly pulled Little John to him, sat him up on to his big knee, and pronounced to the watching studio big-wigs that the kid could swim just fine and had the job.
Tarzan Finds a Son was filmed in 1939, on the MGM back lot and in Silver Springs , FL. It was, to be sure, every kid’s dream come true. Running around nearly naked in a loincloth, swinging through the huge trees on vines (fake, of course), and all with Tarzan, Jane, and Cheetah by your side.
In all, both Johnnys, plus the lovely Ms. O’Sullivan, would make three Tarzan movies together at MGM in three years. Johnny Sheffield would also squeeze in a few other film appearances as well during this time, including Babes in Arms(1939) and Knute Rockne, All American (1940). But the jungle pictures were clearly his forte.
For unknown reasons, MGM suddenly decided it wanted out of the ape-man business in 1943. This though 1942’s Tarzan’s New York Adventure (Johnny Sheffield’s personal favorite) was a box-office hit. So off to RKO Johnny and his movie family would go.
But there was a hitch; Maureen O’Sullivan would not be making the journey with the two Johnnys. At RKO, Little John would be getting a new “mother”. Yes, she would be Jane, but she would be played now by the beautiful and blonde Brenda Joyce.
Now, at first, this was a bit distressing for thirteen-year-old Johnny. His father Reggie had to explain to him that he must treat his new screen parent with the same respect he had bestowed upon Ms. O’Sullivan. And Johnny begrudgingly understood. But then, surprise - puberty kicked in and Johnny was suddenly all for this sultry new actress thrust into his life.
The dynamics may have changed more than slightly, but the movies kept their appeal, and they kept on coming. In all Johnny would make eight Tarzan movies, the last being Tarzan and the Huntress, in 1947. It was a great run, but it was not time to take off the loincloth just quite yet.
In 1949, Monogram Pictures acquired the rights to Roy Rockwood’s book, Bomba the Jungle Boy, and now Johnny Sheffield would be the king of his own African paradise. The budgets were low, there was stock footage aplenty, and the scripts were hokey. But American kids still loved the idea of living wild in the jungle. And in all, Johnny would star in a dozen Bomba films, ending in 1955 with Lord of the Jungle.
By the time filming had ended, Johnny was in college part-time, and he now switched to full. He would major in business and become an entrepreneur of many sorts for the rest of his life. And to his credit, his father Reginald had invested Johnny’s movie earnings wisely. Our much beloved Boy/Bomba had become a rather extensive owner of San Fernando Valley real estate that would keep Johnny, and his eventual wife and children, quite comfortable even to this day. And to that we say, Umgawa!
Trivia: Johnny and his brother, Billy Sheffield, were both in Knute Rockne All American (1940), playing Knute Rockne at different ages.
On October 15, 2010 Johnny suffered a fatal heart attack at his home.