Johnny Sheffield made a career of playing jungle boys. He was “Boy” to Weissmuller’s Tarzan in eight films, starting with Tarzan Finds a Son in 1939 and ending with Tarzan and the Huntress in 1947. Then he did twelve more pictures as Bombaa kind of a junior Tarzanfrom Bomba the Jungle Boy in 1949 to Lord of the Jungle in 1955. There was even an attempt to parlay this unique success into a television series (titled Bantu the Zebra Boy), but this never got beyond the pilot stage.
Jon Matthew Sheffield Cassan was born in Pasadena, California, in 1931. The story is that he was a scrawny child who regained his health and vitality through a regimen of exercise designed by his father, actor Reginald Sheffield (who had himself been a juvenile star). It was Sheffield Sr. who spotted the Hollywood Reporter ad asking “Have you a Tarzan Jr. in your backyard?” Young Jon was one of 300 applicants for the role of Boy and won the part with the blessing of Weissmuller himself, who helped the novice actor pass an essential swimming test, despite the fact he couldn’t swim.
Tarzan Finds a Son was the fourth of the Weissmuller Tarzan films, with Boy added to give them more family appeal. Because Jane and Tarzan aren’t formally married, the Production Code wouldn’t allow them to have a child of their own (of course their jungle frolics could only have been perfectly chaste), so they quite literally find Boythe baby is the sole survivor of a jungle plane crash.
It’s satisfying to learn that Sheffield only has fond memories of making the Tarzan films and of working with swimming champ Weissmuller. But then, while other kids had to make do playing Tarzan in their backyards, Johnny had the MGM (and later, RKO) jungles to have adventures in, along side the real live King of the Jungle. Not surprisingly, he names the first Tarzan film he made as his particular favorite:
“It was the beginning. I got my first baby elephant, Bea, rode in my first private railroad car to location in Florida, I was introduced to my fabulous tree house home, I got my own chimps to play with, I got to feed dailyfor a timeLeo the Metro Goldwyn Mayer lion, I was present when my contract was negotiated with Sam Zimbalist, and I personally picked up my first movie check! These were all firsts and wonderful events in my life that happened before and during the filming of Tarzan Finds a Son.”
He remembers his movie father with particular affection, as a good friend and positive role model:
“…Johnny Weissmuller was happy, buoyant, generous, playful, unassuminghe 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. By working, playing, and being with Johnny Weissmuller, I was able to see and understand that and start a little clock of my own ticking away in me. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. He was Tarzan, he was my coach, and most important, Big John was my friend. Wherever I go, he goes with me.”
When Sheffield out-grew being Boy (the character was “sent away to school” in the final Weissmuller Tarzan, Tarzan and the Mermaids), he was recruited to be Monogram’s Bomba. These B-adventure pics were made quick and cheap, but had their own kind of success, in the days before television’s popularity really took hold. When the series wrapped and Bantu failed to find a sponsor, Johnny retired from acting and went back to school, earning a business degree from UCLA. He seems to have made a place for himself in the real world, content with memories of having experienced a life most kids could only dream about.
At right with Weissmuller in Tarzan Finds a Son (1939), a Belgian poster for Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941), in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), and as Bomba (1951).
“Sheffield played occasional roles fully dressed, but it was in loincloth that he was the envy of every child in the world for more than a decade.” Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia