Johnny Sheffield was Tarzan’s ‘Boy’

  • Mon Oct 18th, 2010 7:01pm
  • News

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Johnny Sheffield, the former child actor who played Boy in the “Tarzan” movie series starring Johnny Weissmuller in the late 1930s and ‘40s and later starred in the “Bomba, the Jungle Boy” film series, died Friday of a heart attack at his home in Chula Vista, near San Diego, at age 79.

He died about four hours after he fell off a ladder while pruning a palm tree, said his wife, Patty.

“He was a jungle boy to the end,” she said.

The curly-haired Sheffield, at age 7, beat out more than 300 other youngsters for the role of Boy in the 1939 movie “Tarzan Finds a Son!,” in which Tarzan and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) wind up adopting the young child whose parents were killed in a plane crash in the jungle.

Sheffield has said one of the parts in testing for the role of Boy involved swimming with Weissmuller, the winner of five Olympic gold medals in swimming, and Sheffield couldn’t swim.

“He jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool,” Sheffield said. “He knew I couldn’t swim. He said, ‘Jump in.’ I jumped in the deep end and he took my arm and set me on his knee. He said, ‘You’re doing fine. Hold your breath, we’re going under.’

“We (later) did a lot of those scenes like that in the movies, where I was holding on to him underwater and swimming. We got out of the pool … and he said, ‘This kid can swim fine.’ ”

From 1939 to 1947, Johnny Sheffield played Boy in eight Tarzan films, including “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” and “Tarzan and the Amazons.”

“He was like a father to me,” Sheffield said of Weissmuller. “He was always looking out for me. We worked with a lot of live animals and a lot of times, when they got tired, the animals would get feisty.

“There was this one big chimp who got pretty mad one day and was about to bite me while we were on the set. But Big John stuck his leg between me and the chimp, and he was the one who was bitten.”

He later went into the real estate business in Malibu and Carmel, then spent many years working for a corporation that imported lobsters from Baja California and became a contractor whose projects included restoring a couple of buildings in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.