Quality Books for Intelligent Readers
A Foreword to "Twice the Hero" by Johnny Sheffield
“Not Good for Man to Look at Sun”
FIRST THINGS FIRST... Before telling you about Johnny Weissmuller, my Tarzan father, and my “Jungle Family,” I want you to know a little about my real family. I was BLESSED with an extraordinary and wonderful childhood with caring, loving, teaching parents who were probably the most popular mother/father combo among all the children in the neighborhood. Quite aside from being GREAT parents, my father, Reginald, was a successful English stage and screen actor, director, and producer whose work you may have seen and my mother, Louise Van Loon, was a “Vassar Girl” with a liberal arts education who LOVED books and lectured.
Mother was my data bank and father taught me his profession. He had me “On the Boards” early and on Broadway in the starring role of “Pud” in On Borrowed Time at six-and-a-half years. I had a beautiful and charming older sister, Mary Alice, and still have my younger brother, William. They gave me some great nieces and nephews and we all are connected through the Internet. Patty, my cherished wife, and I have three treasured children, Patrick, Stewart, and Regina. No grandchildren, yet. So as a child growing up, I enjoyed the best of TWO family lives; one real and one fantasy. BOTH were, and still are, very near and dear to me.
NOW A REQUEST... I have wondered whether “Twice the Hero,” the title of this new book, is HERO enough when it comes to the GREATNESS of Johnny Weissmuller. TWICE may be a little conservative. Perhaps it should be THRICE or MORE. It’s MORE for me; I truly believe it’s a LOT MORE! You be the judge. After reading this biography, as carefully written by David Fury, please let me know how many heroes Johnny Weissmuller is for you.
DAVID FURY — movie fan, collector, author, biographer, and publisher... Over the years I came to recognize David Fury as a fan/collector. He made his written requests on his personal letterhead which featured a rather distinctive profile of the bearded author wearing what I would describe as a Van Gogh hat. This pleasing profile caught my eye, so one day I gave David my Internet address. Through e-mail I came to know more about Dave and recognized him as a serious movie fan, historian, author, and publisher. Our friendship grew until 05:55:01 on January 8, 1999, when I received the following request via “Electronic Drums.”
“Would you consider writing a Foreword for Twice the Hero? I’d be greatly honored if you would; I think it would be appreciated by everyone who reads the book. I think you could say some things to honor Johnny that no one else on this planet could...”
I knew David was working on this biography and have encouraged him along the way. I wanted to read it. So, when David dropped it on me to write the Foreword for Twice the Hero I was flattered! This request came as a surprise. I thought for a moment and wondered what Big John would want me to do. The answer came fast: “Umgawa, Boy, Umgawa!” I quickly answered: “I would be honored to write the Foreword.” I always read the entire foreword in any book I start, but if you, the reader, feel I am “Padding the Part” too much, the option is wide open to skip on ahead and read this later.
I am not a biographer nor a literary critic. Many biographers fail to research thoroughly their subject and fail to separate fact from fiction. They perpetuate stories and events that are untrue or just never happened. There are some “Tall Tales” included in this volume which are entertaining and to be expected in material dealing with “Show Business.” Enjoy them; we won’t blame you if you are suspicious. I know first hand only the small portion of Big John’s life covering the times we were together making Tarzan films. This is a faithful and accurate work with respect to our shared experience. The book speaks for itself. I am hopeful you will appreciate the thoroughness and skill that went into its making. The enlightening quotes and graphics that warm these pages remind me of the time I was an INSIDER, when I was actually involved in the Life Story of Johnny Weissmuller. Personally, I have learned from this biography much about Big John’s life I didn’t know before. I think you will too.
I was seven-years-old when I first met Johnny Weissmuller and in the next nine years we made eight Tarzan pictures together. We were CLOSE. I knew he was an Olympic champion and ALL that, but I didn’t know a great deal about his life history as revealed in this wonderful book. It has taken 50+ years to fully understand how spending my formative years (seven years to l6 years) under the wing of a world champion has affected my life. I would like to share some of that with you here.
FOR OPENERS... It’s always the same when I am interviewed about Tarzan. Since I was seven-years-old to the present, my answers have changed, but the questions remain the same. It didn’t matter where I was in the world or where I am today the FIRST question is: “Are you REALLY the Johnny Sheffield who played ‘Boy’ on TARZAN with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan?” And the SECOND question is ALWAYS: “What was it like working with Johnny Weissmuller?”
My answer is YES to the first question. After having had 61 years to think about it, I want to share with you my current response to Question #2.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE working with Johnny Weissmuller? I knew one day I would become the last living member of my “Jungle Family” and I could then say anything I wished about those times without fear of contradiction. Yes, Big John had a BAD SIDE! You never saw it, but it was there. Johnny Weissmuller was a Superstar whether he was performing on the “Silver Screen,” in the water “Swimming for Gold,” or just walking around. Wherever he went Big John gave off a special light and it shown for all of us to see. Fortunately, some of that light got into me.
I first met Big John 62 years ago at M.G.M. He has been with me ever since, creating a lasting influence on my life. I didn’t know it then, but as time passed I could see very clearly how Big John was different from most and how being around him started a clock ticking in my head a lot like the one in his. Here, right in my life, was a champion, an UNDEFEATED Olympic world champion. There are a lot of us who feel he is UNBEATABLE as the character of Tarzan as well. The most important thing for me about Johnny Weissmuller is he always had time for Boy/me. This man might well have been aloof with no time for me other than what was called for in the script. This was not the case. Johnny Weissmuller loved me and I knew it and I loved him. When I was near, he always had a kind word for me when I might easily have passed by unnoticed.
FUN & GAMES WITH TARZAN... Big John loved to PLAY. He liked good-looking women, flashy clothes and toys. He owned a Lincoln with the “Continental Pack” on the back; he loved that Lincoln. He drove it on the studio lot and to and from location. In the trunk he kept his golf clubs and practice balls as well as some swimming gear (i.e., trunks, face plate, and swim fins). Behind the scenes Big John would play with me. On location, when I wasn’t in school, he would call me and we would go over to that Continental trunk for some golf gear and would “hit a few balls” together. Tarzan loved golf. We played “Hollywood frisbee.” We used the lid from a 35mm film can as that was before there were commercial frisbees on the market. Big John loved to WIN and he gave me HIS WINNING ATTITUDE. He said to think of it this way: “When they step up look down the line and SEE that there are two kinds there (swimmers, golfers, card players, etc.)—the ones who are going to LOSE and ME!” Hey, it worked for Big John. On the set, Big John taught me how to play gin rummy. He always wanted to WIN and usually did. He got a special TWINKLE in his eye when he got a FAST GO DOWN hand and stuck me with a lot of cards. He loved to lean forward a bit and get in my face and say: “GIN! Count ‘em up, Boy!” Sometimes I caught him with a fist full of cards and I KNEW what to DO, FEEL, and SAY! Big John gave me his love for winning.
I am often asked, “What was it like swimming with Tarzan?” Well, Big John was NEVER DEFEATED in his swimming career. I know I never beat him! He was like a motorboat in the water. Carl Curtis at his Beverly Hills Swimming School taught me how to keep from DROWNING and TARZAN taught me how to SWIM. The thing I remember most about swimming with Johnny Weissmuller was that he was always playing around in and with the water. He would come up close to you, put his face down in the water, and start turning his head from side to side blowing bubbles and making very loud incomprehensible sounds. Suddenly, he would sweep his head up in your face with an EXPLOSIVE shout ASKING: “How old are you!?” This startled me and we would laugh. In the water together we always made “Oink Oink, Ahhnnk Ahhnnk” and other seal-like noises antiphonally to each other. That was a GIVEN among “water men.”
Big John would cup his two hands together underwater and pull water into his palms. Then he would lift them above water and, through an orifice made where his little fingers lapped, he would SQUIRT a steady stream of water right in your eyes. He would repeat that a couple of times and then as if by mistake, he would let the water come out backwards through his thumbs and squirt HIMSELF right in the face! Then we really laughed! It makes me feel good all over just thinking about it. This little SQUIRT business was always good for a belly laugh between us and from the spectators and crew.
When we swam together Big John would instruct me in ways to improve my stroke. He had other swimming tips for me. He showed me how to swim in the Chicago river. That was really funny and informative. Because of the debris and fecal matter, he instructed me to do a sort of breast/splash stroke using my cupped palms to splash water away from my head when reaching out for the power stroke.
As yet I have not swum in the Chicago river, but armed with this Weissmuller technique I have swum safely in other waters. So have many of our fighting men who were taught, by Big John, the same technique to swim safely in Flaming Waters during the 2nd World War. He showed me where to hold the water on my forehead for racing and how to hold my head out of the water while swimming for the camera. That was difficult, but Big John showed me a little trick when he instructed me to “slip on these Owen Churchill swim fins for the camera.” You couldn’t see them and it made me feel as powerful as a crocodile! Some of the swimming we did for the camera was difficult and scary; Big John coached me through it all and I improved over the years. Imagine what it was like as a BOY to have Johnny Weissmuller as my personal Swimming Pal! Swimming was PLAY with Tarzan and Boy. When Big John gave me instruction, he swam or stood close to me. He held my hand or shoulder and engaged my eyes with his, smiled and spoke to me softly. He encouraged me always. He instructed me and said, “You can do it, Johnny; go ahead and try.” It was good for me being with and doing things with this champion. Whether on location or at the studio cafeteria, Big John had a place for me at his table. We didn’t always eat together, but there was a place for me. My real father saw the importance of this relationship and would allow me to go places alone with Big John. Big John took me to swimming and diving competitions, to the beach for a rough water swim; they would be having a diving contest off a pier somewhere and we would go. When we went off together, Big John was accompanied by his friends. They were all champions. Imagine being at a diving or swimming event and being introduced right along with Johnny Weissmuller, Stubby Kruger and Sammy Lee. You hang around champions like that and it rubs off — especially if you are young. You start to think you are a Champion, too! Sometimes we went out to lunch together. Sammy liked “Stink Fish” and Big John would take us all to lunch at an old oriental cafe in downtown Los Angeles to try the Stink Fish; Stubby and I liked the Duck!
The point is Johnny Weissmuller was happy, buoyant, generous, playful, unassuming, 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. You can start one too. Fun and Games with Big John for me was an opportunity of a lifetime. He was Tarzan, I was Boy, he was my coach, and most important, Big John was my friend. To this day, wherever I go, he goes with me!
JANE... I think in a Johnny Weissmuller Foreword it is fitting that I add a word about Big John’s first Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan. She was my first Jungle mother and Tarzan and I loved her a lot. Maureen was the Jane of the much quoted “Me Tarzan, you Jane” scene and without her in Tarzan Finds a Son, Tarzan might have named me “Elephant”! Jane prevailed and I was named Boy and the movie days of my Tarzan, Jane, Boy, and Cheetah family began. There was Tarzan with “Jungle Wisdom” and the physique of a world champion and Jane with a calming voice and a “figure” that could stop an elephant! Imagine growing up with such parents! You may have noticed we all had a pretty good (GREAT) time together in our Edgar Rice Burroughs’ escarpment hangout. Maureen and Big John shared a common desire to do other films and not be forever typed as Tarzan and Jane. At that time, Maureen O’Sullivan wanted to be remembered for her acting abilities which she felt were limited by the role as Jane, so she left my Tarzan family for bigger and better roles.
The last time I saw Maureen personally was February 15, 1993, while attending the annual American Cinema Awards charity banquette in Hollywood. I was talking to Uncle Milty (Milton Berle), who was seated across from me, when I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice say, “Hello, Boy, how are you?” That voice, Maureen’s voice, took me back 51 years. Before I turned around to look, I could see all of my jungle family in my mind. Tarzan, Jane, Cheetah, Bulie, Leo, and myself all together in our escarpment paradise. What a moment. In the course of that evening, Maureen confided in me that in spite of all the roles she had played in her life, she now felt fortunate to have played Jane with Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan series and fortunate the Weissmuller Tarzan series became a Classic and that she was reconciled to that fact. Maureen was a working actress all her life and played many other roles, but she will be remembered for “All Time” for her role of Jane in the Weissmuller Tarzan adventures. I love and remember her as my Jungle mother and all that that means to me.
SEX & THE JUNGLE... My sexual education was not lacking as Boy. As a lad, when my father, Reginald, was teaching me about the “Birds and the Bees,” Tarzan was teaching me about the “Crocodiles and the Flamingos.” So, by the time I reached adolescence I was pretty well informed on the subject. I remember one day while rehearsing a scene Big John caught me STARING at Jane’s curves. I came out of it when he nudged me on the shoulder. I looked up at Big John and he was smiling. He said quietly to me: “Pretty nice, Boy, huh?” I had to agree, but boy was I embarrassed. Tarzan then said for ALL to hear: “Boy growing up, now!” I guess it was pretty obvious to the whole crew the discovery I had made. After that my education grew.
That one was on me and this one is on Big John. There was a time when we had a CALL other than the Tarzan yell on the set. “Brenda Swims Tonight” echoed around the sound stage. Perhaps it is time that you be let in on it. Big John was training a young woman swimmer, Brenda, for a series of races. (Please understand this “Brenda” was not Brenda Joyce, my second Jane.) She was under his care and in STRICT TRAINING. The idea was to reserve all her strength for the competition and that meant NO SEX just before a race. This approach was not working as Brenda was not winning. Big John told me he was going to try something new. So when Tarzan told me, “Brenda Swims Tonight,” I knew what that meant. She WON! Soon the crew caught on and were delighted when Big John came on the set and announced: “Brenda Swims Tonight.” My jungle schooling has stood me well. Patty, my beautiful wife, and I just celebrated 41 years of marriage. On the escarpment or anywhere else, Big John taught me a healthy attitude about SEX. He had a little trouble with the marriage thing at first; I have not, so far, thank God!
BEST SIDE FORWARD... Remember I said Big John had a “Bad Side”? Well, it’s true; at least he thought so. He told me that in his youth he was struck in the throat by a blow dart which left a very visible scar on the side of his neck. Big John thought it was UGLY and would not permit himself to be filmed close-up from that angle as he preferred to put his “Best Side” toward the camera. Well, I can tell you he looked GREAT from any angle. You always got the best side from Big John. Do you remember the side from which Big John was never shot close up?
BIG JOHN was a Superstar with a capital “S”... he was a world champion Olympic swimmer, a champion Tarzan among some great Tarzans, and he NEVER endorsed cigarettes or whiskey. These endorsements were there for him and would have brought him $$$$ BIG BUCKS $$$$ when he needed money, but he refused to take them. Now that’s a genuine HERO for you. When Big John died I called a news conference which was picked up by most of the news services. You may have read about it. I wanted the world to know how I loved him and that he was a great father for “Boy” and me.
The last time I saw Big John alive I was hitting six-irons on the practice fairway at the Riviera, my home golf club in Los Angeles. The word came down that my Jungle father, TARZAN, was getting ready to tee off on #1 above me. When I saw Big John’s foursome crossing the Barranca coming down the fairway toward me to make their second shots on #2, I cut loose with Boy’s Tarzan yell and Big John answered with his famous Tarzan yell. The golf course stopped. He left his group and came over to me and we talked. Big John watched me hit a couple and encouraged me and hit a couple himself. It was like old times by that Continental trunk. I looked at him and he looked at me. We both looked down to the practice green where our shots were resting. Then we looked at each other again and had a Great Laugh. We both hit ‘em pretty darn good. He ruffled my hair. On the way back to rejoin his foursome he turned and smiled. It never mattered what Big John was doing — he always had time for me. That was the last time I saw my jungle father alive.
FAME... Tony Curtis said it best. You find something you like to do and learn how to do it well enough to gain recognition. If you are LUCKY you attain FAME. Then you have to learn another profession; how to DO fame. Maybe you can have a private life, but you must learn to do FAME first. Big John LEARNED to do FAME like the champion he was.
AND NOW... Umgawa, my dear Reader, Umgawa... ende