Johnny Sheffield, Tarzan's 'Boy,' Dies At 79

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NPR's Robert Siegel has this remembrance of actor Johnny Sheffield, who played "Boy" in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and '40s. Sheffield was 79 and died Monday at his home in Chula Vista, Calif., after falling from a ladder.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We got word today that actor Johnny Sheffield has died. He would be 79 years old. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, we'd like to take you back for a moment to 1939, moviemakers had a problem. They wanted the onscreen family of Tarzan to expand. There was Johnny Weissmuller as the vine-swinging He-Man. Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. And Cheetah the Chimp as, well, Cheetah the Chimp.

But a natural birth was out of the question. After all, Tarzan and Jane lived in sin as well as in the jungle. They never got around to marrying. And because of that, movie censors would not let Jane get pregnant. So Tarzan found his son.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Tarzan")

Ms. MAUREEN O'SULLIVAN (Actor): (as Jane Parker) Baby's got to have a name.

Mr. JOHNNY WEISSMULLER (Actor): (as Tarzan) Call it Boy.

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: Oh, but that's not a name.

Mr. WEISSMULLER: Boy.

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: Well, after all I am his mother.

Mr. WEISSMULLER: Tarzan father, call Boy.

SIEGEL: And Boy was played by then nine-year-old Johnny Sheffield.

Father and son swung from trees and bonded onscreen. Here, Tarzan tells strange joke, Boy laugh.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Tarzan")

Mr. WEISSMULLER: (As Tarzan) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. JOHNNY SHEFFIELD (Actor): (As Boy) (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: It must have been on the delivery.

In all, Sheffield made eight Tarzan movies before going on to play more jungle-themed characters with proper names. He was Bomba the Jungle Boy in a dozen films, plus Bantu the Zebra Boy in a failed TV pilot. But still, we'll always remember Johnny Sheffield, the man, as Boy.

(Soundbite of yelling)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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