One morning in my office, about three months ago, I opened the door to begin my day as I always do. I have a daily routine, as I’m sure you do as well. I get my computer up and running, hit the speaker phone so my hands will be free, and open my voice mails. As I’m getting my files arranged, my voice mails pop up for any/all to hear. Nothing unusual there. But this morning, as my messages were being recited, the mail clerk walks in to a loud Tarzan yell echoing and bouncing off the walls! I immediately picked up the hand set as the clerk look at me and rolled her eyes. Big Johnny Sheffield had struck again!
Johnny, or “Big John,” as he liked to be called, is probably best known for his movie career, playing “Boy” in the Johnny Weismueller “Tarzan” films and following that with another jungle series, Bomba, the Jungle Boy. Longtime readers of this blog know that he and I have been buddies for a very long time. I posted this story on him earlier this year recounting our great adventure in Mexico, smoking Cubans and evading the Mexican police:
But today, there is not much laughter or jungle calls emerging from my voicemails, because Johnny Sheffield passed away Friday, October 15. He was 79. Big John, always the athlete and adventurer, fell with his ladder while trying to trim a palm tree in his yard. He suffered a heart attack after the fall, which took his life far too soon.
After hearing the news from Patty last night, I had a powerful sense of deja vu. I pulled my file on Big John and found this passage from a letter written to me on April 23, 1998:
“I took a great fall while working at my house last week, from about 11 feet! The vine snapped! I am much improved now, though … BTW, if it’s all the same to you, I would like to keep this FALL thing confidential! I would REALLY catch hell if Tarzan and Jane find out!”
There are plenty of places to go to find out all you’d want to discover about John Sheffield, the actor. So let me tell you alittle about the man I loved like an older brother.
When I think of Big John, I will always visualize three categories, in reverse order:
#3: His accomplishments as a professional actor.
John was very proud of his professional acting career, as he should be. He credited his dad with instilling a work ethic that drove him to success at every step along the way. After that, he always spoke lovingly of his “on screen dad,” Johnny Weismueller. He once told me that when Weismueller was making his mark as a swimmer that would lead to Olympic gold and the role of Tarzan, he would look left and right before jumping into the pool, “just to try and guess who would come in second.” That kind of confidence had quite an influence on young John Sheffield, and he passed it along to me every time we spoke. “Stay young and keep dreaming big dreams,” he’d tell me often.
The trailer for Tarzan Finds A Son, Big John’s debut as “Boy, Son of Tarzan!” Watch, listen and enjoy the jungle yell he loved to launch over the telephone!
He, of course, starred as his own version of the jungle lord, Bomba, in twelve serials in the 50s. I had the great honor of watching Bomba and the Jungle Girl with John and co-star Karen Sharpe together at a small screening in 1998. His commentary was priceless. He was proud of his nickname, “One take Johnny.” Rightfully so!
#2: His love of life, especially ANYTHING American!
John never did anything halfway. He was full of life 24/7 and was so very proud of his country. And of course, he was an avid supporter of the military. Mix in his confidence and there was NEVER any doubt that he was in charge! I once made the mistake of telling him I was not certain I’d make the cut to full bird colonel. I’m still smarting from the butt chewing he gave me. And during my last tour in Iraq in 2005? He sent me almost daily e-mails and letters, always telling me how proud he was of me and how much he loved me. It’s impossible to recover from losing a friend so passionate and supportive. We spoke to each other in code … I called him #42, I was #43. Check out my blog link above to discover why, but he’d ALWAYS sign his notes, letters or e-mails to me as #42. Funny how such little things suddenly become so large when it’s over.
#1: His love for his family and friends.
What can I say here? I had the pleasure of being welcomed into John’s inner circle and he made it clear that I was family to him. From his home in Chula Vista to the snack bar on Scott Air Force Base (his brother lived in nearby St. Louis when I was stationed there) to Mexico and everywhere in between, he always had my best interests in mind. When I took my son, Nick, to meet John one weekend in Charlotte in 1998, I offered my hand to him as we prepared to leave. He was furious! “You don’t get away from me with a handshake, pal,” he roared, grabbing me in a bear hug. “I love you, Bill!” He’d tell me the same at the end of every letter, e-mail, visit or phone call. And he meant it!
Mutual friend Len Conrad, who had almost daily contact with him, summed John’s life up perfectly:
[I was amazed by] his self-confidence and courage to attack, and doggedly finish! Anything, right up to Saturday 16 October 2010 always amazed me. Computers, software, wireless routers, Internet, fishing, plumbing, carpentry, cabinetry, gardening, home remodeling in Yuma, movie business, home building, real estate, diet, etc, etc. … his passions for food and cooking. He will inspire me always as enter my later years.
He knew he didn’t have many years left, and was particularly energetic in wanting to leave his house and rent properties in good shape for his family. Quit wasn’t in his vocabulary. And always the theatrical ham, hitting his marks, and finding great humor in everything.
Good bye, my dear friend, mentor, and inspiration. I was touched by greatness when you came into my life. Umgawa, Jungle Boy! See you later, #42! I will never forget you!