Maureen O'Sullivan was born in county Roscommon, in north-central Ireland on May 17, 1911, and was educated at the convent of the Sacred Heart in Dublin, and at a finishing school in Paris. Her father was an adjutant of the Connaught Rangers in Roscommon barracks and one of the town's leading citizens.
Her movie career began by accident in 1929, when director Frank Borzage was in Ireland to film some scenes for Song o' My Heart, starring Irish tenor John McCormack. Maureen's father, visiting her in Dublin, took her to a party given by Borzage, and the latter was immediately impressed by the young girl's charm and suggested that she play the role of McCormack's daughter in the film.
Initially, her parents were against the girl's going to Hollywood, but McCormack, whom they greatly respected, promised to look out for the girl and so they consented, but O'Sullivan's mother went along anyway.
A few months after she came to Hollywood, Maureen met her future husband John Villiers Farrow, a former Australian Research Scientist turned writer. It was at the Fox Studios, and Miss O'Sullivan was doing a film called Just Imagine (a musical fantasy about 1980). She was looking for her director David Butler at the time, as she was on early call and she wanted to look at something in the rushes. She did not know where his office was and wandered into Farrow's office by mistake. Farrow later told her that he thought she had done it on purpose. Then they made a date on her birthday. They did not marry until 1936, at which time Farrow was working on Tarzan Escapes, both as a junior scripter and part-time director.
When MGM began looking for someone to play the role of Jane, Maureen had just left 20th Century Fox. They had originally planned to keep her around to keep their troublesome star Janet Gaynor in line. When that did not work out, they let her go. Nineteen, alone in Hollywood with a couple of hundred dollars to her name, and behind in her rent, she told theatre manager John Considine her story, and he got her an agent, Tom Conlan. The first thing to do was have some portrait photos taken, which he did. This cost her almost all of what she had, but it turned out to be a wise investment, because Conlan took the photos to MGM, and she was invited to a screen test.
Maureen credits the director of the test, Felix Feist, for helping her get the part. She began the screen test playing a character that was the opposite of what Jane was. The director interrupted the test, and suggested she show some strength. These words of wisdom won her the role, even though apparently the director Woody Van Dyke had wanted someone else. (Actress Leila Hyams might have been Van Dyke's preference; years later she claimed that she had turned down the role.)
From all accounts, while she did not mind doing the first two Tarzan features, O'Sullivan grew increasingly tired of the role, fearing that she might be typecast and not at all fond of the Me Tarzan-You Jane jokes that seemed to haunt her. Nor did she get on well with the chimps, stating that they bit her whenever they got the chance.
Lesser comments in his memoirs that she seemed to develop a kind of snobbery from her role as Jane. He felt that it might have been because the public kidded her too much,... or perhaps she thought that it was not very good acting to be in a Tarzan film.
In interviews of the seventies and eighties, Miss O'Sullivan showed little inclination to talk about these films, claiming that the subject bored her, and that she could see little point in her viewing any of these films. Yet to most aficionados, including Johnny Sheffield, she was Jane, just as Weissmuller was Tarzan. In the nineties, she came to terms with the realization that, like it or not, she would forever be remembered as Tarzan's mate. This change of heart was brought about partly because of her son, who confided in her that he was very proud that she had portrayed Jane in the movies. Her comments too had softened, and she remembered Johnny kindly, stating that he really was in his element with these films, and that he was just a big kid at heart.
On February 15, 1993, she was reunited with Johnny Sheffield at the Annual American Cinema Awards, and both reminisced about their days at MGM, when they were making the Tarzan films. She reiterated to him at the time her acceptance of the probability that she would be remembered by posterity for her role as Jane, rather than the other roles she had competently played.
Unlike Weissmuller, O'Sullivan could and did do other roles. In 1938, she had a role in A Yank at Oxford, written partly by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had a romantic admiration for her. At her request, he even rewrote her part in the film to give it substance and novelty. She played another Jane in the marvellous Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, and supported Ann Sothern in Maisie Was a Lady. But by the end of the MGM Tarzan series, she gave up acting as a regular occupation, preferring to be a housewife and mother, although ironically she did stray over to Universal for the 1952 film Bonzo Goes to College, with a chimp named Peggy in the title role.
She and John Farrow had seven children: Michael, who was killed in an airplane mishap in 1958, Patrick, Maria (Mia), who contracted polio in 1950, but who fully recovered, John, Prudence, Theresa (Tia), and Stephanie.
From time to time, she appeared in one of her husband's films, but by 1960, she felt that she had permanently retired. It was fellow Irish thespian Pat O'Brien who encouraged her to take a part in a summer stock play A Roomful of Roses which opened in 1961. This led to another play Never Too Late, in which she co-starred with Paul Ford. Shortly after it debuted on Broadway, John Farrow died of a heart attack. It was this more than anything that kept Maureen in acting. She was for a short time the Today girl for NBC, and then she made the film version of Never Too Late. She was also an executive director of Wediquette International. And when daughter Mia Farrow became linked with Woody Allen, both professionally and romantically, she had a couple of parts in his films. A few important roles came her way in the 80s, when she appeared in Peggy Sue Got Married with Kathleen Turner, and a Sci-Fi oddity titled Stranded. She also appeared in The Guiding Light for CBS in 1984.
Maureen O'Sullivan passed away June 23, 1998.
Johnny Sheffield was born in a Pasadena hospital, April 11, 1931, to parents Reginald, an expatriated British actor, and Louise Van Loon, playwright, book reviewer and lecturer. Siblings include a sister, Mary Alice, a year older, who succumbed to cancer many years ago, and a younger brother William Hart, who passed away December 12, 2010.
In 1938, Johnny's precociousness and his father's tenacity garnered him the coveted juvenile lead in a west coast production of the highly successful Broadway play, On Borrowed Time, featuring Victor Moore as Gramps, a role he would reprise for a revival of the play in 1952. The role of "Pud" was considered the longest child's part written to date, and alternates were used. When the New York alternate became unavailable for a time, young Sheffield was called in to replace him. Johnny remembers the star Dudley Digges, and the Algonquin hotel where they stayed.
The following year, MGM was advertising in the Hollywood Reporter for a juvenile to play in the fourth film of their Tarzan series, to be called Tarzan in Exile. As Sheffield recalls, the ad ran something like this. “Do you have a Tarzan, Jr. in your backyard?” Father Reginald thought he did and arranged an audition. As the lad was to find out, the audition was to be in two parts: a screen test and a swimming test. His father coached him for the former, but it was the latter that worried him, since he could not swim a stroke at the time.
Johnny was very lucky, as Weissmuller personally singled him out. Now all he had to do was swim. Actually, Weissmuller did not care whether he could swim or not; he merely wanted to be sure he was willing to learn.
Sheffield's first experience in deep water with the Olympic champion is vividly etched in his memory. Weissmuller was treading water in the deep end of the pool, and told the boy to jump in and come to him. The youngster obeyed, and when he reached Weissmuller, he sat on his knee, which seemed as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar. Then he took a deep breath and hanging on to the world's greatest swimmer, he submerged, and the pair headed for the side of the pool. The test was over and Johnny Sheffield was now Boy, son of Tarzan for the film that would be released as Tarzan Finds a Son! Later he was told that there had been more than 300 other applicants for the role.
In 1940, Johnny Sheffield played the title character in the RKO film Little Orvie, one of his favourites, also starring Ann Todd. The same year, he also had a brief part in Warner Bros. Knute Rockne - All American, as a 9-year old Knute. His younger brother Billy, played the same character as a 4-year old, and real-life dad Reginald played Knute's dad in the film.
Other films he remembers are Lucky Cisco Kid, and Babes in Arms with Mickey Rooney. When MGM finally decided to abandon the Tarzan series, Sol Lesser signed both Weissmuller and Sheffield and headed for RKO to continue the Tarzan films. When Brenda Joyce appeared in 1945, young Sheffield was slightly apprehensive, since he adored Maureen O'Sullivan, but he quickly found the new Jane to be “a lovely lady.”
One of the things that disturbed Sheffield about his lifestyle now was the problems he was having with classmates when he returned to his regular high school. As he puts it: “I'd fight the lions at the studio and the kids at school.” It was this conflict that made him uncomfortable when in the public eye.
After Tarzan and the Huntress was filmed, it was not known if the Tarzan series would continue and Sheffield was almost as big as Weissmuller, and so his career in that role came to a halt.
But within a year, he got a call from Walter Mirisch who asked him to star in the Bomba series he was planning at Monogram. As far as he knows, the producer never had anyone else in mind for the part, undoubtedly because of the built-in publicity associated with his fame as Tarzan's son.
When the Bomba series came to an end, Johnny and his father produced a pilot episode for a TV series to be titled Bantu, the Zebra Boy. Unfortunately, the time wasn't right for the show, and it never aired. And so Johnny Sheffield definitively left show business to complete his college education, and enter other spheres of endeavour.
In 1959, while working on a farm in Yuma, Arizona, Johnny married a girl he had met a few months earlier. As Patty tells it: “A mutual friend approached me and asked if I'd like to double date with Bomba, the Jungle Boy. I said ‘Why not? This could be wild.’ Three months later, we were married.” The couple had three children, Patrick, Stewart, and Regina.
After leaving the film world, Johnny completed a business degree at UCLA, and was variously involved in farming, real estate, and construction. For a time he was also a representative for the Santa Monica Seafood Company to Mexico, which imported lobsters from Baja California.
In 1997, when AMC aired its Tarzan marathon, the cable company contacted Sheffield to do some interviews. Johnny was willing, but wanted to be paid. AMC would cover his expenses, but no other remuneration was forthcoming. So Johnny politely declined. As he said, " I go to conventions to meet the fans and sign autographs. The conventioneers pay his expenses, and that is fine. But they are not money-making concerns. With AMC, it's different. they can well afford to pay me for my labours." Sheffield said to me some time later, that his name was never mentioned when it was time to air Tarzan Finds a Son! But Laraine Day's name was. She appeared at the beginning of the film for two minutes. Ironic! I don't know if in fact, Sheffield's name was never mentioned, but it wouldn't surprise me.
Johnny passed away October 17, 2010 at his home in Chula Vista at the age of 79 years. His younger brother Billy died December 12, 2010.
Brenda Joyce was born Betty Leabo in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, February 25, 1917. Her father nicknamed her Graftina. She and her mother moved to Los Angeles when Brenda was five. Educated at San Bernadino and Los Angeles High Schools, she attended one semester at USC and three more at UCLA. She became a photographer's model to pay for her college expenses, and it was from a fashion magazine that she came to the notice of 20th Century Fox for the role of Fern Simon in The Rains Came (39). She was 5' 4", weighed 110 -112 pounds, with brown eyes and blonde hair.
Betty Leabo took the name Joyce from Alice Joyce, a silent screen star. Her off-screen interests included gardening (she was one of Hollywood's best horticulturists), art, and she even unearthed a fossil deposit in the San Fernando Valley while working on Maryland (40). Her interests extended to an army husband, Owen Ward, a college sweetheart, whom she married in 1941, much against the wishes of her studio, and it has been suggested that this move accounted for her relegation to the "B" movie ranks. In 1942, she had a daughter, Pamela Ann, an event which reportedly cost her the female lead in the Laurel and Hardy vehicle A-Haunting We Will Go, a part which went to Sheila Ryan, but the truth was she simply did not want the part.
After her second child, Timothy Owen was born, Sol Lesser coaxed her back to the screen, promising her that as her contract called for only one picture a year, she would have plenty of time to spend with her growing family.
Johnny Weissmuller approved of Brenda Joyce for the part of Jane. She was not afraid to work with animals, swam reasonably well and his only complaint was that she scared him stiff with her driving. Because of the gas rationing, each took turns motoring to location. Johnny quipped: “I'd feel safer riding an elephant or a camel.”
He was also concerned about the reaction of the kids to seeing a blonde Jane. But the Weissmuller-Joyce chemistry worked well. Indeed, Brenda Joyce has always been my personal favourite Jane. (Sorry, folks!!)
Brenda and her family made their home in Laguna Beach after completing Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (48), with Lex Barker, and although her marriage to Owen came to an end in 1949, she continued to live there under the name Betty Ward.
Later Brenda suffered through a series of personal problems before becoming involved with a catholic diocese in Los Angeles.
She excelled at her new job, and eventually became director of the Catholic Resettlement Office in Monterey, a post she held for ten and a half years, before retiring.
Brenda had three children with Owen Ward. In addition to Pamela Ann and Timothy Owen, Brenda has another daughter, Beth Victoria.
Brenda apparently remarried, but this too ended in divorce. I have no details on this.
Johnny Sheffield in an interview stated his opinion of Brenda as Jane. “Brenda was sincere in her portrayal of Jane and she was always considerate and kind to me. We got along swimmingly from the start. I think you can see that in the films.”
But Brenda, like Maureen O'Sullivan, was not proud of her work in the Tarzan features, and her co-workers at the Resettlement Office were unaware for years of her role as Jane. But as with Maureen, Brenda will probably be remembered by posterity for her role as Tarzan’s mate, and from where I stand, that isn’t such a bad destiny.
Brenda passed away July 4, 2009 at a nursing home in Santa Monica, California, after battling dementia for many years.