SHEENA (1984)
Page 1: The Concept

The plan to make a feature film about Sheena, the blonde Fiction House Comics jungle heroine, was first raised as far back as 1952, but may have been in development for some time before that.  The 22 September 1952 issue of Quick magazine (left) contained a brief piece about a search to find an actress to play Sheena in a movie.  It reported that the producer involved was Sol Lesser, who would eventually be responsible for making seventeen Tarzan films between 1933 (Tarzan the Fearless) and 1958 (Tarzan's Fight For Life).  The story claimed that the successful actress "has to move like a fish, hug like a bear, and have an eye-popping figure".  The story featured a photo of attractive dancer Lily Christine (left) who was reported to be interested in the part.  Interestingly, Miss Christine would later audition for the role when the Nassour Brothers announced a couple of years later that they would be making a Sheena feature film.  I assume that the Nassours purchased the rights to the property from Sol Lesser when he lost interest in the project.  Fiction House Comics was still publishing their Jumbo Comics and Sheena titles at that stage and all rights to the property were held by T T Scott, the President of Fiction House.  The Nassours eventually changed their minds about making a feature film and earned a place for themselves in the annals of television history by making 26 episodes of Sheena Queen of the Jungle.  Irish McCalla played Sheena in that series after the Nassours' first choice, Anita Ekberg, withdrew from the role after John Wayne's Batjac Productions acquired her contract (read the full story on Page 4 - Anita's Relinquishment in the Audition section of the Irish McCalla Biography).

Most people believe the 1984 Tanya Roberts Sheena film was the first movie released to feature the popular blonde jungle heroine.   What is not generally known is that the Nassour Brothers hobbled together three episodes of the Irish McCalla Sheena series to make a film called Queen of the Jungle.  
That film received limited theatrical release in the US and Europe in the late 1950s, making it the first Sheena feature film.  The three episodes used - The Lash, Land of the Rogue and The Rival Queen - all featured Buddy Baer, an ex-heavyweight boxing champion, as a giant thug named Bull Kendall.  Consequently, the three episodes are unofficially referred to as "The Bull Kendall Trilogy".  One apocryphal story claimed that the Nassours had not disclosed to the actors their intention to create a Sheena theatrical feature (personal communication between Christian Drake and Frank Bonilla).  However, TV Headliner magazine reported in the July 1956 issue that Irish McCalla was now back in California and was keeping trim "for more of the TV films - she made 26 for ABC Syndication - and a feature-length movie in which she'll play Sheena again" (Black & Feret).  We know now that there never were any more episodes of the series made, but this story confirms that Irish knew about the Nassours' plan to release a Sheena movie.
The idea of a Sheena movie lay dormant for almost two decades.  Some time in the early-1970s Paul Aratow, an ambitious fledgling producer, and his buddy and colleague, Alan Rinzler, came up with the idea of creating a feature film based on a popular comic character.  In about 1974 they approached the San Francisco comics artist, Trina Robbins , and asked her to work with them on the development of ideas and a script.  She suggested both The Spirit and Sheena to them and after looking over her ideas they chose Sheena as their preferred option.  Trina loaned them some of her Jumbo Comics and the trio met numerous times at Aratow's studio to discuss ideas.  Trina eventually wrote a treatment for them that was set in World War II involving Nazis in the jungle.  The Nazis, led by a beautiful but evil Ursula Andress-type, were seeking a cave full of uranium for some fiendish scheme.  Paul Aratow discussed these events in a 1984 interview with Starlog magazine.  "It was the best idea I ever heard.  I needed the right property to help me break into the film business.  I knew I couldn't go in with something completely different.  I had to have something which was recognizably within a genre, yet different enough to be unusual."  According to Aratow and Rinzler's version of the story, they travelled to Los Angeles in early 1975 to pitch their list of conceptual ideas to any film executive who would listen, and amongst that list was Trina Robbin's treatment for the Sheena film.  Before Trina Robbins introduced Aratow to the idea he had never read a Fiction House Sheena or Jumbo Comic and had never seen an episode of the Sheena Queen of the Jungle television series with Irish McCalla.  He felt that this was inconsequential.  "It wasn't necessary to be familiar with them, because all you need is a few words to understand the concept.  Sheena is a female Tarzan.  That's the hook!.  Although I wasn't a comic book fan or TV buff, I still had heard of Sheena.  I figured if I had, then other people would have too.  The property had a strong recognition factor, but nobody knew the details.  It was a real grabber."
The shortsighted studio executives dismissed Trina Robbin's ideas of a 1940s story with Nazis as too "comic book or pulp magazine" oriented, and with that her involvement in the project ceased.  However, only a couple of years later George Lucas and Steven Spielberg began discussing the development of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which incorporated some of these very elements, thus opening the door for a whole slew of films incorporating comic book and pulp magazine ideas into mainstream film.  Trina said she was paid $500 for her efforts, and being a trusting hippie at the time, she neglected to sign any contract between herself and Aratow and Rinzler.  This was unfortunate, especially considering that her idea of a cave containing valuable minerals was incorprated into the final film (see Page 6: The Plot).  She also remembered that when she read that the husband and wife team writing the script said they would intentionally not read any Sheena comics she knew for sure that the project would be a disaster (see First Script below).  I have to agree with Trina on this score.  When the Tanya Roberts Sheena film was being made in the early-1980s the climate was ripe for a full blown comic book treatment of Sheena.  Neither Aratow or the executives he pitched the idea to grasped this concept adequately and the resultant film is largely bland, unexciting and one-dimensional (Starlog magazine and personal correspondence with Trina Robbins).

Things looked up for Aratow and Rinzler when they met an old friend living in LA, who had produced a film and knew a few people.  He introduced them to a top attorney and a top agent and with their assistance they managed to get meetings with every studio.  Within three months the two guys from Berkeley had secured a development deal with Universal Pictures, which paid them $5,500.  Ironically, it turned out they did not even own the rights to the property they had been hawking around town.  Both had assumed that the property was in the public domain, but a title search by Universal attorneys had discovered an issue in the British Museum.  This meant that Sheena was automatically protected by Berne Convention copyright, which states that international signatories to the convention must protect the copyright on works of authors from other signatories for at least 50 years after the author's death.  This meant that Aratow and Rinzler were forced to option the rights from the original publisher, T T Scott.  "It took us months just to find him." said Aratow.  "He had been out of the comic book business for many years, and was living on a plantation in Georgia."

Obtaining that option brought the two hopefuls into contact with the creators of the character, Will Eisner (bottom left) and Jerry Iger (top left) (see the Page 2: The Origin of Sheena in the Fiction House Comics section.  Eisner told them that they had both signed their rights over to T T Scott and he felt he didn't have any claim to any remuneration.  The contracts they had signed no longer existed, and the business-minded Iger knew that.  "It eventually took me two years to settle a claim he made against the title.  I felt his claim was specious and he was asking for too much money." Said Aratow.  Iger knew the contracts no longer existed, and he needed the money, so eventually settled for some compensation.  Aratow later said. "Will Eisner is the dean of comic book artists.  He never asked for anything because he felt he didn't have any claim to it.  He doesn't do business that way.  In all my dealing with him, I have found Will Eisner to be an immaculately honest and honorable man."

Universal were considering Sheena as a vehicle for Raquel Welch.  Ned Tanen, the head of Universal felt it was perfect for her and contacted her agent.  Tanen arranged several meetings with Ms Welch and her agent, which Aratow and Rinzler attended.  "I thought we were off and running." Said Aratow.  Despite the fact that Raquel Welch said she would do it, no deal was ever negotiated and no contracts were signed (Starlog).

Universal commissioned a screenplay from Robert and Laurie Dillon, a husband and wife team that had previously collaborated on the screenplay of The French Connection II (1975), with Gene Hackman.  In 1984 Robert provided the screenplay for The River, with Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek.  The French Connection II script was Laurie Dillon's only contribution to the film industry (IMDb).  Paul Aratow showed the script to Irish McCalla for comment who said tht it came much closer to the original Fiction House comic book version as well as to her own TV characterisation (Black and Feret).  Aratow felt that their script was "brilliant and eccentric" and "a little more fantastic" than the one that made it to the screen.  He thought that it could have worked but Universal didn't.  "For some reason I'll never understand, they grew tired of the project and put it into turnaround." Aratow commented.  In film production turnaround is the process where the rights to a project one studio has developed are sold to another studio for the the cost of development (Starlog and Wikipedia).

Universal putting the project into turnaround meant that Paul Aratow then had 12 months in which to reimburse the studio for their financial investment of forfeit the right to launch the picture elsewhere. His partner, Alan Rinzler, withdrew form the project at this stage, tired of the petty politics of Hollywood dealmaking.  Aratow then made a serious error.  He felt that a deal was waiting for him at United Artists and felt that if he aligned himself with a powerful producer he would have more chance of securing that deal.  Consequently, he gave half of the project away to Filmways, who took it to United Artists and negotiated a deal.  This meant that Aratow had completely lost control of the undertaking and earned no money from the new deal that had been made.

A new script was commissioned from a couple of up-and-coming writers - Michael Scheff and David Spector.  Scheff had mostly worked on television scripts for programs like Falcon Crest (1981) and Hart To Hart (1979), but had contributed to the screenplay of Airport 77 (1977), one of a series of all-star-cast airborne disaster movies.  David Spector had also worked on Airport 77, but little else.  Filmways didn't like the script but United Artists was considering going forward with it.

Meanwhile, the executive brains trust of United Artists left abruptly and Filmways was undergoing some radical changes.  Edward S Feldman (Flamingo Road [1975] and The Hitcher [1986]), the executive producer left and everything fell apart on the Sheena project.  Aratow felt that he could make a deal elsewhere and asked for the project back and Filmways obliged, for a price.  To regain control of Sheena Paul Aratow had to guarantee Filmways a participation in the profits and the reimbursement of all expenses.  This meant that he now owed money to Filmways and United Artists, as well as Universal (Starlog & IMDb).  The concept art at right was developed by Filmways Studios at some stage during all of these back and forward negotiations (Paul Aratow provided this item to Frank Bonilla, who donated it for use on this site.   I am indebted to them both for their generosity).

Aratow maintained his faith in the property and persevered with his attempts to bring the project to fruition. "I always felt that if the proper circumstances could be aligned, a successful deal would be made," he maintained, "because Sheena is a priceless and unique property."  His biggest problem was that the Universal turnaround kept ticking away and it eventually reached a point where he had to come up with $85,000 or the property would have reverted to the studio.  To Universal's credit, they kept renewing the turnaround for him to allow him to continue trying to make a deal.  "Universal is very corporate and businesslike, but it's executives are also fair." he said.  They decided not to sink my ship.  I presume that it was Ned Tanen who let me have my shot."

During this period of abortive development deals Aratow found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.  His marriage broke up and he was forced to leave his two children and a nice house in northern California. "I lived like a gypsy." He revealed.  For a year he lived in his brother's house and for the next year he lived at a friend's house.  For the following two years he basically lived out of the trunk of his car.  Sometimes he would stay at people's place if they were out of town for a few months, at other times he would stay at someone's place for just a few days.  "Let me tell you, that ain't easy when you're pushing 40." He bemoaned.  He did manage to pick up work here and there.  He wrote some advertising copy and worked for some friends on a TV show, but still had to borrow money to survive.  "I lived on the edge for a long time."

He eventually accepted a deal with a floundering "mini-major", Avco-Embassy, in the hopes that he could at least get them to commission a script.  It was the only deal available to him at the time but the company was in turmoil and he suspects that they just did not have the money to finance the project.  Consequently, no script was ever written.  After six months of inactivity it became obvious to him that Avco was never going to move forward on Sheena (Starlog).

Just before Christmas 1979 Paul Aratow heard that there was some interest in the Sheena project at Columbia.  He called the studio's president, John Veitch (Major Dundee [1965] and Bram Stoker's Dracula [1992]), and arranged a meeting.  He thought it would be a private meeting with Veitch but was shocked when nine executives showed up.  They were all simply intrigued by the idea of a female Tarzan so Aratow displayed the artwork for a poster that had been drawn up years before when Raquel Welch was involved with the project (see image left).  They made a deal then and there.  The option that the executives at Avco had still had several months to run but they were very courteous about it.  It was in their power to delay the deal with Columbia by several months but they were only interested in recouping the money they had invested.  Another turnaround was added to Aratow's project and Columbia assumed all of his financial obligations.  (Paul Aratow also provided this artwork to Frank Bonilla, who donated it for use here.   Many thanks to them both)

For the fourth time in five years Aratow embarked on the perilous development process, the first step of which was the commissioning of another screenplay.  Columbia selected genre veteran Leslie Stevens, who was the creator and executive producer of the original The Outer Limits series (1963-65).  He was also the supervising producer of Battlestar Gallactica (1978) and Buck Rogers (1979-81).  The script he developed involved a "Chariot of the Gods" concept but Columbia did not want to deal with Sheena as a magical phenomenon.  The executives felt that the basic material was already pretty fantastic so they decided to deal with it naturalistically.  They still believed in the property enough to commission yet another script.

This time Columbia hired revered veteran David Newman, who had collaborated on the screenplays of many successful films - Bonny and Clyde (1967), Superman (1978), Superman II (1981) and Superman III (1985).  Paul Aratow made some writer suggestions of his own but the studio wanted to do it another way.  David Newman finally nailed a realistic and workable script but it took over a year from requesting the assignment to turning in his first draft because of a writers' strike.  Newman completed a second draft but Aratow and the Columbia executives felt that there were still some aspects of Newman's script that needed adjustment. Consequently, Dean Reisner was hired to rewrite the screenplay.  Reisner was one of the grand old men of Hollywood script writing who had been in the business since the late-Thirties.  He had contributed to several classic television series like Rawhide (1959-66), Bonanza (1959-73), Lawman (1958-62), and more recently had worked on a string of Clint Eastwood films - Play Misty For Me (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Enforcer (1976).  Incredibly, the studio was dissatisfied with the result and requested another rewrite (Starlog).

By this time John Guillerman had been appointed as director on the project and he chose his King Kong (1976) collaborator, Lorenzo Semple Jr, for the final polish of the script.  When Aratow was negotiating with United Artists several years earlier he had been told that if he could get Lorenzo Semple Jr then they would commission a script.  He had approached Semple who had agreed to do it but the arrangement fell through when the studio felt that his agent wanted too much money.  Aratow was obviously delighted that Semple was finally going to get a chance to work on Sheena.  Semple had been writing for film and television since the mid-Fifties and his name was associated with such classics as Papillon (1973) and The Parallax View (1974).  However, Semple had a notorious reputation among fantasy films for his irreverent treatments of the Batman TV series (1966-68) and the Flash Gordon film (1980).  Additionally, he provided the screenplay for the execrable and idiotic 1976 remake of King Kong, as already mentioned.
Paul Aratow's tenacious perseverance had finally paid off.  His faith in the desirability of the project was unshakable and he obviously also had nerves of steel.  It had taken nine years, he had bartered his wares with five different studios and had seen seven scriptwriters apply themselves to the same concept.  Now he was ready to get to work!

To view a full set of lobby cards for this film click on the image below:

The web page above documents the persistent efforts of the producer Paul Aratow over almost two decades to make a film featuring Sheena, the female jungle hero.  Frank Bonilla, my collaborator on this site, has kept in touch with Paul Aratow by email and several years ago Aratow informed Frank that he had embarked on negotiations around Hollywood to make a new Sheena film.  Frank has very definite ideas about what kind of actress should play Sheena and he has created a chat group to allow Sheena fans to discuss this topic.  The forum is one of a number of forums hosted by Moonstone Comics.  If you are already a member of the Moonstone forums, or would like to become a member, then just click HERE to take part.  Please keep in mind that the opinions expressed in this forum by it's moderator and participants are not necessarily the opinions of this webmaster.  

TV's Original Sheena - Irish McCalla by Bill Black and Bil Feret, Paragon Publications 1992
Starlog magazine Number 83, Jun 84
Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website
• Cover of 1952 Quick magazine and internal page are from my private collection
• Photo of Paul Aratow is from Starlog magazine Number 83, Jun 84
• The photo of Trina Robbins was pilfered from her interview with Jazma Online
• Photo of Jerry Iger is from The Iger Comics Kingdom by Jay Edward Disbrow, Blackthorne Publishing 1985
• Photo of Will Eisner was plifered from an eBay auction item
• The studio logos were all pilfered from Wikipedia
• Many thanks to both Paul Aratow and Frank Bonilla for providing the rare conceptual art for this film

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006-2008 Paul Wickham
This page was updated September 2011.