Part 1 - The Sheena Audition:
Page 4 - Anita's Relinquishment
The comments made by the cameraman that Irish's chances of winning the part were slim after they had witnessed Anita Ekberg's flirtatious performance at the audition were astute.  The Nassours did in fact choose Anita over Irish McCalla as their preferred actress to play Sheena.

It is interesting to ponder the logic behind this decision because the photo at left clearly demonstrate that Irish played the role with more grit, tenacity and athleticism than Anita.  Additionally, the main photo on the Sheena Audition Intro page shows Irish playing the role aggressively and Anita being more subdued, as noted in the caption.  Black and Feret, Irish's biographers, claim that Anita's audition was more "controversial" than Irish's, which implies that the producers may have thought that Ms Ekberg's greater sex appeal would be an important asset to their production. Another possibility is that the publicity value of having "Miss Sweden" as the star of the film outweighed any reservations about her they may have had.  The cameraman on duty obviously felt that Anita got the role because of her flirtatious embrace of one of the producers.  Irish has said that that she wasn't too heartbroken at the outcome ("I didn't really care whether I got it or not, except that I wanted to get a divorce and I needed a job.")  Christian Drake mentioned in an interview that at his audition for the part of Bob Rayburn with Edward and William Nassour they were clearly planning a feature film.  They told him that Anita Ekberg would play Sheena but they had another actress in mind who could step in if necessary (Ultra Filmfax).

The story frequently told about Anita Ekberg's decline of the part of Sheena is that she was offered a part opposite John Wayne in a film called Blood Alley (1955).  This isn't totally accurate.  Irish has said that she was pregnant with her second son, Sean, when she was contacted by the Nassours to offer her the part because Anita Ekberg was no longer available.  The August 1954 issue of People Today magazine give Sean's age as six months, which means he was born in early-1954.  This means that Irish was contacted by the Nassours in late 1953 or very early in 1954.   Batjac Productions was formed on 24 May 1954 but John Wayne's production company was actually formed in 1952 under the name of Wayne/Fellows Productions when John Wayne formed a partnership with producer Robert Fellows.  Wayne renamed the company Batjac in May 1954 when he parted company with Fellows.  The company was named after a fictitious trading business in an earlier Wayne film, The Wake of the Red Witch (1948) - Batjack Trading Company - but a secretary misstyped it on the corporation papers.  "Wild" Bill Wellman, the director on Blood Alley, was assigned on 16 September 1954 and filming began on 12 January 1955.  Blood Alley, which is set in China during the Communist era of the Cold War, was Ms Ekberg's first speaking role in a motion picture and she was chosen to play the role of Wei Ling, a Chinese refugee (right).  It seems difficult to imagine Swedish-accented Anita Ekberg as an Oriental, but stranger artistic decisions have been made in Hollywood.  This sequence of dates indicates that John Wayne's production company could not have offered Ms Ekberg the role of Wei Ling in late-1953 or early-1954, when the Nassours offered the role to Irish, because the project was still many months away from development.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) states that John Wayne's Batjac Productions bought out Anita's Universal contract.  This event obviously happened in late-53 or early-54, about the time Irish was offered the role, which means that it was actually Wayne/Fellows Productions that acquired Anita's contract, as Batjac didn't yet exist.  It is certainly true that all of Anita's subsequent films were made at studios other than Universal and on some films she is identified as "on loan from Batjac Productions" (eg. RKO's Back From Eternity [1956]) (Jewell & Harbin).  Blood Alley was the first film of Batjac Productions and when it commenced filming in early 1955 the star of the film was Robert Mitchum, not John Wayne.  Mitchum was fired from the film after only one week for brawling with the company's transportation captain, as well as for loud partying in the hotel where the director was staying.  Subsequent offers to Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas and Humphrey Bogart were declined, so The Duke stepped into the role himself.  This detail also undermines the oft-repeated story that Anita declined the role of Sheena to work with John Wayne.

It appears that Ms Ekberg was kept on hold for almost a year after Wayne's company acquired her contract with the intention of using her in future projects.  As Blood Alley developed Batjac Productions probably felt compelled to use her in any capacity in their first production, which explains the strange choice to use her as a Chinese peasant.  Lauren Bacall had the only role for a western female in that film and Anita, an ex-Miss Universe model, did not have sufficient acting credentials, or drawing powere, to fulfill the lead role in her first speaking part.  So, Anita Ekberg didn't "decline the role of Sheena to work with John Wayne in Blood Alley", as is frequently stated.  This shorthand method of describing the incidents that eventually transpired was obliviously cooked up by publicists after the event.  What actually happened is that John Wayne's production company acquired her contract and made it impossible for her to enter into a deal with the Nassour Brothers to play the role of Sheena.  Much later she was cast in a Robert Mitchum film called Blood Alley, but John Wayne would ultimately be forced to accept the role because of problems with Mitchum.  The end result of this convoluted string of events was that Anita Ekberg appeared in a John Wayne film called Blood Alley.  However, in late-1953, or early-1954, when Anita Ekberg notified the Nassour Brothers of her position, she would have been unable to say (a) that Blood Alley would be her first film role for Wayne's company, or (b) that her first film for Wayne's company would also star John Wayne.  I know it appears I am labouring over a comparatively insignificant detail, but this was the way the story was presented to me when I first read it many years ago.  That story included the often-repeated tale that Anita Ekberg didn't show up for shooting on the first day of the Sheena series.  Hopefully this overly-detailed disection goes some way to setting the record straight.

Anita Ekberg certainly benefited from being picked up by Batjac Productions.  Within five years of appearing in Blood Alley, and a dozen or so Hollywood films later, she was living and working in Italy, where she stayed for many years (see the link to her filmography in the Lynx section below).  She made occasional returns to appear in Hollywood productions (Call Me Bwana with Bob Hope and Four for Texas with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin - both 1963) and finally got a chance to play a jungle queen in Gold of the Amazon Women (1979).  In 1956 she won a Golden Globe award for "Most Promising Newcomer - Female", and in 2003 she won a Capri Legend Award.  The role she is best remembered for, however, is her parody of a 1950s Hollywood Bombshell in Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1959) (right).  In creating Sylvia she uses her spectacular appendages"to evoke a funny, sad and painfully convincing dream vision of a dream woman who would soon no longer exist." (Kimball)

Please don't forget to visit my pages devoted to the twenty-six episodes of Sheena Queen of the Jungle, if you haven't done so already. You will find plot summaries, numerous comments about the individual episodes and video captures from all of the surviving episodes.  The whole Sheena story - comics, short stories, television and film - is available on the Sheena Intro page.

Ultra Filmfax magazine, Apr/May 98
IMDb (The Internet Movie Database) website
The RKO Story by Richard B Jewell and Vernon Harbin. Octopus 1982


• The photo of Irish McCalla and Anita Ekberg leaping out of a tree at the Sheena audition was provided by Frank Bonilla.  The name and date of the magazine in which the photo was published has been lost.
• The photo of Anita Ekberg as Wei Ling was pilfered from a French Anita Ekberg fan site
• The Blood Alley lobby card was pilfered form an eBay auction item
• Photo of Anita Ekberg as Sylvia in La Dolce Vita from The Movie, Orbis Publishing 1982
• See a comprehensive filmography for Anita Ekberg at The Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
• Visit a French Anita Ekberg fan site to see a wonderful collection of Anita Ekberg images


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 updated May 2008