SHEENA (1984)
Page 3: The Star


The story of actresses harbouring ambitions to play the blonde jungle goddess on the big screen is a protracted and fascinating one.  As mentioned on Page 1: The Concept, and the Page 3: The Audition of the Irish McCalla on Television section, dancers, models and actresses had been vying with each other to play Sheena since the early-Fifites (see links).  When news first got around Los Angeles that a young producer named Paul Aratow was attempting to launch a Sheena feature film in the mid-Seventies the Hollywood gossip mill cranked into gear.  Aratow had negotiated a deal with Universal Studios and the actress that emerged as the favourite candidate for the role was Raquel Welch.  Jerry Iger's niggardly wrangling stalled the project for several years, the first draft of the script was unsuitable, and eventually Universal lost interest (read the full story on Page 1: The Concept).  Sadly, the legion of Sheena fans around the globe were deprived of the opportunity to see an actress of the stature of Raquel Welch bring Sheena to life on the big screen.  Instead, we are examining the disappointing article discussed on these pages.  In my opinion, Jerry Iger has a lot to answer for.

In personal correspondence Jerry Iger's lawyer informed Frank Bonilla that in the mid-Seventies Universal were planning to dye Raquel Welch's hair blonde and outfit her in the Fiction House Comics Golden Age Sheena costume (see image above).  It is highly likely that Raquel Welch's Sheena would have borne a strong resemblance to the role of Loana she

portrayed in  One Million Years BC (1966), but with more dynamism (see photo below right).  That film, a masterpiece of stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen,  had Loana and Tumak, her lover from a different tribe, pitted against all manner of savage prehistoric beasts.  The fact that Loana's costume was a fur bikini propelled MIss Welch to instant stardom and created one of the most enduring images of movie poster history (click on link to view the poster for this film).

As described on Page 1: The Concept, Paul Aratow negotiated abortive Sheena deals with different studios around Hollywood from the mid-Seventies to the early-Eighties.  During that time the Hollywood publicity machine associated the names if numerous actresses with the Sheena project.  Paul Aratow's comments on some of these actresses in a 1984 Starlog magazine interview clarifies many points on this subject.  At one stage both Cheryl Ladd (below far left) and Farrah Fawcett (below second from left), both ex-Charlie's Angels, announced that they were to play Sheena.  Aratow's 1984 comment on them was, "Fawcett and Ladd were discussed years ago, but they would be ridiculous in the role now."  In the August 1982 issue of Starlog magazine Sandahl Bergman (below middle), a statuesque and athletic dancer and actress, announced that she was going to play Sheena.  Bergman had attracted a lot of attention for the raunchy Airotica dance sequence in All That Jazz (1979) and the role of Valeria, the arse-kicking female thief, in Conan the Barbarian (1982), opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Just over a year later, Sybil Danning (below second from right), a scowling B-movie sex goddess of the heaving cleavage school of acting, announced in the November 1983 issue of Starlog magazine that she would be playing Sheena.  Danning, who appeared in a slew of forgettable Eighties sword and sandal films, was best remembered for her role in the John Sayles scripted space western, Battle Beyond The Stars (1980), in which she played Saint-Exmin, a valkyrie.  Aratow said that they never seriously considered either Bergman or Danning for the role.  A minor Eighties actress named Susan Meschner (below far right) also announced that she would play Sheena.  Meschner had a brief role as a mud wrestler in Stripes (1981), with Bill Murray, and a slightly meatier part as a female prison guard in Chained Heat (1983) with a post-Exorcist Linda Blair and Sybil Danning (see above).  In response to this Aratow said that Mechsner's casting was entirely her own invention.  "No one was ever told that they would be Sheena until Tanya," emphasised Aratow.  I suspect there is a strong element of spin in this statement made at the time Aratow was heavily promoting Tanya Roberts' claim to the part.  It is very difficult to believe that in all of his years hustling the idea of a Sheena movie around Hollywood that no actresses were seriously considered for the role, despite the fact that several studios entered into deals with him to produce a Sheena film.  Any of those studios would have gladly given publicity to an attractive actress marginally associated with the role in an attempt to generate interest in the project (Starlog). 

Tanya Roberts was born Victoria Leigh Blum on 15 October 1954 in The Bronx.  She was the daughter of an Irish American pen seller and a Jewish American woman.  Her parents divorced before she reached high school and at 15 she left school to to get married.  For a while she lived as a hitchhiker and travelled widely across the US until her mother-in-law annulled the marriage.  She settled in New York City and earned a living as an Arthur Murray dance instructor.
She met psychology student Barry Roberts on a movie queue and a short time later proposed to him in a subway.  She married for the second time soon after, some time in 1974.  Barry began a career as a screen writer and Tanya began studying acting at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen.  She appeared in several television commercials and began her serious acting career in off-Broadway productions of Picnic and Antigone and continued to support herself as an Arthur Murray dance instructor.  In 1975 she made her screen debut in Forced Entry, a thriller, and the following year appeared in a comedy, The Yum Yum Girls.  In 1977 she and her husband Barry moved to California and in 1978 Ms Roberts won a part in Fingers, a hard-hitting mobster film, with Harvey Keitel.
Over the next few years she had roles in numerous forgettable films as well as a couple of unsuccessful television pilots - Zuma Beach (1978), a comedy, and Pleasure Cove (1979).  In 1980 she was chosen from 2000 applicants to replace Shelly Hack on Charlie's Angels (1976-1981) in what would be the final season of this long-running series.  Her portrayal of the tough, streetwise Julie Rogers thrust her into the public limelight and she appeared on the front cover of the 9 September 1981 issue of People magazine.  In 1982 she played a slave-girl named Kiri in The Beastmaster, a sword and sorcery film, and promoted the film with an appearance in the November 1982 issue of Playboy magazine, appearing on that issue's cover.  In 1983 she appeared in a little-known Italian medieval adventure film, I Paladini - Storia d'Armi e d'Amori (Hearts and Armor).  The same year she played the part of Velda, the curvaceous secretary of hard-boiled detective, Mike Hammer, in the television pilot of Murder Me, Murder You, starring Stacey Keach.  She declined the role in the ensuing series because she wanted to play Sheena and the role of Velda was given to Lindsay Bloom.  She dyed her hair blonde for the role of Sheena and was so pleased with the effect she decided to stay blonde for most of the next two decades.  In 1985 she added "Bond girl" to her list of cinematic conquests by appearing as the female lead in A View To A Kill, Roger Moore's last James Bond film.  Interestingly, for two successive years Ms Roberts was nominated as Worst Actress in the Razzie Awards - one for Sheena and one for A View To Kill.  The Razzies, or Golden Raspberry Awards, were set up to compliment the Academy Awards by acknowledging the year's worst achievements in the film industry.
During the Nineties she earned a reputation for gratuitous nudity in erotic thrillers like Night Eyes (1990), Inner Sanctum (1991) and Sins of Desire (1993).  In 1998 her career had a resurgence when she was offered the role of of the sexy, but ditzy, Midge Pincotti in That '70s Show (1998-2006).  She ceased to be a regular member of the cast in 2001 when her husband, Barry, began battling encephalitis.  Barry died in June 2006 after a four and a half year struggle with the disease.  Barry and Tanya Roberts had been married for 32 years.  Since leaving That '70s Show Ms Roberts was heard on the radio as a spokesperson for several Las Vegas timeshare companies.  While there is not a lot about her film and television career that is remarkable, it should be remembered that Tanya Roberts was one of the leading sex symbols of the early Eighties (Wikipedia & IMDb).

When Columbia Studios decided to embark on the Sheena project an intensive international search was launched to find the appropriate actress to play the dynamic jungle queen.  Tanya Roberts said that she first heard of the Sheena project while filming a Charlie's Angels episode in Hawaii.  She had obviously heard that the series was being cancelled and was exploring other avenues of work.  She said that the screen test took place on an elaborate set that cost $250,00 to build and included live animals.  The test included an assessment of both her acting and vine-swinging abilities.  "It was beyond comprehension," she commented. "They could've done a bloody low-budget movie for the cost of the screen test!"  Another test was conducted on the Fantasy Island set where Tanya had to compete with the physical characteristics of about a dozen stunning models.  She claimed that this was the test that eventually won her the part.  "They needed a combination of beauty, an athletic body and acting ability.  I've been acting for 14 years," she told a 1984 interviewer, "so I told John Guillerman, 'Either test me, or I'll slash my wrists!'".  One rumour at the time reported that Roberts' torrid spread in the November 1982 issue of Playboy magazine influenced the decision (Prevue).

An alternative version of this story is already mentioned on Page 2: The Director, when discussing John Guillerman's frustration at working with an actress of limited talents that had been thrust upon him.  That account, taken from a publication called The Iger Counter: Additions and Corrections to Jay Disbrow's "The Iger Comics Kingdom", is a recollection by Roy Thomas, Stan Lee's first successor as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, of meeting Paul Aratow (see Page 1: The Concept).  Thomas, who was hustling film scripts around Los Angeles with his partner, Gerry Conway, bumped into Aratow on the Warner lot, when it was still called Burbank Studios.  The Sheena project was just starting to get off the ground in the early Eighties and Aratow recounted, somewhat dejectedly, that the head of Columbia Studios, Frank Price, had marched into Aratow's office and announced, "Tanya Roberts is Sheena!"  According to Roy Thomas, Frank Price was having an affair with Tanya Roberts at the time.  Click on the image at left to read the full article (Many thanks to Frank Bonilla for providing this rarity)

I must confess, I do have a little bit of trouble reconciling this story with the fact that Tanya Roberts had been married to Barry Roberts for almost a decade at the time this incident supposedly occurred. Tanya and Barry also travelled to Africa together one month before shooting commenced on the Sheena film, probably in late 1983 or early 1984, "to acclimatise themselves to the primitive conditions", so they were obviously not separated for any lengthy period around this time (Prevue).  As mentioned above in the Tanya Roberts - A Brief Biography section, Tanya and Barry remained married until his death in mid-2006, and Tanya nursed him devotedly for several years before his demise, even sacrificing her lucrative career as a regular on That '70s Show to care for him.  Either this event happened while Barry and Tanya were temporarily separated or the denizens of Tinsel Town lead remarkably curious lives.  I guess that doesn't really come as a surprise to anybody.

Tanya Roberts was well prepared for the Sheena shoot.  For nine months prior to going to Africa she had pumped iron for an hour a day, she had ridden horses bareback for six hours a week and she had practiced acrobatics on a 20-foot (6 m) high trampoline.  As mentioned above, Tanya and Barry Roberts arrived in Kenya one month before shooting was to commenceso as to accustom themselves to the rough conditions of Africa.  She found the African culture a little confronting.  "The lodges are fabulous, but the culture is simply bizarre!" she commented.  "I get up in the morning and read in the newspaper about a bandit who got his hand chopped off by a homeowner, or some other gruesome tale.  Five months will be a long time to remain in such an atmosphere, and I'm nervous because I can't go home."
Ms Roberts typical day began at 4:00 am.  She had breakfast at 5:00, followed by a session in makeup and at 6:00 she would board the plane to fly to the day's location, where she would arrive about 6:30.  A car would transport her to the site, where she would arrive about 7:00 am.  The film crew would shoot until after sunset, usually about 6:00 pm and she was in bed by 8:00.  "I packed very little to come here, and wear a robe to the day's location where I change into costume." she explained.  "I work on my tan while waiting for everyone else to arrive.  Then I just wear the robe back to the hotel again."

Tanya also had more than her fair share of scrapes, spills and close shaves while filming this physically demanding role.  Her arms bore scars from severe rope burns acquired during her daring treetop escapades.  The spectacular swings captured on film were created by suspending metal wires between trees and attaching the ropes disguised as vines to pulleys that moved along the metal wires.  A 50 degree swing could be made to look like a 150 degree arc because of the movement along the cable.  To film the scene of Sheena descending on a vine after jumping into the treetops from the helicopter in the scene above the Zambuli Falls, a specially-designed harness was used to lower the actress on a thin wire while she feigned the natural hand-over-hand actions.  During one of the vine swinging scenes the cable snapped and Roberts plummeted 20 feet (6 m) through lashing vines and was then dragged 15 feet (4.5 m) along the thorny jungle floor because she continued to clutch onto the rope.  Medics rushed in immediately to attend to the bruises and gashes but the tenacious actress was back on her feet in minutes, visibly shaken but determined to proceed with the shot.  In another scene, one of the most dangerous in the film, Sheena rides bare back rapidly on Marika, her zebra (a not too convincingly a painted horse) across the scorching Amboselli desert while shooting arrows at the speeding Land Rover of the fleeing Prince Otwani.  A camera truck loaded with open sandbags raced along ahead of her to give the illusion she was riding into a cloud of dust raised by the vehicle she was chasing.  When Roberts released the reigns to shoot her bow and arrow the horse, panicked by the flying sand, reared wildly and she was thrown jarringly to the hard, sun-baked clay.  Again, the medics rushed in, but fortunately there were no broken bones.  "Although I was well-prepared I had to ask for a day off because the shoot was so tremendously draining - and I've never done that before." She said (Starlog).

The creators of the Tanya Roberts' Sheena costume decided to take a different approach from the Fiction House comics character. They decided to avoid the traditional leopard skin pattern normally associated with the jungle heroine and created a plain, brief two-piece style not previously identified with the character.  Sheena had sported a two piece leopard-skin outfit on the cover of Jumbo Comics from issues 52 to 65 (Jun 43 to Jul 44), the covers illustrated by Nick Viscardi and Artie Saaf (see image top right and the Jumbo Comics gallery).  The style of those outfits obviously resembled the large-sided trunks and commodious brassieres of 1940s two-piece swimsuits.  Leopard spots were obviously considered for Tanya Roberts at one stage because she was photographed wearing a costume with leopard spots stenciled on the fawn-coloured material she eventually sported (see image bottom right).  I suspect that the leopard skin pattern was avoided for two reasons.  There was a period from the early-Seventies to comparatively recently when leopard skin prints were considered highly unfashionable.  The motif was generally associated with middle-aged European matrons of questionable taste and was seen as just plain tacky.  The resurgence in the popularity of kitsch in recent years has created a revival in leopard skin outfits, but that is still based on a tentative acknowledgment that it is a little silly, and hence "fun".  Secondly, the use of animal skins was at that time, and still is to a large extent today, severly frowned upon by the general populace.  I suspect that these reasons could have still been a factor in the design of the Gena Lee Nolin Sheena outfit when that series was in development in 2000, prior to it's recent revival (see Page 2 - The Star of the Gena Lee Nolin Sheena section).

The 1984 Sheena wardrobe was manufactured from chamois and Tanya Roberts said that seven different costumes were stitched together.  Four were used for her own scenes and three others were used by the female stunt doubles (Starlog).  Generally, the costume was designed simply, without ostentation, but with an adequate amount of sex appeal.  Tanya Roberts wore less jewelry than Irish McCalla in that she wore no earrings, necklace or armbands, although she did wear some simple leather wristbands on her left wrist (see Page 5 - The Costume in the Irish McCalla on Television section).  This modest adornment and the two-piece outfit comprised her total ensemble and imparted a wild and tasteful effect.  The top was an assymetrical, low-cut, lace-up bodice with a small epaulet-style shoulder piece on the left shoulder and a narrower strap on the right shoulder.  The bottom was a brief, high-cut loincloth that fastened on her right hip.  Impressively, Tanya Roberts' Sheena went barefoot, unlike both Irish McCalla and Gena Lee Nolin who opted for moccasins and mukluks respectively.

I will firstly discuss the good things about Tanya Roberts' work on this film.  Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide accurately says that "Tanya looks great as the queen of jungle jiggle."  Her stunning azure blue eyes are truly captivating and her trim, tanned, muscular 36-23-24 physique in the skimpy jungle costume is magnificent.  Roberts' athleticism is also impressive at several points in the film, especially in the tree climbing, vine swinging and bareback riding scenes.  Fortunately, her attractive face is not too cutesy and even conveys strength and gritty determination, ideal attributes for this character.  Her publicity says that she is 5 feet 8 inches tall (172 cm), but this is obviously an exaggeration as she is a full half-a-head shorter than Ted Wass, her costar, who is also 5' 8".  She sometimes appears a little diminutive, especially when addressing the chief of the Zambulis in The Great Forest.  I'm not really familiar with a lot of Roberts' other work, but based on the performance given in this film I am prepared to say that she is truly a lousy actress.  Those Razzie nominations were not misplaced.  The script is weak and doesn't really give her a lot to do, although she looks impressive firing her bow, riding the "zebra" and swinging on vines.  I find it very difficult to believe her extreme naivety of the modern world, the psychic communication with animals device is comically ridiculous and she looks like she has a bad migraine whenever she does it.  This Sheena is vicacious, but vacuous. 

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

Starlog magazine Number 83, Jun 84
Prevue magazine Vol 2 No 17, Nov/Dec 84
The Iger Counter: Additions and Corrections to Jay Disbrow's "The Iger Comics Kingdom" by Roy Thomas (date unknown)
• Photo of Tanya Roberts as Sheena firing a bow is from my private collection
• Image of Golden Age Sheena costume is from Jumbo Comics No. 69 - cover art by Joe Doolin
• Photo of Raquel Welch as Loana, from One Million Years BC (1966), is from my private collection
• Photos of Cheryl Ladd, Farrah Fawcett, Sandahl Bergman and Sybil Danning were all pilfered from eBay auction items
• Video capture of Susan Meschner is from the DVD of Stripes (1981), Sony Pictures Corporation
• Recent photo of Tanya Roberts at the 2006 TV Land Awards in May 2006 was pilfered from an eBay auction item
• Photos of Tanya Roberts as Sheena riding an elephant and "zebra" are from Prevue magazine Vol 2 No 17, Nov/DEC 84
• Image of Forties two-piece Sheena outfit from Jumbo Comics No. 56, Oct 43 - cover art by Artie Saaf
• Photo of Tanya Roberts in leopard-spotted top is from Starlog magazine No. 83, Jun 84
• Photo of Tanya Roberts in Sheena outfit is from a video capture from the Sheena DVD, Sony Pictures Corporation
• Photo of Tanya Roberts as Sheena wearing a quiver of arrows is from Prevue magazine Vol 2 No 17, Nov/DEC 84
• Set of Sheena lobby cards is from my private collection
• Read the lengthy Tanya Robert's filmography at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) site
• Read a good analysis of Tanya Robert's career at the Cult Sirens site

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006-2008 Paul Wickham