Irish McCalla, the voluptuous actress best remembered for bringing the comic book Tarzan-like heroine “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” to television in the 1950s, has died. She was 73.
McCalla, who became an artist in her later years, died Feb. 1 in a Tucson, Ariz., nursing home of complications following a stroke and her fourth brain tumor.
“Sheena,” the unusual action series about a female superhero in an era when women were expected to raise children and bake cookies, ran 26 episodes in 1956.
But that TV series, shot in the Mexican jungle and far more successful than a 1984 motion picture remake, has been so replayed around the world that McCalla remained popular at superhero conventions until her death.
“That was amazing,” she said after sitting out such appearances for 15 years and then reluctantly attending the SuperCon gathering in Anaheim in 1976.
“People of all ages were coming up to me, telling me things about myself that I’d completely forgotten,” she said.
And yes, she told ever-inquiring fans, she could still fit into Sheena’s trademark leopard skin minidress, and did so for photographs as recently as 1996.
Unlike some forgotten superheroes, McCalla never built a life around such conventions, and quipped that when she tired of signing autographs, “I’d get up and say, ‘Sheena not used to civilization.’”
At 5-foot-9 1/2, McCalla was so tall her studio could never find look-alike female stunt doubles. So she did her own vine-swinging and tree-climbing with her pet chimp, Chim. That is, until she miscalculated one approaching tree as she clung to her swinging vine and crashed into it, smashing a knee. After that, the producers hired male stunt men, dressed in leopard skin and wearing blond wigs.
As one of eight children, McCalla grew up in various places across the country, mostly in Pawnee City, Nev., and moved on her own to Santa Monica--"where it was warm"--when she was 17. Her first job was in an aircraft assembly factory making 80 cents a day.
Always an athletic tomboy, McCalla gravitated quickly to skin-diving and inevitably was spotted by a photographer who asked if she would pose for pictures as Miss Navy Day. “Sure,” she said, “why not,” and on Oct. 27, 1948, joined the mayor to officially welcome the aircraft carrier Boxer and the Navy’s largest amphibian plane, the Carolina Mars, to Santa Monica.
Next came modeling--and the attention of painter Arturo Vargas, king of the pinups, who captured her as a Vargas Girl. Born on Christmas Day, she posed nude for the December page in a Vargas calendar.
McCalla liked to joke that Nassour Studios discovered her and cast her as Sheena after finding her tossing a spear on Malibu Beach. Actually, it was another photographer who got her the job when the preferred candidate, Anita Ekberg, failed to show up for work.
The young woman, who had her first painting in an Omaha museum at 14, still considered art her primary interest but, as she told The Times in 1978, “acting was supporting me at the time.” The Sheena series, she said, paid $365 a week, plus thousands of dollars for each personal appearance in the mid-1950s.
McCalla took acting lessons later, but said Sheena so typecast her that “it was almost impossible to get another job.” She did act in a handful of B movies, including “She Demons,” “This Rebel Age,” “Five Gates to Hell,” “Five Bold Women” and “Hands of a Stranger,” and appeared on a few TV shows.
At the peak of her Sheena popularity, McCalla went through the first of two divorces. Married to insurance man Patrick H. McIntyre in 1951, she sought divorce in 1957, claiming he scolded her for failing to be the high-living consort her screen image might imply.
“He called me a ‘pooper,’” she told a judge. “He told hosts and guests at a party we attended, ‘I don’t want to be a party pooper, but mamma wants to go home.’”
She later was married to English actor John Patrick Horgan, but that marriage also ended in divorce after five years.
McCalla made painting her official profession after a bout with cancer in 1970. She painted Western scenes in oil, and converted many canvases to limited-edition plates and prints. Working with her sister, Flo Tugwell, she marketed the art through her McCalla Enterprises Inc.
McCalla is survived by two sons, Kim and Sean McIntyre; two brothers; three sisters; and two granddaughters.