“Hollywood Goes to Africa”: Tanya Roberts stars as the jiggily Sheena, Queen of the Jungle

By on February 8, 2018

A little over midway into this three-hour “as aired” full episode of “Night Flight” from August 17, 1984, you’ll find “Hollywood Goes to Africa: The Making of Sheena,” a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette which includes candid on-location interviews with actress Tanya Roberts, who stars as the jiggily jungle queen.

Much like Surviving the Laughter: The Making of ‘The Survivors’  and The Other Side of The Wall, a rarely-seen featurette on the making of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, we don’t believe you’re going to be able find this Sheena featurette anywhere else on the interwebs, making it a Night Flight Plus exclusive!

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Sheena‘s plot follows Sports World field producer Vic Casey (Ted Wass) who has come to Africa — along with his cameraman Fletch Agronsky (Donovan Scott) — to do a feature story about a former pro football player, Prince Otwani (Trevor Thomas).

When Otwani’s brother King Jabalani (Clifton Jones) is killed, Casey unearths a sinister plot to strip-mine the wealth of the sacred Gudjara Mountain, belonging to the Zambooli tribe of the fictional African country of Tigora (they’re portrayed by 700 members of Kenya’s real Samburu tribe).

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Casey ends up being aided by — and falling in love with — the scantily-clad jiggily jungle girl Sheena (Tanya Roberts), the grown-up version of a little blonde girl whose geologist parents were killed years earlier while they were investigating rumors of a mystical “healing earth” from the sacred mountain.

A village priestess named Shaman (Elizabeth of Toro) believes the little girl was “an ancient prophecy fulfilled… A golden God child possessed with a mystic gift.”

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Shaman teaches Sheena how to communicate telepathically with wild animals (including a zebra named “Marika”), a skill that comes in handy in the Zambooli’s climactic fight with Otwani’s white mercenaries on the African serengeti.

Incidentally, Elizabeth of Toro was actual Ugandan royalty, her family having been banished by dictator Idi Amin in the ’70s.

Read more about Sheena below.

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First-time producer Paul Aratow acquired the feature film rights to the comic strip “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle” in 1975.

Over the next ten years, Sheena bounced around between studios — Universal, United Artists, Filmways (Orion Pictures), and Avco-Embassy — before Aratow finally landed a solid deal with Columbia Pictures.

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In 1983, British-born John Guillermin — who’d directed big-budgeted war epics, crime dramas and action/adventures, many set in Africa, like 1973’s Shaft in Africa — was hired to direct.

David Newman (he’d written three Superman scripts) shared the screenplay credit with Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who’d scripted Guillermin’s 1976 film King Kong.

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Early on, Raquel Welch was initially going to play Sheena, but sadly (for this writer anyway) she fell out of consideration.

Aratow had told the L.A. Times in May 1980 his first choice was Bo Derek. He saw the character as “a sexy, mythic Earth goddess type.”
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More than two thousand actresses auditioned — including Cheryl Ladd and Jodie Foster, who was busy studying at Yale — before the role finally went to Tanya Roberts, best known as one of TV’s “Charlie’s Angels.”

In 1982, she’d co-starred in The Beastmaster and appeared on the cover of Playboy (years later she posed nude in a pictorial with lions and tigers).

Ted Wass from TV’s “Soap” (created by Susan Harris; read more here) got the role of Vic Casey.

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The director and producers spent two years exploring Mexico and South America before deciding to shoot entirely at national parks and game reserves in southern Kenya.

Kenya’s capital city Nairobi also stood in for Azan, Tigora’s capital.

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It reportedly took cast and crew sixteen hours to travel twenty-two miles on muddy, primitive roads to the locations each day, some more than 13,000 ft. high in the Aberdare mountains.

Airstrips were constructed so that planes making the 40-minute flights to-and-from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport would arrive safely.

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Animal Actors of Hollywood’s trainer Hubert G. Wells provided Roberts and the cast with hundreds of hours of training with wild animals (an elephant, a rhino, five lions, four leopards, four chimpanzees, five horses and sixteen birds).

Tanya Roberts also performed about eighty percent of her own stunts, including riding a zebra (it was actually a small white horse painted with black stripes).

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Principal photography began in late August 1983 and was completed in April of 1984.

Much of Sheena was shot during Kenya’s twelve-week “dry season,” when temperatures often soared to 120° Fahrenheit by ten in the morning.

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Sheena was ultimately given a “PG” rating, which was remarkable, considering the amount of nudity, even though Aratow told reporters there wouldn’t be any.

“There might be one very tasteful shot of a silhouette against a sunset of [Sheena] taking a dive into a pool, but it’s got to be PG,” he said. “It’s a carefully controlled sensuality because our audience has to include kids.”

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Sheena premiered in L.A. on August 10, 1984, before opening a week later on 1200 theater screens, but it was not well received, earning just $6 million in ticket sales against its $26 million budget (Columbia also spent another $9.2 million on marketing).

Roger Ebert wrote: “It’s probably the only PG-rated movie that will play continuously on the Playboy Channel — you see more of Tanya Roberts than you did of last month’s playmate.”

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was ultimately nominated (but didn’t win) for five Golden Raspberrys, including Worst Picture and Worst Actress for Tanya Roberts, frequently singled out in reviews for her limited acting talent.

Check out Night Flight’s full three-hour “as aired” episode from August 17, 1984 — also featuring lots of cool music videos, and experimental animation and video from Chel White — over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.