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SHEENA: Gena Lee Nolan
The queen of the jungle returns to TV once more.
By Craig D. Reid
October 10, 2000
What do you get when you cross TARZAN with that wild Hong Kong film MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1976), add a touch of SPACE: 1999 and call it something some of you have already heard of? Well, it's happened. TV Hollywood has decided that it can't come up with anything new, so they're bringing back an old movie that used to be an old TV show that used to be an old comic strip. This fall, SHEENA, the Queen of the Jungle, is swinging back into our living rooms in what executive producers Douglas Schwartz (BAYWATCH) and Steven L. Sears (XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS) are touting as a 'sexy action-adventure,' with the emphasis on adventure. They are also banking on former BAYWATCH babe Gena Lee Nolan to be a Sheena for the new millennium, something the Minnesota born, former Army brat Nolan is willing to shoulder.
Talking from the sweltering heat of Orlando, Fla., a place that really feels like the heart of equatorial Africa, the cool and collect Nolan shares with us a few things about her character. 'Sheena is very strong and yet very vulnerable,' says Nolan. 'She has the shy childlike and sexy way about her. But she doesn't know this because she is naďve, and although she has some amazing gifts, she's still lacking experience with men and people skills, because she's not civilized and hasn't been around that. I must now become part of the world with Matt Curter [John Allen Nelson], a rogue American adventurer with a special attraction for Sheena. So this is what is fun about the charactermy relationship with him, seeing civilization and how I react to all of this. I relate to her in a sense that I feel like I'm very independent and also feel her vulnerability. I was a shy kid growing up in the small town of Duluth, Minn. I also like the strength that Sheena portrays in her ability to rule the jungle; that power is really attractive to me. I think it's important that women in every situation can take a stand and that we are comfortable with the power within us and the strength that we have.
'As you know, I was on BAYWATCH for four years, God bless me. Doug was also the executive producer of that show, and one day called me and said that he had this project: 'It's a comic book. You would rock doing this. You are the only person I know who could handle it, and you have the right look.' I wasn't sure about it. I mean on BAYWATCH, when I was cast as bad girl Neely Capshaw, they had never really had a full-time principal who was the mean girl. But I had never acted before and actually had never even seen a script until I got on the show. But it all worked out, and it was a great learning experience. Before this, I had never heard of Sheena and wasn't familiar with the previous versions of the character. So I got a hold of all the literature on the character and of course spoke to Irish McCalla, the original Sheena. She sent me her diaries of everything she went through during the two years that she was on air, and it was incredible. My time spent with her, talking to her, was incredible. So after all of that I said, 'This is really cool. Let's do it.''
'I agreed with Doug [Schwartz],' says Sears. 'I saw in Nolan a modern day Sheena. One of the things we wanted to avoid was the 'me, Tarzan, you Jane,' thing. Gena brings the sophistication we were looking forthe brains, the brawn and the beauty.'
The legend of Sheena began as a popular comic strip created by S.M. Iger and Will Eisner back in the late 1930s. Labeled as a female Tarzan/Phantom, the story revolved around the adventures of a brave and beautiful defender of the jungle and its beasts being threatened by an assortment of baddies invading her territory, undoubtedly Third Reich explorers creating havoc in Africa. Twenty six 30-minute episodes of SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE were shot and sold into syndication, then aired on TV between 1955-1956. The show had everything for its time. For kids, it was chocked full of jungle excitement, wild animals and a brave heroine battling a wide mixture of villains. Adults seemed to appreciate the cliché-ridden parody stabs at TARZAN. And for teens, Irish McCalla's voluptuous figure and skimpy leotard costume fulfilled adolescent fantasies years before Lynda Carter's WONDER WOMAN. Using Mexico as a double for Kenya, the show had Sheena using a hunting horn instead of a yell, and with her pet chimp, Chim (remember Chim- Chim from SPEED RACER?), she would regularly rescue her good friend, trader Bob. Many of her tree stunts were performed by men in wigs. Of note, after the show, McCalla continued doing a slew of B-movies before becoming a successful painter.
In 1984, Tanya Roberts starred as the Queen of the Jiggle in the cinematic version of SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE. Decked in a tight, suede bikini and showing lots of loin, our tiny Tarzanette learns the art of summoning wild animals via a bad migraine headache. Upon removing her jungle ware, she immediately impresses American TV sports reporter and all-around good guy Ted Wass. Apart from the usual swinging on vines routine, Roberts is caught riding a horse painted with black and white stripes. (Running joke? Knock, knock. Who's there? Zebra. Zebra who? Ze-bra is falling down. Camp deserves camp.)
Which brings us to the year 2000, in which Nolan's Sheena looks more like Evelyne Kraft's jungle girl character in Shaw Brothers' MIGHTY PEKING MAN. Orphaned at a young age by tragedy in the jungle, Sheena was raised by Kali (Margo Moorer), her Shamaness spiritual mentor, the last living member of a native tribe, the Kaya, who possessed the mystical power to 'shape shift' into the forms of wild animals by feeling the spirit of their soul. It's a gift shared by Sheena, who can turn herself into an animal and travel through the jungle unrecognized while battling outside forces that invade La Mistas, her primal home. This notion was introduced into Gerry Anderson's SPACE 1999 in 1976 by producer Fred Freiberger (STAR TREK and THE WILD, WILD WEST) through the creation of Catherine Schell's character Maya, the alien from the planet Psychon, who could morph into a wide range of animals as well as plants. Then there was MANIMAL (1983), which featured Simon MacCorkindale's character Jonathan Case, who had the inherited ability to change into any animal at will.
Sheena's morphing abilities requires a combination of state-of-the-art CGI, sophisticated prosthetic makeup and work with the actual animals. Nolan tells us, 'I didn't have too many challenges doing all the special effects. To me, it's just cool working with people knowing what they are doing. And there are a lot of special effects in this. In fact, the guy who did the effects of Keanu Reeves in THE MATRIX is also our guy. He came in and did a whole outline of my body like they did with Keanu. It was cool being there and having them do a complete scan of my body from head to toe and then make sculptures of my face so they can make me a living Sheena on screen, a cyber Sheena.
'But working with the animals has been a riot. The chimps are hysterical and incredible. They're like little people, and they will remind you of your toddler. I'm fine with snakes, but spiders are really tough for me, so I have them get tarantulas and other things I'm freaked out about and I handle them. I'm going to push it, because I just want to get through it. If there's something on set or in the script that they want me to do, I want to have that comfort level. I've been bitten a few times by these little mice called gerds and had a chimpanzee pee on me. It's like an acid shower; it's brutal. Other than that, everything is fine. I haven't worked close with the lions and tigers, but have with a spotted leopard, giraffe, elephant, camels and goats. Then on every show we'll do a public service announcement about the animals and what we can do to help them, which is great because, personally, I just love animals. Whatever it is that's living and has fur, I'm crazy about. And as far as the animals are concerned, I am into keeping it safe for the animals. Often times we won't use the animals; we use computer graphics rather than just making them sit there or something. It's important that people know that.'
And unlike many other actresses, who really do very little of their own stunt work, but are more than happy to take credit for the hard work of others, Nolan is more than happy to give credit to her stunt double. She extols, 'We do a lot of fighting on the show, and I have to say that we literally fight our asses off. I did a lot of street fighting training and animal training before coming to Orlando. With this and the technology and special effects, the fights look amazing. And I have a great stunt double, Vicki Phillips, who does all those cool flips and swings from trees. And as Sheena, the fighting needs to be savage because she is raised in a jungle and doesn't know how to do kick boxing. This is why I have a savage animal instinct fighting, which is actually rougher than street fighting, but visually it's so wicked and beautiful.'*
In closing, Nolan is a fervent champion for the American Cancer Society and helping children out of abusive situations and into a safe environment. Strong convictions like this, along with her never-say-die attitude, will ultimately pull her through the rigors of the show. She philosophically asserts, 'Doing this show is of course different from BAYWATCH, where there were many characters and I wasn't the main lead. This is my first title role, and it does scare me a bit. But you know, it's been put on my plate, so what am I going to do? I have got to just take it and get on with it. Yes, there is a lot of pressure on me to carry the show, but I have so many people and other actors on the show who are all very supportive. And so with that I think we have a wonderful chance. I believe in fate, and we've done everything we can to make the show sensational. If it doesn't work then, it's just God saying that he doesn't want anymore jungle shows. And that's fine, too. It's been a great experience, and we go on. That's the way it is, and I learned that early on when I moved to Las Vegas with my mother when my parents divorced. Anything that happens in your life makes you a stronger person. Sometimes the worst things that happen are the things that can get you ready for the next thing. It's the sink or swim attitude, and I choose to be a swimmer.'
*Author's Note: I've worked in Chinese film for years doing fight choreography, learned from Jackie Chan and was a fight directing apprentice on MARTIAL LAW, so believe me, I've seen great fights. I've watched some of the fights on SHEENA, and frankly they just don't cut the cake. But it's not Nolan's fault. Whoever is staging the fights doesn't know how to choreograph or shoot them. However, I would add that Gena does give it the college try, and I totally respect her for admitting that she has a stunt double.