Irish McCalla (1928–2002) was an American actress and artist best known as the title star of the 1950s television series “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.” McCalla was also a “Vargas Girl” model for pinup girl artist Alberto Vargas.
“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 people of all ages were coming up to me, telling me things about myself that I’d completely forgotten,” she said.
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.
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.
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.