Here she comes, bouncing aboard a galloping zebra, blond mane tossed by the wind, powerful tan thighs flashing, unconcealed by the skimpy tangle of animal skin she’s wearing. She is presence, she is power, she is Sheena, Queen of the Jungle! She is the major visual treat in the silliest hit of the summer, a movie getting rave reviews in spite of itself. “The funniest film in town,” glowed the New York Times, hinting broadly that the comedy was not intentional.
Success by default may not be exactly what Sheena star Tanya Roberts, 29, had in mind, but she’ll take it anyway, thanks. Previously known as the last of Charlie’s Angels (she held that post for a short season before the show went to series heaven in 1981), Roberts is nothing if not direct. “What I really want is a commercial hit,” she says. “If you’re in a hit, you’re suddenly a star, whether you acted well or not.”
Beneath that sinewy exterior beats a heart of steel. Roberts first heard of the Sheena project four years ago. “It sounded real commercial, so I followed it,” she says bluntly. “I bothered my agents, the casting director. I just kept pushing and knocking on doors. Finally when I said I’d slash my wrists if you don’t give me the test, they let me do it.”
Once the role was snagged, Tanya dyed her brown locks blond (she’ll keep them that way) and upped her daily hour and a half of weight lifting to a five-hour marathon including bareback riding and trapeze swinging. “I worked out for nine months,” she says. “But it was no problem. I love to sweat.”
Roberts was a tad tentative about moving from her two-bedroom Hollywood home to Kenya where Sheena was shot. Worried that there’d be “no air-conditioning,” she also feared the absence of “electricity and toilets, and having to go behind the bushes to be attacked by who knows what.” But it turned out there was a nice hotel where “our own caterer served nouvelle cuisine. It was nothing like what Bogey and Hepburn had to suffer in The African Queen.”
Clearly it was not easy being Sheena, but Roberts insisted on doing 80 percent of the stunts—including zebra riding (actually it was a painted horse), rock climbing and rope swinging. “I took some terrible spills,” she reports, “and sprained my ankle falling from a vine.” While she did the movie with no face makeup except mascara, “I had tons of scars and scratches, and the makeup man would have to spend an hour and a half every day painting those away.”
Tanya has always been used to toughing things out. She grew up barefoot and poor in the Bronx, a half-Irish, half-Jewish daughter of a pen salesman. A below-average student, Tanya admits, “I was never pretty, never really popular. I was lanky and funny looking,” At 15, she married “some guy” and hitchhiked around the country with him until his mother had the marriage annulled. The next year she met a psychology student, Barry Roberts, in a Manhattan movie line, fixed upon him as her “best friend” and a few months later married him. She taught dance at Arthur Murray, worked her way into modeling (“nothing really classy”) and then began acting off-off-Broadway. Five years of voice coaching took the Bronx out of her voice but not her spirit.
In 1977 Tanya and Barry took off for Hollywood, where he went into screenwriting (so far unsuccessfully) and she did a special episode of Vega$ before being hired as an Angel. When the axe fell, Tanya says, her co-Angels were thrilled but she was devastated: “I was bushy-tailed and they were tired of it. I’ll never forget Jaclyn Smith screaming with laughter the day we were canceled. I was crying. Before, I had every magazine cover, then suddenly I was off TV.” For a while afterward, she says, “We didn’t have a nickel. We were living off credit cards.” In 1982 she did a Conan-like movie, The Beastmaster, and to promote it, a nude spread in Playboy. “I thought it would help the movie,” she says. “Now I see it as something I can look back at years from now and remember I had a nice body.”
She has Sheena to remember her body by too—notably a nude swimming scene done in ice-cold water. Roberts warded off the chill with the heat from five generators, frequent toweling and nips of cognac. “It was cute, not provocative,” she says. “It felt natural. That’s the way I swim at home.”
For the moment there are no witnesses except Barry and their beloved Doberman pinscher, Champ. When she has finished filming the next James Bond movie, A View to Kill, in which she wears shoes and clothes, Tanya hopes to start work on a family “Tanya’s ready for motherhood,” says Barry, 34. But the lady is more cautious. First, she says, “I want $2 million in the bank and not have to worry ever, ever again.
“I never take anything for granted,” she continues. “There are a hundred other girls in this business who could do the job I’m doing, and I know it.” But Tanya’s determined not to give her Sheena critics the last word. “Even if I get thrown out of Hollywood, I’ll come back,” she vows. “It took me 14 years to get where I am. I’m going to hang in there.”