Nellie Elizabeth "Irish" McCalla (December 25, 1928 – February 1, 2002) was an American actress and artist best known as the title star of the 1950s television series Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Sheena co-starred actor Chris Drake. McCalla was also a "Vargas Girl" model for pinup girl artist Alberto Vargas.
Born in Pawnee City, Nebraska, she was one of eight siblings born to Lloyd, a butcher, and Nettie (née Geiger) McCalla. The family moved often, settling in Des Moines, Iowa in late 1939 when Lloyd began working for Condon Bros. meat dealers. The family lived at 1070 10th Street. Nellie attended Washington Irving Junior High School before the family moved to Marshalltown, Iowa in November 1941, and Omaha, Nebraska in September 1942, before returning to Pawnee City, where she completed high school. At 17, she joined some of her siblings in Southern California, where she worked as a waitress and at an aircraft factory.
In 1951, she married insurance salesman Patrick McIntyre, with whom she had two sons. McCalla was already a popular pinup model by 1952, when she and several other models appeared in the film River Goddesses, comprising voluptuous young women frolicking in Glen Canyon.
In a newspaper interview, McCalla recalled being discovered by a Nassour Studios representative while throwing a bamboo spear on a Malibu, California, beach, adding of her Sheena experience, "I couldn't act, but I could swing through the trees". Her 26-episode series aired in first-run syndication from 1955-56.
The athletic, reportedly 5'10" (177 cm) McCalla said she performed her own stunts on the series, filmed in Mexico, until the day she grabbed an unsecured vine and slammed into a tree, breaking her arm. Her elder son, Kim McIntyre, once told the press he remembered watching his mother swinging from vine to vine and wrestling mechanical alligators.
Following the one-season Sheena, McCalla appeared in five films from 1958 to 1962, and guest roles on the TV series Have Gun — Will Travel and Route 66. Additionally, she formed McCalla Enterprises, Inc.
Later life and art career
McCalla and McIntyre divorced in 1957, and the following year McCalla married English actor and James Joyce/Sherlock Holmes scholar Patrick Horgan. They divorced sometime in the 1960s. In 1982, McCalla, then living in Malibu, California, married Chuck Rowland, a national sales manager for an auto glass firm, and moved with him to Prescott, Arizona, where she lived out her days. They separated in 1989.
As an artist, McCalla reportedly completed more than 1,000 paintings and eight collector plates, and sold lithographs of her work. McCalla was a member of Woman Artists of the American West, and her work has reportedly been displayed at the Los Angeles Museum of Arts and Sciences. She made personal appearances at autograph conventions, appearing as late as 1996 in a faux-leopard Sheena costume.
At age 73 in 2002, Irish McCalla died of a stroke and complications from her fourth brain tumor — previous tumors were diagnosed in 1969 and 1981. She was survived by two sons, Kim and Sean McIntyre.
As one writer described the effect of McCalla's signature character on girls growing up in that era, "Sheena was the only female portrayed on the tube who didn't conform to the fifties stereotype. Sheena was a real rugged individualist. Watching her struggle with a new adventure every week made me feel more capable at a time when everything was so unexplored. If she could handle the jungle, I felt sure that I could handle my world".
- River Goddesses (1952) — Herself
- Irish McCalla at the Beach (1950?) Five-minute film of Irish modeling a leopard-skin bikini and a striped bikini
- Queen of the Jungle (1956) Three TV episodes with new footage, created for non-U.S. theatrical market — Sheena
- She Demons (1958) — Jerrie Turner
- The Beat Generation (1959); reissued as This Rebel Age — Marie Baron
- Five Gates to Hell (1959) — Sister Magdalena
- Five Bold Women (1960) — "Big Pearl" Jackson
- Hands of a Stranger, also known as The Answer (1962) — Holly