The media is going bananas today (WHACKETY SCHMACKETY) with the news that Cheetah, the chimp who starred opposite Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan the Ape Man, died this week at the age of 80. Not only did he outlive both his co-stars (Weissmuller died in 1984 at 79, and Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane, and who died in 1998 at 87), but chimps normally don’t live past 50, making Cheetah some kind of chimp George Burns. If that were the end of the story, it’d be quite simple. But these chimp stories never are.
It seems “this is the chimp from Tarzan” is a popular claim among chimp owners (and to be fair, there were likely multiple chimps used in the film), and an impostor was outed a few years ago.
Another Cheeta – this time with no “h” at the end of his name – was exposed as a fake in 2008 by Washington Post journalist RD Rosen, who had been asked to write a biography of him. In later years, the fake Cheeta had found himself marketed as a painter of “ape-stract art”, with several canvases exhibited at London’s National Gallery. However, with a little investigation, Rosen discovered that the cigar-smoking, paint-daubing impostor was in fact born in 1960 or 1961 and had never been in a Tarzan film.
I like the idea that this journalist made it his mission to out this CHIMPOSTOR for the fraud it was. He’d probably be sitting in his crappy motel room, watching yet another human-interest story on local TV, with this fraud Cheeta finger painting and living it up, while RD Rosen gritted his teeth and crushed a pencil in his fist. This son of a bitch had to be stopped, but no one would believe him, not even his gruff-but-fatherly editor. “GIVE IT UP, ROSEN! YA GOT NO EVIDENCE!” But RD Rosen never let a few banana peels slip him up on his way to THE TRUTH.
As for the recently-departed Cheetah, here’s what we know about him:
The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor claims the primate arrived there in 1960 and was donated by Weissmuller’s own estate. He is believed to have been born in 1930 or 1931 and was one of a number of chimpanzees whose owners vied to have recognised as the genuine movie-star Cheeta.
According to the sanctuary, Cheetah was an outgoing chimp who loved humans. Yet like many Hollywood stars, he could also be temperamental. Sanctuary volunteer Ron Priest conceded the animal had a habit of throwing his faeces when discontent. “When he didn’t like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it at them,” Priest said. “He could get you at 30 feet, with bars in between.”
One Hollywood star who did mark the potential star’s passing was actor Mia Farrow, whose mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, played Jane in six Tarzan movies. “My mom, who played Jane, invariably referred to Cheetah as ‘that bastard’,” said Farrow on her Twitter account. [TheGuardian]
Cheetah probably wasn’t a bastard, just old school, like Sean Connery. Times were different then. Chimps weren’t afraid to throw poop at a woman, if she got out of line. No one thought anything of it. Later in his life, according to the DailyMail, Cheetah loved football, and was soothed by non-denominational Christian music.
Sadly for fans of the Weissmuller-era Tarzan, the animal closest to being the “real” Cheeta was most likely a chimpanzee named Jiggs, who died from pneumonia way back in 1938. Jiggs is now buried in the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park. [TheGuardian]
Whatever his history, today the world morns a very old chimp. I only hope Cheetah turns out to be the true Tarzan chimp so that Andy Serkis can present him with a posthumous, lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. “Cheetah taught me everything I know about monkey business, and without Cheetah, there’d be no Andy Serkis. And when it’s bedtime for this Bonzo [gesturing at himself], I only pray that I’ve been able to accomplish half as much. Good night, sweet prince. (*beats chest, hoots, throws poop at Gwyneth Paltrow*)