The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Florida recently announced that Cheetah, the chimpanzee “star” of the Tarzan movies from the 1930s, had finally died of kidney failure at age 80.
This re-raises some old questions though. A few years ago R.D. Rosen looked into the truth about Cheeta [sic] the Chimpanzee:
In the fall of 2007, I had been working for several months on a proposal for the authorized biography of Cheeta, Johnny Weissmuller’s sidekick in MGM’s Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ’40s. Against all odds, Cheeta was still alive at the age of 75, 20 years older than a captive chimp’s normal life span. When the agent for Cheeta and his owner, Dan Westfall, had first approached me about writing the biography, I was astonished that a fixture of not just my own childhood, but my parents’, as well, one of the most celebrated animals in movie history, was retired in Palm Springs, Calif., selling his paintings for $135 donations to thousands of far-flung admirers. His birthday parties were now covered by national, and even international, media. At Cheeta’s 75th birthday party, his owner, who runs a non-profit primate sanctuary, had played a video of Jane Goodall attempting to sing “Happy Birthday” to him in the pant-hooting language of the wild chimps she had first observed in Tanzania in the early 1960s. Could there be higher tribute to a chimp than that?
But one oft-repeated fact about the chimp’s life nagged at me. It was one of the standard stories in Cheeta’s biography — repeated in Newsweek and other magazines, recited by Cheeta’s current owner and many Cheeta admirers — that the first of his two owners, animal trainer Tony Gentry, had gotten him in Liberia as a baby and smuggled him under his overcoat aboard a Pan Am flight home in 1932. During the long flight, the diapered Cheeta escaped from under Gentry’s coat, mischievously scampered up and down the aisle, and had to be subdued by hysterical stewardesses with a bottle of warm milk.
After four months of research and writing, I decided to ask a question that, in retrospect, was so obvious that it was curious that no journalist before me had bothered to ask it: In 1932, were there any transatlantic flights for Gentry to smuggle Cheeta onto? The answer, I wasn’t surprised to learn, was no. Transatlantic commercial airline service wasn’t inaugurated until 1939.
Early on, I had raised the issue of documenting Cheeta’s age. Obviously, I had to be protected against the possibility that, if I published a biography of the world’s oldest chimpanzee, someone would make a fool out of me, my reputation, my publisher, Cheeta, his owner, and the agent by proving he was not 75. But at that early stage, it seemed a mere formality, and I had no idea even what such documentation would consist of. It was unclear if Tony Gentry, who had given Cheeta to his distant cousin Dan Westfall two years before his death in 1993, had left any papers. I’d questioned both Westfall, and his agent about the file of documents that persuaded Guinness World Records in 2001 to award Cheeta a certificate for being “the world’s oldest living primate, aged 69 years and one month.” But it didn’t seem urgent, and it certainly wasn’t desirable, to question the entire premise of the book I had just agreed to write.
The falsehood about 1932 gave me pause, but I reasoned that anyone can get a memory wrong. In the first of what were to be several acts of denial, I simply ignored my discovery and proceeded with my research. But my subconscious, already on notice, soon prompted me to verify another routine biographical “fact” about Cheeta’s life. Westfall had mentioned that Cheeta had come out of retirement in 1966 at the age of 34 to play the role of Chee-Chee the chimp in 1967′s “Doctor Dolittle” with Rex Harrison. Even People magazine (Cheeta’s “last film hurrah was 1967′s ‘Doctor Dolittle’ “) and Newsweek (“You laughed at him in ‘Doctor Doolittle’ “) said so. Numerous Web sites concurred. So I watched a DVD of “Dr. Doolittle,” a movie in which Chee-Chee is played by a juvenile chimp no older than 7 or possibly 8; after that age, a chimp’s physical appearance changes dramatically. That was it. Cheeta was not in that film. Whatever Cheeta was doing in 1966, he wasn’t making a movie with Rex Harrison.
The same Newsweek also reported, “Only once did Cheeta walk off the set — reportedly when Ronald Reagan kept forgetting his lines in ‘Bedtime for Bonzo.’ ” “Bedtime for Bonzo!” If Cheeta had actually been Reagan’s as well as Tarzan’s sidekick, that would make him the Zelig of primates, turning up wherever entertainment history was being made. I sent 1951s “Bedtime for Bonzo” to the head of my Netflix queue and wasn’t shocked to discover that Cheeta, by then a full-grown 19-year-old, is not in that movie, either. Bonzo was played by another, infant or juvenile chimp.
As Cheeta’s claims to fame were springing leaks, I began spending hours in front of my television, freeze-framing on close-ups of various Cheetas in MGM Tarzan movies I had rented. I would take an 8-by-10 glossy of Westfall’s Palm Springs Cheeta, approach the television and compare the two images. Chimpanzees’ faces change quite a bit as they age, not unlike most human ones, but the contours and configuration of an ear change very little. I would freeze on a frame of Cheeta in three-quarters or full profile and try to find a match. In each Tarzan movie, the Cheeta role had been played by more than one chimp, depending on what talents the scene called for. (In fact, there was another, less well publicized Cheeta in Palm Harbor, Fla., who was also said to be in his 70s and a veteran of Weissmuller movies. But that’s another story.) The trick was to look at all the scenes and positively identify Westfall’s Cheeta in at least one. But none of the movie chimps’ ears was an adequate match for the Palm Springs Cheeta’s.
We can all rest easy knowining someone‘s looking into this for us.