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Johnny Weissmuller's co-star Cheetah dies

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Johnny Weissmuller's co-star Cheetah dies Empty Johnny Weissmuller's co-star Cheetah dies

Post  eddie Thu Dec 29, 2011 6:24 am

Chimp claimed as Cheetah from the Tarzan films dies

Primate purported to be Johnny Weissmuller's co-star in classics such as Tarzan the Ape Man dies at Florida animal sanctuary

Ben Child, Wednesday 28 December 2011 16.01 GMT

Johnny Weissmuller's co-star Cheetah dies Cast-members-including-Jo-008
In full swing … the original Cheeta alongside Tarzan cast members including Johnny Weissmuller (second right). Photograph: John Springer Collection/Corbis

If Tarzan's co-star had been human, it is safe to assume that news of his demise would have been greeted with glowing tributes, a Hollywood funeral and perhaps a retrospective season of his greatest cinematic moments.

As it was, the death of an 80-year-old chimpanzee called Cheetah was announced quietly by the Florida animal sanctuary where he had spent the past five decades in retirement. There was no grand send-off for the venerable Cheetah. Even his purported role as Johnny Weismuller's regular primate sidekick remains shrouded in mystery.

The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor claims the primate arrived there in 1960 and was donated by Weissmuller's 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. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the original simian star of films such as 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man and 1934's Tarzan and His Mate was probably a composite of several animals.

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 discontented. "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 invariably referred to Cheetah as 'that bastard'," said Farrow on her Twitter account.

If he died at 80, Cheetah's long lifespan would have made him one of the oldest chimpanzees in history. Even in captivity, the animals rarely live past 50.

The character was created especially for the Weissmuller Tarzan films and did not appear in the original books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. 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.

The fake Cheeta's story also inspired an acclaimed spoof biography by the British writer James Lever. Me Cheeta: The Autobiography flagged up the preposterous nature of the Cheeta myth by presenting the tale of a monkey stolen from deepest Africa and forced to make a living among the fake jungles and outrageous stars of Hollywood's golden age. The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw described it as "one of the smartest comic novels of recent years – a devastatingly clever, brilliantly written spoof autobiography". Cheeta's slippery reputation even seems to have passed by osmosis on to Lever, who was at one point was heavily rumoured to be a front for a better known author such as Martin Amis.

On hearing news of Cheetah's death, Lever said: "Nobody seems to know very much (or even anything at all) about the chimps who played Cheeta. I rather think he'll be dying a lot over the next few years."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.
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