Tarzan's pal Cheetah dead at 80

Or not. We report. You decide.

WASHINGTON, December 28, 2011 – Cheetah, madcap comic cinemactor and best buddy of Tarzan (except sometimes for Jane), reportedly died on December 24 at his Palm Harbor, Florida retirement pad. Various reports have indicated he was 80 years old, but his precise date of birth is apparently impossible to determine.

“It is with great sadness that the community has lost a dear friend and family member on December 24, 2011,” noted the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation in a release posted on its website.

“Cheetah, star of the Tarzan films, passed away after kidney failure during the week of December 19, 2011,” stated the release, which additionally notes that the “Sanctuary’s residents and volunteers would like to thank all of the community members for their continued support as the Sanctuary continues to expand on the legacy and foundation Cheetah continues to oversee as he watches over his supporters, friends, and family.”

The Foundation is dedicated to providing a safe haven for primates and  other animals that find themselves in need of refuge. (More Cheetah photos here.)

Tarzan, Cheetah, and Co.

One happy jungle family. From left: Cheetah (Cheetah); Boy (Johnny Sheffield); Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller); Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan). (Promotional still.)

The LA Times blog notes that Cheetah had been “an instant hit with audiences” from the outset of the Johnny Weissmuller series of Tarzan movies, as the lovable chimp combined “comic relief during Tarzan’s many adventures.” These films became a staple of 1950s and 1960s afternoon and weekend TV programming, capturing yet another generation of avid Tarzan and Cheetah fans.

And let’s not forget that goofy, crazy, unforgettable Cheetah laugh:

As originated by novelist/science fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, Cheetah’s best bud, was an early, almost Batman-like human super-hero whose main turf was located somewhere deep in the African jungle.

Burroughs’ Tarzan “the ape man” was actually a British Lord by birth who’d been marooned in Africa as a child and was raised by a tribe of highly intelligent apes. Returning to England for a time where he was recognized as John Clayton, Earl (or Viscount) Greystoke, he reacquired his human side before returning to Africa, which he ultimately regarded as his true home.

While Burroughs’ Tarzan was quite a sophisticated fellow, Johnny Weissmuller’s silver screen Tarzan was far less cultured. Originally an Olympic swimming champion, Weissmuller was not much of an actor at the outset of his screen career. MGM, by giving his character only a rudimentary grasp of English—perhaps to get around a lack of acting chops—inadvertently created a superstar. After MGM’s first Tarzan movie, “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932), Weissmuller went on to play Tarzan in eleven additional films, half of them with RKO. But his earliest movies with MGM are generally regarded as the best ones.

From the start, all the Weissmuller Tarzan films featured a crazy young chimpanzee known as “Cheetah” as Tarzan’s comic foil. Whether flawlessly carrying Tarzan’s messages to humans or jungle animals or casually performing stupid animal tricks, Cheetah also became an instant favorite with Tarzan’s film going fans. “And, when things really looked grim for Tarzan,” notes the LA Times, “Cheetah would round up other jungle creatures to help Tarzan out of a jam.”

(Below: Cheetah’s ravings are mistaken for the Führer’s pronouncements in the 1943 Tarzan propaganda film “Tarzan Triumphs.”)

But just who was the “real” Cheetah? It’s hard to say. As any fan of animal-based movie or TV series knows, non-human characters are often portrayed by a series of similar-looking animals. For example, both the film and TV “Lassie” series starred not one but many similar-appearing, intelligent collies in the role—all of them, ironically, male collies, not female.

So, too, with “Cheetah.” Chimpanzees actually grow to a considerable size over the years, with a child-adolescent-adult timeline that’s similar to that of human beings. Just as child actors grow older, evolving into, well, non-child actors, so, too with adorable small chimps that remind us, in films, of funny, naughty children. Movie star chimps simply outgrow their roles, just like human kids do. Ultimately, they need to be replaced with younger chimps in popular ongoing series like “Tarzan.”

While there have been many “Cheetahs” over the years—after Weissmuller left the Tarzan franchise, numerous actors went on to play the part along with numerous chimps—the Cheetah who died in Florida last week was widely reported to be the original one who starred in Weissmuller’s earliest movies. Weissmuller (who died in 1984) actually owned and operated animal-themed parks in Florida for a time, and was supposed to have gifted Cheetah to the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation.

But it’s here that the Cheetah trail grows cold. The problem: there’s no actual proof that the sanctuary’s Cheetah was the original, or even one of the original, Cheetahs.

According to AP reporter Tamara Lush, “Debbie Cobb, outreach director at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, said Wednesday that her grandparents acquired Cheetah around 1960 from ‘Tarzan’ star Johnny Weissmuller and that the chimp appeared in Tarzan films between 1932 and 1934. During that period, Weissmuller made ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ and ‘Tarzan and His Mate.’

“But Cobb offered no documentation,” continues the report, “saying it was destroyed in a 1995 fire.”

Just three years ago, writer R. D. Rosen tracked down yet another “Cheetah,” this time in the similarly named Palm Springs, California. Rosen had been prepared to write an official bio of the famous chimp—dubbed “Cheeta” at the California facility—but his initial research started raising more questions than answers concerning this “Cheeta’s” authenticity.

According to the LA Times piece, while researching “Cheeta’s” backstory, Rosen learned that the animal was supposed to have been born “in Liberia and smuggled into the U.S. beneath an animal trainer’s overcoat” on a transatlantic flight in the early 1930s. Great story. Except that Rosen also discovered “that transatlantic commercial airline service didn’t begin until 1939.” Oops. That put “Cheeta’s” authenticity in serious doubt.

As for the recently deceased “Cheetah,” Cinema blend.com refers to Weissmuller’s Florida tourist attraction and notes that “The New Times of Miami notes that Weissmuller once launched a tourist attraction in Florida that included chimps, and asks: ‘Is it possible this Cheetah came from Weissmuller’s tourist trap and not his actual movies?’ Well, yes it is. But once again, lacking physical records, it’s difficult to say, one way or another.

Making a judgment call even tougher, though, is the small matter of anthropological and biological science. Numerous reliable sources tend to agree that the average lifespan of a chimpanzee in the wild is about 35 years, while those in captivity can live roughly 10 years longer. There are additional claims of chimps in captivity living past 60 as well. As with humans, statistical anomalies can exist in the world of chimpanzees. But an 80 year-old chimp is considerably out of range, particularly when you can’t document his birthdate or place.

Tarzan political satire.

Satirical update of promo photo posted above. From left: Cheetah as GW Bush; Jacques Chirac as Boy; Tony Blair as Tarzan; and Cherie Blair as Jane. (Credit: Rainman.)

Which led Rosen to another problem. He learned that the California “Cheeta” was perhaps 40 years old in 2008. Since Weissmuller made his last “Tarzan” film (“Tarzan and the Mermaids”) in 1948, simple math put “Cheeta” out of the running for the role of an “original” Cheetah. As a result of this and other finds, Rosen ended up not writing the authorized biography of Cheeta, but extensively documented his adventures in a 2008 article in the Washington Post.

This core dump of information inevitably leads to a logical hypothesis: the California “Cheeta” wasn’t the real deal. And the true identity of the recently deceased Florida “Cheetah” can’t really be confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt. So where do Cheetah fans go from here?

There’s some consolation in the fact that Florida’s recently deceased “Cheetah”—authentic or not—seems to have been a regular guy to the end, living out his days, for the most part, like an elderly gent enjoying his golden years in a comfortable nursing facility. Debbie Cobb noted to reporters that her Cheetah very much enjoyed finger painting.

But Cheetah could occasionally have a bout of irritability, and was “known for throwing his feces if he became too upset.” But who among us hasn’t had a similar notion lately when listening to our politicians’ latest pronouncements on the economy?

In the end, one needs to be philosophical. As Bogie told Bergman, “We’ll always have Paris.” The real, live, original Cheetah and his movie and TV successors were all laugh-riots and immensely popular with “Tarzan” movie fans, and we’ll always have those films. But the madcap chimp that originated the “Cheetah” role is, with virtual biological certainty, now as thoroughly dead as Monty Python’s famous parrot.

So RIP, Cheetah. Whoever you are.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of theWashington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communitiescolumn,The Prudent Man in Politics.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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