Ask someone to name a famous dog, and you'll likely get a split vote among perhaps a dozen celeb pooches, including Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and Scooby Doo. Elicit the names of some legendary movie horses and Trigger, Silver, and National Velvet will probably top a mighty lengthy list.
But ask anyone...anywhere...to name the most famous chimp who ever starred in the movies, and if they muster up any name at all odds are it'll be Cheetah, the chimpanzee who costarred with Johnny Weismuller in a dozen or so Tarzan films in the 1930s and 40s.
Weismuller, an Olympic swimming champ, died in 1984 at age 79. But as for Cheetah, well, Tarzan's hairy sidekick died this past Christmas Eve. He was 80 years old.
That's right. Cheetah was born in 1932, when Herbert Hoover was President. By all accounts, he lived out his days in peace and comfort, the senior resident at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida. Like many retirees, Cheetah took up a hobby: he became an accomplished painter, and his works were treasured by those lucky enough to get them. On the Sanctuary's memorial page, (suncoastprimate.homestead.com), an admirer named Emmett writes, "All who knew you will miss you greatly. I am glad to have one of your paintings to remember you buy. I remember watching him on Sundays on Tarzan while growing up."
Of course, like any Hollywood celebrity worth his bananas, Cheetah had a shadow of scandal over his career. That's because there have been, over the years, well over a dozen chimps claiming to have been the one and only original Cheetah. With names like Jiggs Jr., Harry, and Zippy (not to mention Cheetah, Cheta, and Cheeta), these pretenders to the Monkey Throne all have their human supporters. And in truth, it's entirely likely more than one chimp was enlisted into the original Cheetah corps (then there was a stunt double named David Holt, who as a young boy filled in for the chimp when the action called for, say, opposable thumbs). Of all the Cheetahs, however, only our recently departed Florida friend was reputed to have been obtained from the actual estate of Johnny Weismuller.
While Florida Cheetah seems to have avoided direct controversy during his long life, quite a big hoo-ha erupted over Jiggs Jr., a California chimp who was likewise reputed to have been born in the 1930s and to have costarred in several Tarzan films. The details are murky-even on Wikipedia, which is usually pretty strident in resolving such mysteries, with or without actual facts at its disposal-but it appears Jiggs, who lives to this day, was probably born around 1960. That still makes for a pretty old chimp, but far from the Methuselah-like years of Cheetah, the wizened old man of the Florida Coast.
Somewhere, Tarzan is ululating.