Cheetah the chimp in Tarzan movies died this week at 80. My mom, who played Jane, invariably referred to Cheetah as "that bastard".
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.
Here's an update to Cheeta's unusual story. Uncle Tony told Dan that Cheeta was one of the original chimps starring in Tarzan movies from the 1930s and 1940s. Several years ago, Dan started working with a writer on Cheeta's biography. Dan wanted someone to tell the story of Cheeta's life as the world's oldest chimpanzee and as one of the original chimpanzees appearing in the old Tarzan movies. By December 2007, the writer's research had unexpectedly revealed that our Cheeta is unlikely to be as old as we'd thought, although he is clearly old. It is also difficult to determine which movies, if any, our Cheeta may have been in. As a result of this discovery, we updated our website as soon as we could, by late January 2008, to reflect the information putting Cheeta's life history in doubt.
It appears that the facts of our Cheeta's past will almost certainly remain a Hollywood mystery.
Because these are intelligent animals, Cheeta figured out how to get into the cage adjacent to his own. This cage was occupied by a female chimpanzee. Together, Cheeta and this female had a daughter named Suzie. Suzie grew up and gave birth to a son, Cheeta's grandson. The infant was named Jeeter, after the main character in the novel Tobacco Road.
A chimp known as "Cheeta" who lives in California was for a long time claimed to be the chimp in the films, but, following research for a biography, that claim has been withdrawn.
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