Long Live Cheeta
December 28, 2011 7:27 AM   Subscribe

News organizations from around the world are reporting on the death of Cheetah-Mike, the chimp who purportedly played Cheeta, the companion to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan from the MGM and RKO film series of the 30s and 40s. If this is one of the original film Cheetas, it would make Cheetah-Mike, at 80, the longest-lived captive chimp on record. But there’s reason to doubt he’s both that old and was in the films with Weissmuller. First, because this is significantly longer than chimps usually live, and second because this has happened once before.
posted by Toekneesan (34 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
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.

posted by griphus at 7:35 AM on December 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

Now, this is how you do an obituary post for a chimp.
posted by box at 7:43 AM on December 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

*pours banana daiquiri on curb*
posted by jonmc at 7:51 AM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Is there a TL;DR of that WaPo story?
posted by delmoi at 8:04 AM on December 28, 2011

Mia Farrow on Twitter:
Cheetah the chimp in Tarzan movies died this week at 80. My mom, who played Jane, invariably referred to Cheetah as "that bastard".
posted by humph at 8:05 AM on December 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

The TL;DR is, it wasn't cheeta and he was nowhere near the claimed age.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:06 AM on December 28, 2011

I am the proud owner of one of Cheeta's paintings. Was he the chimp from the Tarzan movie? I expect not. Was he an LA artist with an unlikely legend? Yes he was, and that's good enough for me.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:07 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, Cheeta has an extensively fabricated life story and the name has frequently been given to actor-chimps who weren't even fully mature, much less old enough to have known Johnny Weissmuller.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:09 AM on December 28, 2011

Wait, are we mourning a Hollywood original or an audacious chimposter?
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:10 AM on December 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Let's find out if the jungle drums are true.
posted by andronicus at 8:10 AM on December 28, 2011

I just heard Cheeta's death announced on the CBC. I wonder if they'll correct the details?

The final link in the post is very worth reading. Someone did his research:
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.
posted by maudlin at 8:12 AM on December 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just don't understand how having a cheetah play a chimpanzee is any better or easier than using an actual chimpanzee, and I can see many drawbacks. In fact, why not have a child or a little person dress in a chimp suit? It couldn't be as bad as a cheetah in a chimp suit, and I imagine it would come with significantly fewer maulings.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:16 AM on December 28, 2011 [13 favorites]

That Washington Post article is incredibly depressing proof that you can thoroughly debunk a lie in great detail in one of the world's biggest newspapers, and nobody will give a shit if the lie is more entertaining than the truth.

Fuck the legend. Print the facts, or else what good are you.

Yes, I know it's just a chimp, the principle is still important.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:17 AM on December 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

Dead chimps don't talk.
posted by Danf at 8:18 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

From the "this has happened once before" link:

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."

It is hard to sort out whether the Guinness Book people did not bother to look up the word 'primate' or the Washington Post writers and editors did not. Primates older than this not only verifiably exist but one of them has been elected president of the USA.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:21 AM on December 28, 2011 [16 favorites]

I just got a Cheeta painting for a friend of mine! I'm on vacation and had it shipped to work, so I haven't seen it yet. I knew he wasn't the real Tarzan Cheeta when I bought it (the website does acknowledge that), but he's a retired showbiz chimp of some sort. I'm glad he and some others like him have a sanctuary.
posted by Mavri at 8:21 AM on December 28, 2011

Well, at least Westfall's Cheeta web site addresses the age issue .... gently. The WP writer suggested this wording, with some compassion for a man who was hopeful enough to be deceived.
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.
posted by maudlin at 8:22 AM on December 28, 2011

posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:25 AM on December 28, 2011

Wait, are we mourning a Hollywood original or an audacious chimposter?

I tip my hat to you, sir.
posted by griphus at 8:26 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you read the NPR story Toekneesan linked to, it references the changes to Westfall's Cheetah website that RD Rosen mentions toward the end of his Washington Post article -- as proof that Westfall's Cheetah isn't as old as the Cheetah-Mike that just died. (Somewhat veiled) mythbusting perpetuating a myth.
posted by me3dia at 8:46 AM on December 28, 2011

Here's something else interesting: Westfall's short biography of Jeeter, another chimp at the Sanctuary:
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.
If you look at the photos of Jeeter, he has several features which suggest he is a bonobo (P. paniscus): hair parted in the middle, wide-walled nostrils, lack of pigmentation on the lips, bushy muttonchop sideburns, and slightly narrower ribcage. An old article from the L.A. Times says Jeeter swims, which common chimpanzees generally will not do, but bonobos will.

Here's a photo of Suzie, who was obviously P. troglodytes.

Another article identifies Jeeter as Cheeta's nephew, as opposed to grandson. I have a hard time believing that Jeeter and Cheeta are related by blood. I suppose he could be half bonobo and half common chimpanzee, but I think given the source of the information, it's more likely that Jeeter was obtained as an infant from some other source.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:55 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cheetah-Mike was 4 or 5 years old when he appeared in the Tarzan movies. It's refreshing to see a former child actor live out life with dignity rather than taking the cliched drugs and other scandals route.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:48 AM on December 28, 2011

If Cheeta had actually been Reagan's as well as Tarzan's sidekick

If he was that close to Reagan, he might have made a decent candidate in the current race.

Wait, that's it! Zombie Reagan/Cheeta 2012!
posted by homunculus at 10:11 AM on December 28, 2011

That Washington Post article is excellent.
posted by Jehan at 10:35 AM on December 28, 2011

posted by LordSludge at 11:10 AM on December 28, 2011

Westfall's Cheeta is apparently not the Cheeta that died yesterday. In fact the BBC story specifically states that:
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.
So the WP's Cheeta is still alive. I wonder if anyone will start researching this Cheeta's date-of-birth and filmography....
posted by talos at 11:38 AM on December 28, 2011

NPR has recently updated their story also calling into question the reported age of the Cheetah-Mike.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:18 PM on December 28, 2011

A chimp is a chimp,
even if he is not the right chimp.
My hat is off to you Cheetah.
posted by quazichimp at 8:28 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

If GeoCities was still around, I know we'd find the answers there.

damn you yahoo.
posted by Twang at 4:09 AM on December 29, 2011

When I first posted this yesterday morning, I thought I was kind of taking a risk, even editorializing. I don't study non-human primates. I can't say, based on years of observation, that it's impossible for a chimp to live eighty years. But I had done a rather in-depth post a few months back on language and non-human primates, and I did a bit of research on captive chimps, and I hadn't heard of a single chimp that lived much beyond 50. So based on my gut instinct, I began to poke around, looking for claims of a chimp living that long. That's when I came across Rosen's Washington Post piece about the other Cheeta claiming to be over 60. I thought that was probably pretty good evidence, but I had a lot of second thoughts. After I hit post my hands started shaking a little, as if I had just potentially made an idiot of myself very publicly, in front of a community I really respect. While I'm still amazed that so many news outlets goofed this, I'm secretly glad it turned out they were the chumps, and I was the wiser primate. But I don't think I'm likely to do that again any time soon.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:38 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

If anyone is interested in this, I can recommend James Lever's Me, Cheeta, the autbiography of the chimp. Hilariously bitchy and written much in the tone of David Niven's autobio's, I originally thought it was just a clever conceit, but found myself oddly touched by the conclusion.
posted by smoke at 4:05 PM on December 29, 2011

The headline of that "Too good to check" piece is "Jungle fever clouds chimp obituary". Yeah, I don't know if that's the phrase I would have used.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:40 AM on January 1, 2012

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