Goodbye Cheetah: Tarzan's sidekick – or fraud of the jungle?

Hollywood mourns Cheetah the chimpanzee. But could a chimp have lived to the age of 80?

A A A

He had a difficult relationship with several of his Hollywood co-stars, biting some of them and throwing his own faeces at others. But 1930s cinema audiences were thrilled by Cheetah the chimpanzee, the sidekick to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan, whose death on Christmas Eve was announced yesterday.

The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Florida, where he was enjoying his retirement, reported "with great sadness" that Cheetah died from kidney failure at the age of 80.

The community had "lost a dear friend and family member", it added.

The chimp starred in Tarzan and His Mate in 1932 and Tarzan the Ape Man, two years later. He appeared alongside former Olympic swimmer Weissmuller, who died in 1984, and Maureen O'Sullivan, mother of Mia Farrow, who died in 1998.

However, doubt was immediately cast on whether he was in fact Cheetah the film star, with primate specialists pointing out that chimps held in captivity rarely live beyond 50.

Dr Alison Cronin, director of Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre in Dorset, said: "There is an awful lot of speculation about Cheetah and whether it is the right one. I don't believe it." She said most chimps in the wild only lived into their 30s. "When they get old they really look it. The one I saw did not look 80." Others speculated that several different chimps were used in the 1930s films.

Suncoast's outreach director Debbie Cobb said Cheetah had loved finger painting and American football, enjoyed making people laugh and was "very in tune to human feelings". The ape arrived at the sanctuary in about 1960, coming from Weissmuller's estate, Ms Cobb claimed. "He was very compassionate. He could tell if I was having a good day or a bad day. He was always trying to get me to laugh if he thought I was having a bad day," she told the Tampa Tribune.

However, sanctuary volunteer Ron Priest said that when he did not like somebody or something "he would pick up some poop and throw it at them", adding: "He could get you at 30 feet, with bars in between."

Mia Farrow wrote on Twitter that her mother had invariably referred to Cheetah as "that bastard" due to his habit of biting her.

Whether this was the real Cheetah or not, tributes to the primate poured in yesterday. John Mackay said: "You always made us laugh at your antics and be sad when you were sad. You will live forever in our hearts." Helene from Virginia said she "grew up watching the Tarzan movies with Cheetah. Cheetah made all us children smile and laugh."

Yet there is a dark side to using chimps in entertainment. Dr Cronin said that the fame of Cheetah and Michael Jackson's chimp Bubbles had fuelled a world smuggling trade in the animals.

"Almost all chimps in Monkey World have been rescued from some form of entertainment," she said.

Me Cheeta: In his 'own' words

In 2008 James Lever wrote Me Cheeta, the ape's "autobiography" and a behind-the-scenes romp through Hollywood's Golden Age:

On Johnny Weissmuller "I remember we were both up for the role of Terry in On the Waterfront and the casting director told Johnny he was wasting his time. I got a callback but it came to nothing."

On Maureen O'Sullivan "She couldn't even act affection for animals, although, to be wholly honest and give the harmless old trout her due, it was probably just me she disliked."

On fame "Picture a human and a chimpanzee facing each other in awkward silence... the faint inanity of the interaction stealing over both of them. That's what fame is."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us