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Cheetah: Remembering Tarzan’s hairy -- and controversial -- sidekick

December 28, 2011 | 12:42 pm

Cheetah was a scene-stealing sidekick -- this much is true.

But this week's news that he died in a Florida sanctuary at the ripe old age of 80, after a career spent starring in the "Tarzan" movies, is raising plenty of questions that would have Cheetah scratching his head and looking quizzically into the camera.

The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation in Palm Harbor, Fla., announced that Cheetah the Chimp -- "star of the Tarzan films" -- had died of kidney failure. Cheetah the Chimp was reportedly in the neighborhood of 80 years old -- a jaw-dropping age for a creature that normally lives to be about 40 in the wild and 60 in captivity.

PHOTOS: Cheetah the Chimp

Legend has it that Cheetah was given to the foundation by Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) himself. (Weissmuller died in 1984.) It's unclear whether the gift also included any proof that Cheetah the Chimp actually appeared in any of the "Tarzan" movies.

Nonetheless, news of Cheetah's death has been pinging around the Internet on Wednesday, with media outlets lamenting his passing.

Cheetah first charmed moviegoers in 1932's "Tarzan the Ape Man," the first of many Tarzan movies that helped create a Hollywood franchise. Over the years, Cheetah was played by many chimpanzees (and, once, by a child in a furry suit). Regardless, he was an instant hit with audiences and provided comic relief during Tarzan's many adventures. He also proved to be a stealthy soldier who could relay critical messages back and forth between Weissmuller and his allies. And, when things really looked grim for Tarzan, Cheetah would round up other jungle creatures to help Tarzan out of a jam.

But beyond that, almost everything surrounding the legend and lore of Cheetah seems to be cloaked in controversy.

Author R.D. Rosen wrote in a 2008 Washington Post article that pretty much everything we think we know about Cheetah is a big, fat, furry lie. Such as the oft-published tale about the original Cheetah: Legend has it that the chimp was born in Liberia and smuggled into the U.S. beneath an animal trainer's overcoat. But, midflight, the critter -- clad only in a diaper -- made a run for it. Before the flight was over, he had entertained the masses and was handfed a bottle and rocked by delighted stewardesses. (That's what they were called in those days.)

It's a priceless story, only it's just not true, said Rosen, who found out with just a little research that transatlantic commercial airline service didn't begin until 1939.

And then there is this: Another chimpanzee that also reportedly starred in the Tarzan movies with Weissmuller also has lived to be a mighty old chimp and was once dubbed the world's oldest chimpanzee, according to Guinness World Records. The Los Angeles Times profiled him in 2007, at his home at a Palm Springs sanctuary. The sanctuary says on their website that it has since found out that much of that biographical information appears to be untrue.

So who is that Florida chimp? 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?"

This much is also true: Cheetah the Chimp lived an awfully charmed life in Florida, including chauffeured car rides, piano playing and much love and affection, as you can see by this video.

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Bill seeks to expand videotaped police interrogations

Texas teen dies on Christmas, leaves online message [video]

--Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Video: Cheetah shows off his comedy chops.

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