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Mystery surrounds Cheeta, purportedly the world's oldest chimpanzee

February 14, 2009 | 12:54 pm

A chimp as Cheeta, Johnny Sheffield as Boy, Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane in 1939's

Could Cheeta the chimp, the famous performing primate who's said to have starred alongside Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films and Rex Harrison in Dr. Doolittle, be an impostor?

It's a story whose plot resembles a 1930s screwball comedy, but author R.D. Rosen says it's true: Cheeta the chimp, said to be the oldest nonhuman primate in the world at 76, is not who he claims to be.  (Or rather, he's not who his deceased trainer, Tony Gentry, claimed he was.) 

In 2007, Rosen set out to write a book about Cheeta: his abduction from the wilds of his native Liberia; his storied history in Hollywood; his bizarre post-stardom life with trainer Gentry, who stipulated in his will that Cheeta be euthanized after his death, fearing no one else could provide the proper care for him; Gentry's subsequent reversal of that decision at the behest of a relative and fellow animal trainer, Dan Westfall, who runs the Palm Springs sanctuary to which Cheeta was eventually retired. 

It was plenty of fodder for a book.  As our colleague Scott Gold puts it, "If only it were true."  From Gold's story:

Cheeta's "birthday" has been celebrated, not on the anniversary of his birth, but on April 9, the anniversary of the day he supposedly landed in the United States. Rosen figured that point -- the dramatic account of Cheeta's arrival, with Gentry, according to legend, hiding him under a jacket on the Pan Am flight -- was a logical place to begin his research.

It didn't take long for the first discrepancy to surface. It turned out, Rosen said, that the sort of flight Gentry had described wasn't available commercially until 1939 -- seven years after Gentry supposedly smuggled Cheeta into the U.S.

Rosen initially dismissed the story's inconsistency as an honest mistake.  But odd discrepancies began to add up.

"Cheeta" with actor Johnny Weismuller, who played Tarzan, and his mother The author watched movies supposedly featuring Cheeta in pivotal roles: Dr. Doolittle and even Bedtime for Bonzo, starring a young Ronald Reagan.  Since chimpanzees' appearances change dramatically as they reach adulthood -- before they're 10 years old -- it was clear to Rosen that the ape stars of these films were actually juveniles.

The timeline given for Cheeta's life would have had him at 19 when Bonzo was released and 34 when he purportedly made a big comeback in Doolittle.  Rosen wrote in the Washington Post Magazine:

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.

After this realization, Rosen spoke with animal trainers of the period who said they were well acquainted with Cheeta.  Gold gives the details:

The chimp, they told him, had been a performer at Pacific Ocean Park, the old Santa Monica attraction -- and had never been in films, Rosen said.

It was Gentry, Rosen said, who'd passed Cheeta off as a star -- not even as a Cheeta, since there were many over the Tarzan years, but as the Cheeta. Rosen's best guess is that Cheeta was born around 1960, not 1932, performed as a pier attraction for a few years and was then given to Gentry by another trainer when Pacific Ocean Park closed in 1967. A nice ape, Rosen said, but not a star.

In late 2007, Rosen mustered the courage to tell Westfall of his findings. "He inherited a lie," Rosen said. "It took on a life of its own."

Rosen helped Westfall change the language on Cheeta's website to reflect the doubts that had been raised; Cheeta, the site says now, "is unlikely to be as old as we'd thought, although he is clearly old."

The plot thickened even further when Rosen compared various interviews given by Gentry over the years.  He explains in his Washington Post Magazine article:

I went back through my papers to find the 1985 L.A. Times feature story -- "A Chimp Off the Old Block in Many a Tarzan Movie." In the piece, Gentry "ticked off" his favorite chimps among those he trained for the movies, ending with his current Cheeta:

"I bought him from a dealer when they closed down the old Santa Monica Pier. Lemme see, when was that? Late '30s sometime. Mebbe 1938. Anyway, he was about 2 or 3 years old.... So this Cheeta did one [movie] with Lex Barker. Or was it two with Weissmuller and one with Barker? Which ones? I dunno...."

There was further evidence of Gentry's confusion -- or perhaps deliberate obfuscation of his Cheeta's résumé. In 1985, a few months after the L.A. Times feature, People magazine published a feature on Gentry and Cheeta titled "Tarzan's Co-Star Cheetah Aims for Hollywood Immortality but Finds It's a Jungle Out There," beneath a heartwarming photo of Cheeta, beer can in hand, kissing Gentry on the nose.

The story is not a paragraph old before Gentry is described as having "fed, pampered and trained the 4-foot, 158-pound star for 38 years." Since we know Gentry got Cheeta when he was a baby, that would mean Cheeta was born in 1947 (1985 minus 38 years), or 15 years after the year in which he usually claimed he got him. It would mean that, at a time when Gentry was telling Westfall and many other people that Cheeta was 53, he was only in his late 30s.

Because so many of the people whose stories could potentially have unraveled Cheeta's confusing tale have passed away, the absolute truth is unlikely to ever come to light.  As the updated bio on Cheeta's website reads, "This will almost certainly remain a Hollywood mystery."

--Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: A chimp as Cheeta, Johnny Sheffield as Boy, Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane in 1939's "Tarzan Finds a Son." 
Bottom photo: "Cheeta" with actor Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan, and his mother.  Credit: Collection of Dan Westfall.

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