Is Cheeta’s owner a cheater?

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2009

He is like Madonna, Oprah and Cher and needs only a first name for folks to recognize him. And like many personalities, his life is the subject of controversy in Hollywood.

I heard about him from a friend who is fan of his — or more correctly, a fan of the genre of movies in which he costarred. The friend shared a story about how this star is still alive and enjoying retirement, about how he spends his days, has turned to art and is selling his painting.

None of this might sound terribly remarkable until you hear the star’s name. It’s Cheeta. That’s right — the famous chimp who was Tarzan’s sidekick in those wonderful jungle movies.

The story detailed how Cheeta — the writer admitted he was probably one of several chimps used in the movies — is in his 70s and living out his retirement under the care of animal trainer Dan Westfall on a tidy suburban street in Palm Springs, Calif.

I read the story smiling at the thought of Cheeta enjoying occasional trips to McDonald’s for a burger. The writer gave details of Cheeta’s arrival in this country and his life in Hollywood. He also said Cheeta was about to write the story of his life with a ghostwriter from England.

Being the curious person that I am, the idea of Cheeta still being around painting and writing sent me in search of more information. For one thing the story was more than a year old and I wondered if Cheeta was still with us.

When I hit the search engine, what I found was “controversy.”

Another article written by Cheeta’s would-be biographer revealed a shady side to the whole “Tarzan’s buddy” story. Seems the writer, R.D. Rosen, is a lot like me and went on a search to learn more about Cheeta before he started writing.

He discovered a web of misinformation and downright untruths. Disheartened at what he learned, he spent hours focusing on the smallest detail that might unlock the mystery. An example of his determination is obvious in the following paragraph.

”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,” Rosen wrote. “Chimpanzees’ faces change quite a bit as they age, but the configuration of their ears changes very little. Holding a photo of Westfall’s Cheeta, I’d approach the screen and compare the two images. Turns out, in each Tarzan movie, the Cheeta role had been played by more than one chimp. Yet none of the movie chimps’ ears was an adequate match.” (He was referring to the chimp claiming to be Cheeta.)

His final conclusion was that the Cheeta showing up in the stories, the one selling paintings and writing books is a fake, a figment of someone’s imagination (a nice way of saying someone is lying). But as one person said of the Cheeta controversy, that’s Hollywood. “Unfortunately, it’s Hollywood, and people do exaggerate.”

I felt sad knowing that the famous chimp with the recognizable name might not still be alive, that someone is toying with the emotions of us Tarzan lovers.

And what would Tarzan say about this? Well, I remember what he did to those awful folks who came to his jungle telling untruths so they could get their hands on elephant tusks. It wasn’t pretty.

Perhaps, Cheeta’s current owner might want to watch a few of those old movies before he tries to sell anymore chimp art.