PALM HARBOR, Fla. - A Florida animal sanctuary says Cheetah, the chimpanzee sidekick in the Tarzan movies of the early 1930s, has died at 80. But other accounts call that claim into question.
Debbie Cobb, outreach director at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, said Wednesday that her grandparents acquired Cheetah around 1960 from "Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller and that the chimp appeared in Tarzan films between 1932 and 1934. During that period, Weissmuller made "Tarzan the Ape Man" and "Tarzan and His Mate."
But Cobb offered no documentation, saying it was destroyed in a 1995 fire.
Also, some Hollywood accounts indicate a chimpanzee by the name of Jiggs or Mr. Jiggs played Cheetah alongside Weissmuller early on and died in 1938.
In addition, an 80-year-old chimpanzee would be extraordinarily old, perhaps the oldest ever known. According to many experts and Save the Chimps, another Florida sanctuary, chimpanzees in captivity generally live to between 40 and 60, though Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Fla., says it has one that is around 73.
A similar claim about another chimpanzee that supposedly played second banana to Weissmuller was debunked in 2008 in a Washington Post story.
Writer R.D. Rosen discovered that the primate, which lived in Palm Springs, Calif., was born around 1960, meaning it wasn't oldest enough to have been in the Tarzan movies of Hollywood's Golden Age that starred Olympic swimming star Weissmuller as the vine-swinging, loincloth-wearing Ape Man and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane.
While a number of chimpanzees played the sidekick role in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and `40s, Rosen said in an email Wednesday that this latest purported Cheetah looks like a "business-boosting impostor as well."
"I'm afraid any chimp who actually shared a soundstage with Weissmuller and O'Sullivan is long gone," Rosen said.
Cobb said Cheetah died Dec. 24 of kidney failure and was cremated.
"Unfortunately, there was a fire in `95 in which a lot of that documentation burned up," Cobb said. "I'm 51 and I've known him for 51 years. My first remembrance of him coming here was when I was actually 5, and I've known him since then, and he was a full-grown chimp then."
Film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osbourne said the Cheetah character "was one of the things people loved about the Tarzan movies because he made people laugh. He was always a regular fun part of the movies."
In his time, the Cheetah character was as popular as Rin Tin Tin or Asta, the dog from the "Thin Man" movies, Osbourne said.
"He was a major star," he said.
At the animal sanctuary, Cheetah was outgoing, loved finger painting and liked to see people laugh, Cobb said. But he could also be ill-tempered. Cobb said that when the chimp didn't like what was going on, he would fling feces and other objects.