Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Chimp Off the Old Block: RIP, Cheetah

If you're anything like me, you were stunned into melancholy silence when you heard the news that Cheetah the Chimp had died at an animal sanctuary in Florida last Saturday.  Stunned not by the fact that the star of the Tarzan movies and Doctor Dolittle (Rex Harrison version) was gone from us forever (kidney failure) or that the silver screen was a little less gilded by his absence, but by the fact that he was even alive at all.  After all, the Hollywood ape was 80 years old when he passed on to that great tire swing in the sky--which is like 214 in human years.

Debbie Cobb, outreach director at Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, said, "He was very compassionate....He was always trying to get me to laugh if he thought I was having a bad day.  He was very in tune to human feelings."  She also said Cheetah was soothed by Christian music and enjoyed finger painting and watching football.

Not everyone shed a tear at the news.  Mia Farrow, daughter of Tarzan and His Mate co-star Maureen O'Sullivan, Tweeted: "My mom, Tarzan's Jane, referred to Cheetah-the-chimp as 'that bastard' - saying he bit her at every opportunity."

But, wait!  Hold the vine!

As it turns out, Cheetah may not have died after all.  It's all so confusing and the truth seems to hang in the balance of an "h."

Whatever the case, as Andrew Wood notes in his remembrance of the time he "interviewed" the prime-time primate, "We're not really mourning the animal, after all, but remembering the character."  In just the same way, we have fond memories of any one of the eight Lassies who saved Timmy from the well.  In something akin to racism in the animal world, "they all look alike" to us, don't they?  Hard to tell one Cheetah from the next.  Therein lies the confusion over which chimp turned us into chumps when we rushed to report the death of Tarzan's hairy co-star.

Since this is a "blog about books" and not top bananas in Hollywood, I should direct you to James Lever's novel Me Cheeta, a faux-memoir published in 2008.  The Guardian raved about the book, saying, "this is far more than a wicked spoof tell-all. It operates, and works smoothly and well, on several levels: it is a Swiftian satire, as Cheeta walks through the world observing human foibles and, often as not, getting them exactly wrong, as when he imagines that the stuffed animal heads adorning the walls of one actor's house are all old pets, lovingly preserved....[It's] a tribute that bursts its own narrative confines, and stands the novel on its head, to become a hymn to a certain kind of beauty and innocence."

I haven't read it yet, but it's long been about midway up my towering TBR stack (aka Mt. NeverRest).  The book opens with a "Note to Readers" in which Cheeta-without-an-h writes:
Dearest humans,
      So, it's a perfect day in Palm Springs, California, and here I am--actor, artist, African, American, ape and now author--flat out on the lounger by the pool, looking back over this autobiography of mine. Flipping through it more than reading it, to be honest: the whole Lifetime Achievement idea of an autobiography makes me a little nervous. The--what's the word?--the valedictory aspect to it. I'm in fine health, I'm producing some of the best paintings of my career, I'm in no obvious danger of being killed, but I've seen it happen too many times to too many of my fellow greats. The book comes out and, next thing you know, they've disappeared.
      Or, as Johnny once told me, "Soon as they start calling you an Immortal, you start worrying about dying."

That's Johnny as in Johnny Weissmuller, of course--the greatest Tarzan of them all.  Here's the scene where he and Cheeta first meet-cute in Lever's novel.  It starts with Cedric Gibbons, director of Tarzan and His Mate, saying:
      "Maureen, come on over and meet your new leading man.  And where's the King of the Jungle?  You seen him?"
      "He's on the escarpment," somebody said, and a number of the humans began to shout, "Johnny!  Call Johnny!" and in answer there came a faint, high call, like the trumpet of an elephant.
      "You seen Tarzan the Ape Man, Gately?  No?  We had a good chimp in that, but old.  Can't use it anymore.  What we're looking for--" and Gibbons was interrupted by the high call again.  "Johnny!  For Chrissakes.  What we're looking for is comic relief.  Uh, an animal with a bit of mischief, but easy for Maureen to handle..."
      Here Gibbons was interrupted again, by a human, a male adult, dropping down from a tree and sprinting over to us.  Dropping down from a tree!  He wore no clothes but for a flap of hide round his middle and I was amazed to see what a human's musculature was, how powerful they were underneath their coverings.  It was impossible that he wasn't an alpha, probably the alpha of the whole group, yet there was no tyrant's force in his face as he said, smiling, "Me on escarpment with second unit.  Me meet chimps now."
      "Oh, Johnny," Maureen sighed as she strolled over towards us.  She was not much more than half his height.  He was so upright.  "Do you think you could possibly give it a rest with the ape-talk?  It's just a trifle worrying..."
      "Jane angry.  Jane need smack on rear end," said Johnny.
      Yes, this was the king of the forest, all right....
      "Me meet chimps," Johnny said, looking over the four of us and holding out his hand.  Ah, humanity, you were so beautiful!  "Me Tarzan.  Me Johnny.  Who Cheeta?"
      ....Who Cheeta?  What kind of a question was that?
      I leaped into the home of the arms of the King of the Jungle and, for the second time that day, my heart tipped over.  It was me.  Me--Kong, Jiggs, Louis, the Cheater of Death--me, Cheeta.

RIP, whoever you were

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