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Cheetah Facts: Lifespan of Tarzan Chimp a Hoax?


Cheetah facts: Lifespan of 80 years was a hoax? Cheetah is seen above with Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) and Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan).

Cheetah, Tarzan’s chimp in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), died of kidney failure during the week of Dec. 19 according to Florida’s Suncoast Primate Sanctuary. Sad news – and curious news as well. The Associated Press reports that chimps in captivity live between 40 and 60 years. Cheetah, at times spelled as Cheeta, would have been 80.

Also, more than one chimp played Cheetah in the various Tarzan movies. One of those, known as either Jiggs or Mr. Jiggs, is supposed to have died of pneumonia at a very young age in 1938, the year he co-starred with Dorothy Lamour in Her Jungle Love. (Actually, Ray Milland, not Jiggs, was Lamour’s paramour in that movie.)

And finally, according to Suncoast’s outreach director Debbie Cobb, MGM’s Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller donated Cheetah to the sanctuary back in 1960. But did Olympic swimmer Weissmuller ever keep Cheetah – any of the various Cheetahs – as an animal companion? No documentation for Cheetah’s entry into the sanctuary has been provided because, according to Cobb, it was destroyed in a 1995 fire.

In 2008, author R. D. Rosen wrote a Washington Post article debunking a similar story. The Tarzan chimp in question – then living in Palm Springs – had actually been born around 1960 and had never been in the movies despite claims from animal trainer Tony Gentry. Instead, the chimp had been used as a performer at Santa Monica’s Pacific Ocean Park. [More info on that chimp in the Los Angeles Times and at the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary site.]

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan appeared in six Tarzan movies at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The first two were immensely popular, but by the early ’40s the series had dwindled down in popularity.

Weissmuller left MGM following Tarzan’s New York Adventure in 1942, but continued playing the role of the ape-man at in a series of B movies at RKO. After a stint at Columbia playing Jungle Jim, the oft-married Weissmuller later moved to Florida and at one point in the ’70s was greeting visitors at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Following a series of strokes, he died in Acapulco in 1984.

Unlike Weissmuller, who starred only in Tarzan movies while at MGM, O’Sullivan was kept busy playing supporting roles in major productions (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina) and leads mostly in programmers (Between Two Women, My Dear Miss Aldrich). She also left MGM in 1942. Busy having and raising children (among them Mia Farrow), she would resume her film career only six years later. She died of a heart attack in 1998.

Johnny Sheffield, who played Boy both at MGM and RKO, and later Bomba, the Jungle Boy, in a series of movies at the minor studio Monogram, died in October 2010.

Now, whether or not the chimpanzee who died in Florida was one of Tarzan’s various MGM or RKO Cheetahs – and really, chances are he wasn’t – here’s wishing this beautiful creature everlasting peace.

Old Cheetah photo via the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Facebook page

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