As every news and entertainment outlet in the world has reported (including this one), Tarzan's beloved Cheetah died on December 24. While the demise of any primate is rather tragic, any tears shed over this death were surely misdirected. The Cheetah in question wasn't the real Cheetah at all, and he most certainly wasn't the "Cheeta" who appeared in the photos and footage that have accompanied the obit heard around the world.
Doubts about both the lineage and the origin of the deceased, who purportedly spent the last 50-plus years at Palm Harbor, Florida's Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, started surfacing even before the corpse was cold. Sanctuary outreach director Debbie Cobb's claims that Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller himself gave her grandparents this "Cheetah" back in 1960. "Not so," says Diane Weissmuller, a representative of the Weissmuller estate and un-credited co-author of her late husband Johnny Jr.'s book Tarzan, My Father. "Though we mourn the loss of any family pet, John Sr. would have never gifted a primate to his worst enemy. He never owned one as a pet; found them very difficult to work with."
Tarzan's daughter-in-law isn't the only one questioning this Cheetah's authenticity. Matthew Devlen, a filmmaker and international party provocateur, has been championing all the chimps that have played Cheeta (the original spelling has no "h"), primarily via an on-going, ten-year campaign to get the Ape Man's sidekick a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "There were many chimps that played the role of Cheeta," says Devlen, "just as there were many dogs standing in for Lassie and Rin Tin Tin." That might explain the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce's reluctance to give the chimp his due. "I've had pushback from the Walk of Fame committee from day one," he laments. "The bottom line to them is that Cheeta was a has-been and not relevant to a modern audience."
Nevertheless Devlen, who will restart the nomination process all over again in 2012, will not be deterred. "Perhaps the unexpected death of a chimp that may or may not have been Cheeta and all the ensuing press attention will show the Chamber the world does care."
Seems Devlen's chimp, who makes his home at the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary in Palm Springs, California, is having issues with other folks as well. Booker Prize-nominated writer James Lever, who successfully rode the coattails of Cheeta's infamy with his tongue-in-cheek "autobiography" Me Cheeta, now distances himself from the primary primate. And journalist Richard Rosen, whose own planned Cheeta bio lost out to Lever's spoofier opus, questioned the chimp's provenance in a 2008 Washington Post expose. Since then Rosen has created a cottage industry debunking all things Cheeta, and he readily chimed in over the one that passed away on Christmas Eve.
"I'm afraid any chimp who actually shared a sound stage with Weissmuller and O'Sullivan is long gone," Rosen told the AP.
Devlen and his chimp championing cronies, which include New York publicist Sal Cataldi, who represents the Cheeta of Palm Springs, and Dan Westfall, who still looks after his aged best friend at the Cheeta Primate Sanctuary, don't dispute the fact. To them it's more a question of ensuring the Ape Man's accomplice will never be forgotten.
"It will always remain a mystery," says Westfall, "but our Cheeta is now the ambassador for all the chimps that ever played Cheeta, and we'll continue on that path no matter how the press wants to spin it."
Though Weissmuller says Westfall's Cheeta "is the one the Weissmuller family knows and loves," but he doesn't think even her good word will be enough to assuage the naysayers. To help settle the matter once and for all, Westfall furnished a photograph of Cheeta holding a current edition of The Desert Sun. While the shot might not resolve the question of provenance, it does unequivocally prove that this Cheeta at least is alive and well and living in Palm Springs.
Now about that star on the Walk of Fame...