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‘Star’ chimp may’ve been just another primate

Proof animal was Tarzan’s real ‘Cheetah’ is elusive

Cheetah was a scene-stealing sidekick – this much is true.

But this week’s news that he died in a Florida sanctuary at the ripe old age of 80, after a career spent starring in the “Tarzan” movies, is raising plenty of questions that would have Cheetah scratching his head and looking quizzically into the camera.

The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation in Palm Harbor announced that Cheetah the chimp – “star of the Tarzan films” – had died of kidney failure. Cheetah was reportedly in the neighborhood of 80 years old – a jaw-dropping age for a creature that normally lives to be about 40 in the wild, and 60 in captivity.

Legend has it that Cheetah was given to the foundation by Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) himself. (Weissmuller died in 1984.) It’s unclear whether the gift also included any proof that Cheetah the chimp actually appeared in any of the “Tarzan” movies.

Nonetheless, news of Cheetah’s death was pinging around the Internet on Wednesday, with media outlets lamenting his passing.

Cheetah first charmed moviegoers in 1932’s “Tarzan the Ape Man,” the first of many Tarzan movies that helped create a Hollywood franchise. Over the years, Cheetah was played by many chimpanzees (and, once, by a child in a furry suit). Regardless, he was an instant hit with audiences, and provided comic relief during Tarzan’s many adventures. He also proved to be a stealthy soldier who could relay critical messages back and forth between Weissmuller and his allies. And, when things really looked grim for Tarzan, Cheetah would round up other jungle creatures to help Tarzan out of a jam.

So who is that Florida chimp? The New Times of Miami notes that Weissmuller once launched a tourist attraction in Florida that included chimps, and asks: “Is it possible this Cheetah came from Weissmuller’s tourist trap and not his actual movies?”

This much is also true: Cheetah lived an awfully charmed life in Florida, including chauffeured car rides, piano playing and much love and affection.


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