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Cheetah, Said To Be One Of Tarzan's Chimpanzee Sidekicks, Has Died

1932 scene from Tarzan the Ape Man: Johnny Weissmuller, right, as Tarzan, Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, and one of the chimps who played Cheetah.
1932 scene from Tarzan the Ape Man: Johnny Weissmuller, right, as Tarzan, Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, and one of the chimps who played Cheetah.

One of the chimpanzees who played Cheetah, Johnny Weissmuller's sidekick in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and '40s, has died. He was said to be 80 years old and succumbed to kidney failure on Christmas Eve, according to the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla., where he had been living since the early 1960s.

Fox 13 News in Tampa Bay notes that this Cheetah was "one of a number of different chimps used for the role in different scenes and filming locations. Cheetah was probably 4 or 5 years old when he appeared in movie scenes filmed at Silver Springs near Ocala." His caretakers tell the station that chimps in captivity usually live to be 35 to 45 years old.

Weissmuller died in 1984. His IMDB.com biography is here.

There's another chimpanzee, living in California, who was once thought to have been among those who played the Cheetah role. But as the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary where he lives has explained, "our Cheeta is unlikely to be as old as we'd thought, although he is clearly old. It is also difficult to determine which movies, if any, our Cheeta may have been in."

Update at 7:05 p.m. ET. Was This Chimp Really 'Cheetah'?:

Like the chimpanzee living in California before him, there are now questions about whether this chimpanzee ever played Cheetah.

The AP first questions his age:

"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 live to between 40 and 60. Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida, has a chimp it says is around 73."

The New York Times spoke to Dr. Steve Ross, assistant director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, who said a chimp living to be 80 is "tough to swallow." The paper also spoke to a movie archivist, but she said it would be impossible to identify Cheetah by comparing him to movie stills.

"All chimps basically look like George Burns to me," Eve Golden told the Times.

As for the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, they told the AP that they acquired Cheetah from Johnny Weissmuller himself around 1960, but the AP reports that an outreach director "offered no documentation, saying it was destroyed in a 1995 fire."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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