Cheeta (sometimes billed as Cheetah, Cheta and Chita) is a chimpanzee character who appeared in numerous HollywoodTarzanmovies of the 1930s–1960s as well as the 1966–1968 television series, as the ape sidekick of the title character, Tarzan. Cheeta has usually been characterized as male, but sometimes as female, and has been portrayed by chimpanzees of both sexes.
While the character of Cheeta is inextricably associated in the public mind with Tarzan, no chimpanzees appear in the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that inspired the films. The closest analog to Cheeta in the Burroughs novels is Tarzan's monkey companion Nkima, who appears in several of the later books in the series.
Cheeta's role in the Tarzan films and TV series is to provide comic relief, convey messages between Tarzan and his allies, and occasionally lead Tarzan's other animal friends to the ape-man's rescue.
Portrayers of the character
The character of Cheeta was a composite role created through the use of numerous animal actors, over a dozen according to one source. According to journalist R. D. Rosen, "In each Tarzan movie, the Cheeta role [was] played by more than one chimp, depending on what talents the scene called for." Known and alleged performers of the role are given in the following table (see the comments following the table for the sources of the data).
David Holt, who as a six-year-old child actor appeared uncredited as a human double for the role in Tarzan the Fearless (1933).
Cheetah-Mike (also known as Org), a male chimpanzee owned by Suncoast Primate Sanctuary after being donated from Noell's Chimp Farm in Palm Harbor, FL. Alleged to have been born about 1931 (claimed age in February 2008 was 77), to have been acquired from the estate of Johnny Weissmuller in 1957, and to have been "one of the original 'Cheetahs' from Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies." It has been speculated that this chimp, if he indeed has any connection to Weissmuller, may actually have come from a Florida tourist attraction the actor once launched that included chimps, rather than having appeared in any of his Tarzan films. According to journalist Andrew Woods, this Cheeta was also known as Org. Died in Palm Harbor, Florida, of kidney failure on December 24, 2011.
Jiggs, Jr. (also known as Jiggs II), a male chimpanzee born about 1935 owned and trained by Tony and Jacqueline Gentry, alleged to have appeared in a number of Tarzan films and possibly other movies. Stated to have gone to the Baltimore Zoo when Gentry went into the service in World War II, his ultimate fate is unknown.
Unknown 1, chimpanzee stated to have been a juvenile understudy to Jiggs in one of the Weissmuller Tarzan films, who on one occasion accompanied Weissmuller and a 14-foot boa constrictor on a visit to newspaper columnist Nelson B. Bell.
Skippy, chimpanzee that reportedly "took over when Jiggs died in the late 1930's."
Unknown 2, chimpanzee stated to have portrayed Cheeta for ten years from approximately 1933 until retirement in 1943, possibly the same as the above. This Cheeta's last film was presumably Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943), as the first film of its successor was Tarzan and the Amazons (1945).
Cheta, a chimpanzee of undetermined sex born about 1937 trained by George Emerson, stated to be the current chimpanzee under contract by Metro for the Tarzan films in Mar, 1943.
Unknown 3, chimpanzee stated to have replaced the 1933-1943 Cheeta, cast in 1944 with a trainer from the St. Louis Zoo hired as handler for Tarzan and the Amazons (1945).
Unknown 4, chimpanzee trained by Albert Antonucci who had apparently played Cheeta for three years as of April, 1949; Antonucci is known to have been Cheeta's trainer for the films Tarzan and the Huntress (1947) and Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949), so presumably this Cheeta played in these films and the intervening Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948); Antonucci himself was stated to be slated for an acting role in the next Tarzan film, to be titled Tarzan and the Golden Lion, presumably a working title for the actual next film in the series, Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), but if so his role was uncredited or performed under a stage name. It is not known if he continued to serve as Cheeta's handler in that film, or indeed if "his" Cheeta was the one who appeared in it.
Harry, a male chimpanzee born about 1944, possibly the same as the above, stated to be playing Cheeta in the Tarzan films in May, 1948.
Cheeta, a chimpanzee owned and trained by Pinky Jackson, who made personal appearances in promotion of the Tarzan films at six Sidney Lust theaters in Maryland in early December, 1950. Possibly the Cheeta who appeared in the then current Tarzan film, Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), or may have been retained only for the promotional appearances.
Cheeta, a female chimpanzee born about 1948 owned by Ed Rogers, stated to have appeared in 42 films, including Tarzan films as Cheeta and the television program Truth or Consequences as Beaulah. Died at age 9 on September 6, 1957 in Cypress, California, shot by deputy sheriffs after breaking out of her cage, attacking her owner, and charging at a group of children.
Zippy, a male chimpanzee born about 1951 owned and trained by Ralph Quinlan, stated to have appeared as Cheeta in Tarzan films of the mid-1950s, including the Gordon Scott film Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955).
Cheeta (also known as Jiggs IV), a male chimpanzee born about 1960, formerly owned by Tony Gentry and now residing at the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary (Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes) in Palm Springs, California. Claimed by Gentry to have been born in 1932 or later in the 1930s and to have portrayed Cheeta in most of the Johnny Weismuller and Lex Barker Tarzan films, and for that reason long celebrated as the longest-lived chimpanzee on reaching the supposed age of 64 in 1996 (chimpanzees typically live to be 35 in the wild). Both claims were debunked by journalist R. D. Rosen in 2008 in an article that settled the animal's true age and established that he had not appeared in any movies, let alone in the role of Cheeta. However, he did appear as Cheeta in the TV movie 07 Spaceys and a news segment featuring his "75th" birthday, both in 2007. According to journalist Andrew Woods, who "interviewed" this Cheeta in 2008, his "offstage" name is Jiggs IV.
Tony Gentry's Cheeta Hoax
Late in his life Tony Gentry, who had been the co-owner and trainer of the original Cheeta (Jiggs), made extravagant claims in regard to another chimpanzee he owned and its connection with the Cheeta role. This animal, known as both Cheeta and Jiggs IV, was falsely alleged by Gentry to have been the primary animal actor portraying Cheeta in the Tarzan movies over the years. He also greatly exaggerated the age of the animal to support this claim. For a number of years both before and after Gentry's death this story passed unexamined and became a matter of general belief.
Tony Gentry made various claims regarding Cheeta's (Jiggs IV) age, origins, and supposed movie roles. Some of these claims conflicted with each other.
In the usually related account, Gentry originally acquired the animal by purchase from Henry Trefflich, a New York animal importer and dealer. Cheeta was supposedly born in the wild in Liberia some months prior to 9 April 1932, which is celebrated as his birthday because it is the date he is said to have arrived in the USA, in New York. Other accounts of Cheeta's origins from Gentry include having found the animal himself in the Belgian Congo in 1932 or having bought him in Santa Monica about 1938 or in the late 1940s.
Gentry's acquaintances and fellow animal trainers Hubert Wells, Stewart Raffill and Cheryl Shawver have disputed all of these accounts, stating that "Tony got that chimp from Wally Ross ... one of the managers of Pacific Ocean Park on the pier in Santa Monica" when the park closed in 1967. According to them, Cheeta was only about 6 or 7 years old at that time, which would put his birthdate around 1960 or 1961 rather than 1932.
Gentry claimed Cheeta/Jiggs IV was the primary animal actor used in the role of Cheeta in the Tarzan movies. His first appearance as Cheeta is usually stated to have been in the second Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film, Tarzan and His Mate (1934), uncredited as a young chimpanzee riding on the back of the older chimp (Jiggs) who originated the role. He was then allegedly cast in the role himself in the other Weissmuller Tarzans that followed, as well as the succeeding Lex Barker Tarzan films. Journalist R. D. Rosen, who investigated this story, counters that this animal in fact never appeared in any Tarzan film.
Besides his supposed role as Cheeta in the Tarzan films, Cheeta/Jiggs IV reputedly appeared as other chimpanzee characters in unrelated films, including Ramona the Chimp in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) and Chee-Chee in Doctor Dolittle (1967) with Rex Harrison, supposedly his last role before retirement. However, according to Wells, Raffill and Shawver, as reported by R. D. Rosen, Cheeta never appeared in any movies; Rosen himself confirmed that the animal could not have been the Chee-Chee in the Dolittle film.
Later life of Cheeta/Jiggs IV as a celebrity
In 1991, whatever the truth of his origins and prior life, Cheeta/Jiggs IV was given by Gentry to his distant cousin Don Westfall, the current caretaker. Gentry died two years later. In Westfall's care, Cheeta lived at a primate sanctuary called Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes (or CHEETA) in Palm Springs, California, where he reportedly watched television, made abstract paintings which were sold to benefit primate-related charities, and often watched "his" old films with his grandson, Jeeter. He also leafed through books and "played" the piano.
His birthdays, calculated from the date of his supposed 1932 arrival in the United States, were regularly celebrated. In 2006, coinciding with his "74th" birthday, Cheeta received an award for his supposed film career from the International Film Festival of Peniscola Comedy. Later that year, the 4 October 2006, edition of the Palm Springs newspaper, The Desert Sun, reported that he had received his first-ever visit from famed primatologist Jane Goodall the previous day. His "75th" birthday was covered by National Geographic. His "76th" birthday was celebrated on 9 April 2008, at his "Casa de Cheeta" in Palm Springs at an event hosted by Dan Westfall and Diane Weissmuller, (Johnny Weissmuller, Jr.'s widow). The press and many Palm Springs celebrities attended.
Since 2004 there have been unsuccessful attempts to secure a star for Cheeta on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and as of 2008 filmmaker Matt Devlen was continuing the effort. Attempting for the seventh time to get a sidewalk star, the handlers of Jiggs launched an online petition to get supporters to urge the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to give a star in 2009. The petition was unsuccessful.
Lever, James (c. 2009). Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood. New York, NY: Ecco. p. 320. ISBN978-0061647420. LCCN2010284910. Parody of a Hollywood "tell-all" biography purported to be written by the chimpanzee animal star, Cheeta, who supposedly played opposite Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan films, Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo, and Rex Harrison in Dr. Dolittle, and survives to paint in retirement in Palm Springs. (Research has established that the chimp's first owner was known to be a teller of tall tales and that this chimp was not one of the many different chimps that were used in those films.) [From Library of Congress listing.]