Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Tragic Legacy of Cheetah - Actor, Chimp, Tortured Soul

Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Cheetah.

Celebrity simian Cheetah has reportedly passed away at the age of more-or-less 80. The chimpanzee megastar, perhaps best known for his stunningly authentic portrayal of a jungle-dwelling chimpanzee (coincidentally named Cheetah), died Saturday of kidney failure at his Palm Harbor, Florida sanctuary.

Cheetah's early success as the wisecracking chimp sidekick to Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan straight-man catapulted him to the greatest heights of Depression era animal stardom. During the early 1930s, Cheetah starred in multiple Tarzan films and he was handsomely rewarded for his prowess as a box office draw. Sadly, with money, fame, and an unchecked supply of peanuts and bananas, the popular chimpanzee quickly developed a diva persona and an uncooperative attitude that impacted his ability to find meaningful work.

According to recent Tweets from Mia Farrow, daughter of Cheetah's Tarzan costar Maureen O'Sullivan, the chimpanzee began to bite his fellow actors and became known on the Tarzan set as "that bastard." This marked the beginning of a steep decline in Cheetah's career, as the chimpanzee never managed to erase these black-and-blue blemishes from his image.

After a half dozen television cameos and a handful of unremarkable off-Broadway roles, the swarthy primate eventually mounted a serious comeback attempt, re-committing to his craft and studying for eight months with legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg.

Despite his best efforts, a return to the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour eluded the chimp. Things appeared to be on the upswing for Cheetah when starlet gal pal Judy Garland helped the simian actor secure a Wizard of Oz audition at MGM, but in the end, the chimp's inability to take flight cost him the role. The Oz defeat proved to be the most devastating setback in a series of disappointments spanning subsequent decades that included failing to earn roles in Bedtime for Bonzo (too unnatural in human pajamas), Planet of the Apes (too short), and Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose (not orangutan enough).

In a tragic twist of fate, Cheetah was finally set to experience the career resurgence he had desired for so long. At the age of something like 80, he had recently been selected to portray Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul in an upcoming Animal Planet biopic. A big break for a little chimp, but all too late.


  1. What a likeness! Even down to the booger in the nose. Cheetah, you will be missed.

  2. It's true - he was a giant amongst men.