The greatest Hollywood Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, died in 1984. His coffin was lowered into the ground to the recorded sounds of his famous jungle call. Maureen O’Sullivan, his Jane, died in 1998. Weissmuller’s son, who first played Boy in the 1939 film Tarzan finds a Mate, has gone too. But Cheeta the Chimp, who starred with them all, is alive and well, retired in Palm Springs. At the incredible age of seventy-five, he is by far the oldest living chimpanzee ever recorded.
Now, in his own words, Cheeta (aka Jiggs) finally tells his extraordinary story.
He was just a baby when snatched from the jungle of Liberia in 1932, by the great animal importer Henry Trefflich, who went on to supply NASA with its ‘Monkeys for Space’ programme. That same year, Cheeta appeared in Tarzan the Ape Man, and in 1934 Tarzan and His Mate, in which he famously stole the clothes from a naked O’Sullivan, dripping wet from an underwater swimming scene with Weissmuller. Other Tarzan films followed until Cheeta finally retired from the big screen after the 1967 film Doctor Dolittle with Rex Harrison, whose finger he accidentally bit backstage while being offered a placatory banana.
Cheeta tells it all, a life lived with the stars, a monkey stolen from deepest Africa forced to make a living in the fake jungles of Hollywood. He tells us too of his journey beyond the screen: his struggle with drink and addiction to cigars; his breakthrough with a radical new form of abstract painting, ‘Apeism’; his touching relationship with his retired nightclub-performing grandson Jeeta, now a considerable artist in his own right; his fondness for hamburgers and his battle in later life with diabetes; and, through thick and thin, carer Dan Westfall, his loving companion who has helped this magnificent monkey come to terms with his peculiar past.
Funny, moving, searingly honest, Cheeta transports us back to a lost Hollywood. He is a real star, and this the greatest celebrity memoir of recent times.