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2012-01-05

Cheeta, Tarzan's sidekick, dies in Florida sanctuary

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

From the 1930s to the present, movie fans have happily shelled out the price of a ticket for the latest Tarzan movie. The film studios always managed to find some eye candy to play the gentle-hearted animal loving lead, but for many, it was another actor that invariably stole the show. The King of the Jungle couldn't have saved his kingdom again and again without the help of the Court Jester, Cheeta, the chimpanzee.
Although the character of Cheeta did not appear in the original story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, today it would be hard to imagine Tarzan without his loyal sidekick. Cheeta's antics provided comic relief and the chimp often served as the liason between Tarzan and his animal friends.
Numerous animal actors played the role through the years. On Dec. 24, one of those reportedly died at a primate sanctuary in Florida.
While the average lifespan of a wild chimpanzee is around 45 years, the Florida chimpanzee's owners claim he played the role in Tarzan movies made in the 1930s, which would make him around 80.
Similar claims were made about another very old chimpanzee in California in 2008, but research debunked the claimed age.
The Florida chimpanzee arrived at the sanctuary in 1960 and according to staff, enjoyed finger painting and watching football.
While he seemed to enjoy people, this Cheeta also had definite boundaries. "When he didn't like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it. He could get you at 30 feet with bars in between," said a sanctuary volunteer.
The character was honored with a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 1995. Since 2004, there has been an as yet unsuccessful campaign to have a star placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While no Cheeta has ever been nominated for an Academy Award, there is a school of opinion that most of the actors playing the role had at least as much talent as Vin Diesel or Steven Seagal.
The success of Tarzan on film required a long line of actors in the title role. Elmo Lincoln brought the character to life in a 1918 silent film. Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weismuller turned his athletic abilities and buff body into a huge success when he got the role in "Tarzan the Ape Man" in 1932 and followed up with 11 more films of the jungle hero.
Another Olympic swimming medalist, Buster Crabbe, played Tarzan in a 12-chapter movie serial in 1933. Through the years, several actors played the role in one or two movies before moving on to other roles.
The square jawed 6'4" Lex Barker made five films in the early 1950s. After Barker died in 1953, Gordon Scott took on the role, making six Tarzan flicks from 1955 through 1960. Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Mike Henry did three Tarzan films in the 1960s. From 1966-1970, Ron Ely brought Tarzan to TV, filming 57 episodes. Some of those episodes were cobbled together to make feature films. Tarzans from the 1980s and 1990s included Christopher Lambert, Joe Lara, Wolf Larson, and Casper Van Dien.

For all of these actors, Cheeta quite frequently saved the day. Ooh-ooh-ooh, eee-eee-eee-eee!