If you were left in disbelief by news of the passing of the 80-year-old chimpanzee said to have originated the role of Cheetah in the classic Tarzan movies, you definitely weren’t alone. There appears to be some doubt as to whether he was that Cheetah, or if a chimpanzee could even live that long.
The first questions about the primate’s identity were raised shortly after the announcement by The Guardian, which turned to James Lever, author of the spoof Me Cheeta: The Autobiography, inspired by the uncovering of a fake Cheetah in 2008. “Nobody seems to know very much (or even anything at all) about the chimps who played Cheetah,” he told the newspaper. “I rather think he’ll be dying a lot over the next few years.”
Scientists are equally skeptical, considering that chimpanzees typically live 35 to 45 years in captivity; the oldest is believed to be just 70. So how could Cheetah — this Cheetah — be the co-star of 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man and 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate?
Chalk it up to a healthy diet and stress-free living, says Debbie Cobb of Florida’s Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, where Cheetah spent his final decades. She insists this chimpanzee is indeed the one who appeared opposite Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, and that he lived to the ripe old age of 80.
“We have nothing to prove,” Cobb told The New York Times. “It cracks me up how ignorant some people are, but I think that causes controversy and isn’t that what it’s all about? I mean, really. I think people like controversy. These are real living beings to us here. These are relationships. We don’t care if it’s in the media or not.”
Questions of age aside, the “real” Cheetah may never be identified with any certainty, as several chimpanzees filled the role over the years, and several more people have laid claim to owning the genuine movie star. But it appears likely the original Cheetah probably died of pneumonia in 1938, well short of 80.