8 Decades of The Hollywood Reporter

1 ENDPG Tarzen's Secret Treasure H
Courtesy of Everett Collection

From left: Cheeta, Johnny Sheffield, Johnny Weissmuller and Farrow's mom O'Sullivan in 1941's "Tarzan's Secret Treasure." Cheeta thought O'Sullivan smelled bad, and after this photo was shot, he yanked at Weissmuller's toenail and got knocked off the branch, says Diane Weissmuller.


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On Christmas Eve, an eightysomething chimp said to have played Cheeta, Johnny Weissmuller's co-star in the Tarzan films of 1932-48, died of kidney failure at Debbie Cobb's Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla. Immediately, it sparked worldwide headlines -- and controversy. Was it the real Cheeta? Skeptics raised doubts (not Mia Farrow, whose mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, played Jane opposite Weissmuller; the actress tweeted, "My mom … referred to Cheetah-the-chimp as 'that bastard' -- saying he bit her at every opportunity"). Nonetheless, Chimpgate consumed the web over the holidays. Some claimed that it would be rare (but not impossible) for a primate to live that long; others pointed to the Cheeta who now lives in Palm Springs and once was widely thought to have been in the Tarzan movies until the Washington Post debunked his resumé. For her part, Cobb says the chimp she knew for 51 years came from handlers on the six Tarzan films shot at Silver Springs, Fla., near her grandparents' roadside attraction and animal sanctuary, where people could wrestle chimps and meet a gorilla. "If you wanted to get rid of a chimp in the '60s, that was the only place in Florida you could go," says Terry Wolf of Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Fla. Indeed, what is not in dispute is that the Florida chimp who just passed lived out his golden years in better style than many of his peers. "Tarzan's animals were treated terribly," says Diane Weissmuller, who co-wrote her late husband John Weissmuller Jr.'s memoir. "But they didn't treat actors very well either."