The story does not begin in Hollywood, where it’s possible, though by no means certain, that Cheeta became famous. It does not begin in Palm Springs, where Cheeta lives like so many other retirees, soaking in sunshine, bickering with relatives and, on occasion, treating himself to a drive-through hamburger despite his diabetes and advancing age.
The story begins 2,800 miles to the east, give or take, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There, a man named R.D. Rosen received a phone call in the spring of 2007 from an agent, a woman who said she represented an ape.
Rosen had written a series of mystery novels and had just wrapped up a well-received book about an orphaned buffalo. But like any self-respecting writer, he was in something of a panic over what he’d do next, and that’s why the agent’s words -- “I have your next book” -- sounded like the strings of a harp.
The subject was Cheeta, a chimpanzee snatched from the wilds of Liberia by a moderately successful animal trainer named Tony Gentry.
Cheeta had appeared in dozens of films -- opposite Rex Harrison in “Doctor Doolittle,” opposite Ronald Reagan in “Bedtime for Bonzo” and, in the role that made a legend of a star, opposite the great Johnny Weissmuller in a dozen Tarzan films.
Cheeta lived the good life, so good it had earned him a spot in the record books: the oldest known non-human primate in the world. He had learned to drink cold beer on hot days and brandy on cold nights, to play the piano and twirl spaghetti with a fork. Whether all of that was pitiful or riveting, it would make for a spectacular book.
If only it were true.
Cheeta is supposed to be dead.
For most of his life, he lived on a compound of sorts near Thousand Oaks.
There, as they got on in years, he and Gentry, his purported captor, became like father and son, so close that Cheeta was said to have pulled Gentry’s wheelchair around the yard after Gentry became too debilitated to wheel it himself.
Gentry was convinced that no one could ever care for the old boy as he had. So the trainer stipulated in his will that Cheeta be euthanized upon Gentry’s death. A soft-spoken animal lover and trainer named Dan Westfall, a relative of Gentry, pleaded with him to spare Cheeta’s life. Gentry relented and in April 1991, not long before his death, Cheeta retired to the desert to live at a sanctuary Westfall had opened for show-business primates whose careers had run their course.
In the business, this is seen as saintly work. Performing chimpanzees often outlive their careers by 40 years; most go on to sad and isolated lives, not quite socialized with either man or primate. Westfall, like many others in today’s Hollywood, believes it is unacceptable to wrest chimpanzees out of the wild.
In 2001, Cheeta landed in the Guinness World Records, and today he is -- according to his handlers, anyway -- an astonishing 76 years old. His fans are legion. Tour buses drive by. Admirers buy his paintings for $135 a pop. There is even a push to get him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one backer has designed a “Chimpmobile” that would ferry Cheeta to the ceremony once a star is awarded.
Cheeta’s “birthday” has been celebrated, not on the anniversary of his birth, but on April 9, the anniversary of the day he supposedly landed in the United States. Rosen figured that point -- the dramatic account of Cheeta’s arrival, with Gentry, according to legend, hiding him under a jacket on the Pan Am flight -- was a logical place to begin his research.
It didn’t take long for the first discrepancy to surface. It turned out, Rosen said, that the sort of flight Gentry had described wasn’t available commercially until 1939 -- seven years after Gentry supposedly smuggled Cheeta into the U.S.
At first, Rosen tossed it off as an innocent mistake. He pressed ahead, flying to California to visit Cheeta at the sanctuary.
Back home, though, Rosen began watching Cheeta’s films. Both “Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Doctor Doolittle” featured chimps that were very young; Cheeta would have been 19 and 35, respectively, at the time. Rosen thought: Could this be?
In his apartment, he began watching all of the Tarzan films again, remote control in hand, pausing each time a chimp could be seen in profile. “Then I’d walk over from the bed with a glossy photograph of Cheeta,” he said, “and compare the ears.” It was not, he determined, the same chimp.
In November 2007, Rosen tracked down veteran animal trainers who said they knew Cheeta well. The chimp, they told him, had been a performer at Pacific Ocean Park, the old Santa Monica attraction -- and had never been in films, Rosen said.
It was Gentry, Rosen said, who’d passed Cheeta off as a star -- not even as a Cheeta, since there were many over the Tarzan years, but as the Cheeta. Rosen’s best guess is that Cheeta was born around 1960, not 1932, performed as a pier attraction for a few years and was then given to Gentry by another trainer when Pacific Ocean Park closed in 1967. A nice ape, Rosen said, but not a star.
In late 2007, Rosen mustered the courage to tell Westfall of his findings. “He inherited a lie,” Rosen said. “It took on a life of its own.”
Rosen helped Westfall change the language on Cheeta’s website to reflect the doubts that had been raised; Cheeta, the site says now, “is unlikely to be as old as we’d thought, although he is clearly old.”
Rosen proposed that he write a new sort of book -- about the plight of retired show business chimps, even about society’s need to cling to its stars’ mythology. Westfall passed, saying it was all too painful. Rosen never heard from the agent again.
Rosen covered some of his research costs by writing a tell-all of sorts in December, in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine.
He never sold the book idea -- perhaps, he wrote, because in the end what the book really would be about was how, in Hollywood, “even the animals lie about their age.”
Rosen’s article landed at an exciting time for the chimp and his fans. Another book about Cheeta -- a ghost-written, tongue-in-cheek “autobiography” -- is scheduled for U.S. release in March. And the verdict on Cheeta’s request for a Walk of Fame star will be delivered soon, with more than 12,500 people having signed a petition urging its approval.
In interviews, Cheeta’s backers took shots at Rosen’s credibility, suggesting that he might have sour grapes because of the “autobiography” and insisting that there are still many unanswered questions.
Mostly, though, they have been left in the awkward position of arguing that the truth is not terribly important -- that even if Rosen is right, there is little merit to his work because the world, effectively, was better off before.
“This Cheeta has brought so much joy to people,” said Matthew Devlen, a film producer who spearheads the Walk of Fame lobbying effort. “Your heroes are brought down everywhere. It’s devastating to be told that everything you’ve been told is a lie.”
“It’s like some kid telling you there is no Santa Claus,” said Diane Weissmuller, widow of Johnny Weissmuller Jr., the Tarzan star’s son. “You’ve got to have these beliefs. And I believe in Cheeta.”
Cheeta, meanwhile, like Garbo in her last days, is in seclusion.
His modest, single-story sanctuary is tucked away in a quiet residential enclave in Palm Springs, a neighborhood of palm trees and rock gardens. The frontyard is decorated with barrel cactuses; the lettering “Casa de Cheeta” is attached to the facade of the building, near a bronze statue of the chimp.
On a recent morning, the air smelled faintly of monkey chow. A green ball, presumably one of Cheeta’s toys, could be seen in a side yard.
Westfall, normally genial with the press, refused to comment when reached by telephone, and he did not answer the door at the sanctuary. Cheeta, despite his opposable thumbs, did not either.