|First appearance||Tarzan the Ape Man|
|Portrayed by||Jiggs and other animals|
|Alias||Cheetah, Cheta, Chita|
Cheeta (sometimes billed as Cheetah, Cheta, and Chita) is a chimpanzee character that appeared in numerous Hollywood Tarzan films of the 1930s–1960s, as well as the 1966–1968 television series, as the ape sidekick of the title character, Tarzan. Cheeta has usually been characterized as male, but sometimes as female, and has been portrayed by chimpanzees of both sexes.
While the character of Cheeta is inextricably associated in the public mind with Tarzan, no chimpanzees appear in the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that inspired the films. The closest analog to Cheeta in the Burroughs novels is Tarzan's monkey companion Nkima, which appears in several of the later books in the series.
Cheeta's role in the Tarzan films and TV series is to provide comic relief, convey messages between Tarzan and his allies, and occasionally lead Tarzan's other animal friends to the ape-man's rescue.
The character of Cheeta was a composite role created through the use of numerous animal actors, over a dozen according to one source. According to journalist R. D. Rosen, "In each Tarzan movie, the Cheeta role [was] played by more than one chimpanzee, depending on what talents the scene called for." Known and alleged performers of the role are given in the following table (see the comments following the table for the sources of the data).
|Name||Sex||Species||Born||Died||Owner(s)||Trainer(s)||Period as Cheeta|
|Jiggs||M||Chimpanzee||ca.1929||1938-02-28 or 1938-03-01||Tony & Jacqueline Gentry||Tony & Jacqueline Gentry||1932–1934|
|Jacky I||M||Chimpanzee||ca.1930||Unknown||Gertrude Davies Lintz||Gertrude Davies Lintz||1932|
|Cheetah-Mike (a.k.a. Org)||M||Chimpanzee||Unknown; ca.1931 claimed||2011-12-24||See comments||Unknown||Possibly never; 1930s–1940s claimed|
|Jiggs, Jr. (a.k.a. Jiggs II)||M||Chimpanzee||ca.1935||Unknown||Tony & Jacqueline Gentry||Tony & Jacqueline Gentry||1930s–1940s?|
|Jacky III||M||Chimpanzee||Unknown||Unknown||Gertrude Davies Lintz||Gertrude Davies Lintz||1942|
|Unknown 3||?||Chimpanzee||1940s||Unknown||Unknown||See comments||1944–1945?|
|Unknown 4||?||Chimpanzee||1940s||Unknown||Unknown||Albert Antonucci||1946–1949?|
|Cheeta||?||Chimpanzee||1940s||Unknown||Pinky Jackson||Pinky Jackson||1950|
|Zippy||M||Chimpanzee||ca.1951||Unknown||Ralph Quinlan||Ralph Quinlan||1950s|
|Cheeta (a.k.a. Jiggs IV)||M||Chimpanzee||ca.1960; ca.1932 claimed||Living||See comments||Tony Gentry||2007, 2014; 1930s–1950s claimed|
More details about these performers:
Late in his life, Tony Gentry, who had been the co-owner and trainer of the original Cheeta (Jiggs), made extravagant claims in regard to another chimpanzee he owned and its connection with the Cheeta role. This animal, known as both Cheeta and Jiggs IV, was falsely alleged by Gentry to have been the primary animal actor portraying Cheeta in the Tarzan movies over the years. He also greatly exaggerated the age of the animal to support this claim. For a number of years both before and after Gentry's death this story passed unexamined and became a matter of general belief.
Tony Gentry made various claims regarding Cheeta's (Jiggs IV) age, origins, and supposed movie roles. Some of these claims conflicted with each other.
In the usually related account, Gentry originally acquired the animal by purchase from Henry Trefflich, a New York animal importer and dealer. Cheeta was supposedly born in the wild in Liberia some months prior to 9 April 1932, which is celebrated as his birthday because it is the date he is said to have arrived in the United States, in New York City. Other accounts of Cheeta's origins from Gentry include having found the animal himself in the Belgian Congo in 1932 or having bought him in Santa Monica about 1938 or in the late 1940s.
Gentry's acquaintances and fellow animal trainers Hubert Wells, Stewart Raffill, and Cheryl Shawver have disputed all of these accounts, stating that "Tony got that chimp from Wally Ross ... one of the managers of Pacific Ocean Park on the pier in Santa Monica" when the park closed in 1967. According to them, Cheeta was only about 6 or 7 years old at that time, which would put his birthdate around 1960 or 1961 rather than 1932.
Gentry claimed Cheeta/Jiggs IV was the primary animal actor used in the role of Cheeta in the Tarzan movies. His first appearance as Cheeta is usually stated to have been in the second Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film, Tarzan and His Mate (1934), uncredited as a young chimpanzee riding on the back of the older chimp (Jiggs) who originated the role. He was then allegedly cast in the role himself in the other Weissmuller Tarzans that followed, as well as the succeeding Lex Barker Tarzan films. Journalist R. D. Rosen, who investigated this story, counters that this animal in fact never appeared in any Tarzan film.
Besides his supposed role as Cheeta in the Tarzan films, Cheeta/Jiggs IV reputedly appeared as other chimpanzee characters in unrelated films, including Ramona the Chimp in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) and Chee-Chee in Doctor Dolittle (1967) with Rex Harrison, supposedly his last role before retirement. However, according to Wells, Raffill, and Shawver, as reported by R. D. Rosen, Cheeta never appeared in any movies; Rosen himself confirmed that the animal could not have been the Chee-Chee in the Dolittle film.
In 1991, whatever the truth of his origins and prior life, Cheeta/Jiggs IV was given by Gentry to his distant cousin Don Westfall, the current caretaker. Gentry died two years later. In Westfall's care, Cheeta lived at a primate sanctuary called Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes (or CHEETA) in Palm Springs, California, where he reportedly watched television, made abstract paintings, which were sold to benefit primate-related charities, and often watched "his" old films with his grandson, Jeeter. He also leafed through books and "played" the piano.
His birthdays, calculated from the date of his supposed 1932 arrival in the United States, were regularly celebrated. In 2006, coinciding with his "74th" birthday, Cheeta received an award for his supposed film career from the International Film Festival of Peniscola Comedy. Later that year, the 4 October 2006, edition of the Palm Springs newspaper, The Desert Sun, reported that he had received his first-ever visit from famed primatologist Jane Goodall the previous day. His "75th" birthday was covered by National Geographic. His "76th" birthday was celebrated on 9 April 2008, at his "Casa de Cheeta" in Palm Springs at an event hosted by Dan Westfall and Diane Weissmuller, (Johnny Weissmuller, Jr.'s widow). The press and many Palm Springs celebrities attended.
On the basis of his fictitious history, Cheeta was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest nonhuman primate. An equally fictitious purported ghost-written "autobiography" of the chimp, Me Cheeta, was published in the U.K. in October 2008. The American edition was published on March 3, 2009.
In March 1995, the character of Cheeta was honored with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars.
Since 2004, unsuccessful attempts have been made to secure a star for Cheeta on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and as of 2008, filmmaker Matt Devlen was continuing the effort. Attempting for the seventh time to get a sidewalk star, the handlers of Cheeta/Jiggs IV launched an online petition to get supporters to urge the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to give a star in 2009. The petition was unsuccessful.
The character of Chemistry, from the Doc Savage stories, is said to have been inspired by Cheeta.
Parody of a Hollywood "tell-all" biography purported to be written by the chimpanzee animal star, Cheeta, who supposedly played opposite Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan films, Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo, and Rex Harrison in Dr. Dolittle, and survives to paint in retirement in Palm Springs. (Research has established that the chimp's first owner was known to be a teller of tall tales and that this chimp was not one of the many different chimps that were used in those films.) [From Library of Congress listing.]