”Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” No, those aren’t Tom and Roseanne’s parting words to each other — it’s Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, the film that taught Hollywood how to succeed in monkey business.
Apes opened on Feb. 8, 1968, and promptly bred one of the most successful sci-fi franchises in movie history. With a string of ever-cheesier sequels — 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1971’s Escape From the Planet of the Apes, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes — the series has taken in $82 million in the U.S. and spawned a short-lived TV show on CBS, a Saturday morning cartoon on NBC, comic books, dolls, lunch boxes, even a record album.
Yet Twentieth Century Fox execs at first balked at going Ape, worrying that actors in monkey suits wouldn’t project enough human personality to satisfy audiences. Apes lore has it that the producers asked Edward G. Robinson to sit in for a makeup test. The simianized character actor was so convincing as a talking ape that Fox gave the go-ahead.
But it was Heston who starred, as Taylor, an American astronaut who lands on Earth 2,000 years in the future, when apes rule and humans are herded like cattle. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter endured daily two-and-a-half-hour makeup sessions to play Cornelius and Zira, egghead chimps who violate ”ape law” by helping Taylor. The late Maurice Evans spent serious time in the makeup chair as well, becoming the evil orangutan Doctor Zaius. By all accounts, the Apes flicks weren’t easy to make.
”Now I know why monkeys hate people,” McDowall cracked while working on one of the sequels. ”When I get dressed up that way, everybody stares and points and yells, and you have no identity. You feel helpless.”
By the end, the talking-monkey concept had devolved into kitschy, cult camp, but there are now signs the chimps may rule again. Oliver Stone is considering producing a Planet of the Apes remake, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Heston role. Somehow ”Getch yaw stinkink pahws uff me, you dahm duhty ape” doesn’t have the same ring.