His retirement has been a fairly quiet one. There have been no appearances on Hollywood Squares. No celebrity golf tournaments. No commercials for fiber laxatives. No runs for political office. For the past four decades, Cheeta, the once-venerated chimpanzee sidekick from MGM’s classic Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ’40s, has enjoyed a sedate, mostly anonymous existence far from the public eye. Living under the care of animal trainer Dan Westfall on a tidy suburban street in Palm Springs, Calif. — the desert resort where luminaries such as Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra once fled the stresses of Hollywood — Cheeta passes his days like many other retirees. He sleeps late. He watches television. He paints. He listens to lite-FM radio. A big day involves making a trip to McDonald’s drive-thru and getting a burger, french fries, and a Diet Coke.
At one time, he was among the biggest animal stars on the planet, the simian answer to Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. On film, the character of Cheeta faithfully played second banana to the loincloth-clad king of the jungle, portrayed by Olympic swimmer-turned-actor Johnny Weissmuller. He provided comic relief, performing flips on top of an elephant or mischievously stealing Jane’s clothes while she skinny-dipped with Tarzan. If dashing heroics were required, Cheeta could leap onto a lion’s back or scamper down a vine to rescue Tarzan and Jane from a deadly brush fire. Whether fighting poachers, wrestling a crocodile, or battling Nazis, Tarzan had only to shout his all-purpose jungle command ”Ungawa!” and Cheeta would be at his side, ready for adventure. Those were heady times. Now, having lived to the age of 76 — a feat that has earned him a spot in the book of Guinness World Records as the oldest-known nonhuman primate — Cheeta seems content with a quieter existence in Westfall’s small private animal sanctuary, nicknamed Casa de Cheeta, which he shares with two orangutans, a rhesus monkey, a baboon, another chimpanzee (his grandson Jeeter), five dogs, four parrots, and a tarantula.