Cheeta, Screen Star for the Ages

Cheeta on screen with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan i i

hide captionCheeta shares the screen with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in a still from Cheeta's 1934 film debut.

Hulton Archive/Corbis
Cheeta on screen with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan

Cheeta shares the screen with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in a still from Cheeta's 1934 film debut.

Hulton Archive/Corbis

Like so many other senior citizens, he spends his days at a retirement village in a Sun Belt state, keeping himself busy with painting and reflecting on a long and successful career.

But Cheeta, who turns 74 Sunday, isn't typical at all. He's a retired movie star, and he's believed to be the oldest living chimpanzee in the world.

Cheeta — Tarzan's swinging friend from the black-and-white film era — lives in Palm Springs, Calif., at the C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary. Dan Westfall, who runs the sanctuary, has seen to Cheeta's needs for years. The sanctuary is also home to other retired animal actors, including orangutans and monkeys as well as chimps. Cheeta and Westfelt visit with Debbie Elliott to mark the chimp's big day.

Westfelt's uncle, Tony Gentry, was a Hollywood animal trainer who brought the young Cheeta back from a scouting expedition in Africa in the 1930s.

The chimp showed up on screen alongside Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in 1934's Tarzan and His Mate, and went on to make 12 movies in all.

He's been busy in his post-film life, too, producing colorful paintings that have been shown in the National Museum of London, among other locations.

And at 74, Cheeta has exceeded the average life expectancy for a chimpanzee in captivity by nearly a quarter-century, which makes this a very happy birthday indeed.

Cheeta, photographed at age 59, paints while Don Westfelt looks on from behind. i i

hide captionCheeta, shown here at age 59, does a bit of painting as Dan Westfall offers a few tips. Even at that age, Cheeta had lived longer than most chimps in captivity.

Sygna/Corbis
Cheeta, photographed at age 59, paints while Don Westfelt looks on from behind.

Cheeta, shown here at age 59, does a bit of painting as Dan Westfall offers a few tips. Even at that age, Cheeta had lived longer than most chimps in captivity.

Sygna/Corbis

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