Me CheetaMy Life in Hollywood
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Marc Cheeta
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061647420
On my last day in motion pictures I found myself at the top of a monkey-puzzle tree in England, helping to settle a wager between that marvelous light comedian and wit Rex Harrison and his wife, the actress Rachel Roberts, and thinking, This is gonna look great in the obituaries, isn't it? Fell out of a fucking tree.
This was in '66, during a day off from filming my supposed comeback picture, Fox's disastrous megafiop Doctor Dolittle, with Dickie Attenborough and Rex. We were on the grounds of some stately home in the charming village of Castle Combe in County Wiltshire, some time after a heavy lunch.
Rex was convinced that the tree would puzzle me. Rachel thought I'd be able to work it out. Arriving at the terms of the bet had not been easy. How exactly was I to demonstrate my mastery of this cryptic plant?
"You ought to let it start at the top, and then it's got an incentive to climb down' said Lady Combe. Servants were ordered to fetch a ladder. She was delighted at the success of her party. "This is exciting. Is it always so much fun with you film folk?"
Now then, Cheeta," said Rachel, holding a pack of cigarettes very close to my face. "You see these Player's? They'll be waiting at the bottom for you. You understand? Yummy cigarettes. Don't you dare let me down."
"Darling, I've just had rather a splendid idea' said Rex. "Why don't we forget the money? If the monkey makes it you can sleep with Burton, if he'll have you, and if it doesn't, then I can divorce you but you have to promise not to kill yourself?'
"Getting nervous, Rex?"
"Au contraire, my sweet. Let's call it two thousand."
"Oh dear' said Lady Combe. "Is something the matter?"
"Yes' said Rex. "Your cellar is atrocious."
Rex and I had had a number of differences on the set, but nothing you wouldn't expect to see between a couple of stars pushing a script in different directions. Far from being the coward and sadist Rachel frequently described him as, Rex was, somewhere beneath the caustic exterior he had designed to conceal his vulnerabilities, a good man and a very special human being. Nonetheless I'd been upset to have every one of my off-the-cuff contributions vetoed. This interminable "Talk to the Animals" song had already taken us a week. Perhaps I was a little rusty—I hadn't worked in movies for almost twenty years—but Rex had nixed every one of the backflips or handstands I'd been trying to liven it up with. So I was pretty keen to get this tree climbed. Plus I wanted the cigarettes—and, anyway, I wasn't about to be outwitted by a tree.
But the French call them "monkey's despair." From a distance, each limb had appeared invitingly fuzzy, furred like a pipe cleaner or the interior of Rex's arteries, but as soon as I grasped one I discovered that the thing was made entirely out of horrible spiky triangular leaves, more like scales than leaves. Unfortunately, Rachel had already ordered the ladder to be removed and I could do nothing but cling to the crown of the tree, slapping my head with one hand and communicating via some screaming, which required little translation, that I was perfectly happy to let Rex have the money.
"Don't make such a fuss, Cheeta! It's just getting adjusted' Rachel assured the little crowd, as I tried cautiously to inch down that torture chamber of a tree for her. But it really was impossible. The French were right. The English name had led me to believe that the tree would be no more than some mildly diverting brainteaser, the chimpanzee equivalent of the Sunday crossword—but this was a puzzle only in the sense that being violently assaulted by a plant is, yeah, a somewhat puzzling experience. Fucking typical English understatement.
"I rather think' Rex commented, you owe me two thousand pounds."
"Don't go off half-cocked, darling, like you always do . . . . It's only been up there a minute."
Jesus, was that all?
"Don't be absurd, you drunken bitch. It's stuck."
"You're not welching me out of this one, Rexy-boy' I heard Rachel say. "I never expected it to start climbing right away. You just hold your damn horses."
"Now, Rachel, please, it's perfectly clear the poor animal's in distress' I heard another voice interject. Oh, great: Dickie. "The pair of you should be ashamed. Lady Combe, can we please please please get that ladder back up? This is quite frightful!"
"You touch that ladder, Lady Whatsyourface," Rex said, "and I promise you, there'll be tears before bedtime. Nobody touch that bloody ladder! My pathetic shell of a wife is making a point. Dickie, do piss off and stop blubbering'
"Thank you, darling' said Rachel.
You're welcome, darling' said Rex.
They weren't all that much fun to be around, Rex and Rachel, it does have to be said. I'd never liked the goddamn English anyway, with their razor-wire elocution, their total lack of humor and their godawful pedantic spelling. I clung on, cheeping in distress and swaying eighty feet above the ground. This had all begun a week ago, as we were embarking on Rex's endless song, which I don't think he believed in any longer. He regularly punctuated "Talk to the Animals" with violent outbursts of animal-related abuse. He was failing to cope with the toupee-munching goat, the parrot that kept shouting "Cut," and the general incompetence of the inexperienced English animals, and he was beginning to take it out on me. "I don't mind the bloody ducks and the sheep' he'd complained after we'd abandoned shooting for the day again, "so much as this monkey trying to upstage me all the time."
This was distressing to hear. I'd been lucky to get the job after two decades of stage work and it was important to keep my co-star happy. I accepted Rachel's half-offered cigarette and demonstrated one of my old standbys, the amusingly raffish side-of-mouth exhalation. But Rex was unappeased.