Tarzan's Sidekick Reveals All In 'Me Cheeta' Author James Lever talks about the chimp, the myth and the legend behind his fictionalized memoir Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood.
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Tarzan's Sidekick Reveals All In 'Me Cheeta'

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Tarzan's Sidekick Reveals All In 'Me Cheeta'

Tarzan's Sidekick Reveals All In 'Me Cheeta'

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Me, Robert Smith. Me, host; you, listener. And this, Cheeta.

(Soundbite of chimpanzee)

SMITH: Cheeta the Chimp, Tarzan's sidekick Hollywood legend, now supposedly in his 70s and living in seclusion in Palm Springs. He's written an autobiography, a simian romp through the golden age of Hollywood. It's called "Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood." Cheeta, of course, can't be with us today, but we do have his ghostwriter, chimp writer. James Lever is on the line from London. What should we call you?

Mr. JAMES LEVER (Author, "Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood"): Just say I assisted Cheeta in getting it into print.

SMITH: You channeled him.

Mr. LEVER: Yes. Or I made him up, actually, is probably more accurate.

SMITH: So many Hollywood stars to be able to tell this story through, why choose an ape, a chimpanzee?

Mr. LEVER: I suppose because Cheeta's a character who unfortunately believes very much in humanity, believes in it because of - because Tarzan's like a sort of Adam, and he's a friend to Adam. And Johnny Weissmuller, of course, is just the same as Adam. He's just a fantastic innocent. And it was really Weissmuller that is the story that you wanted to tell because Weissmuller was a wonderful guy, and he had an unhappy life. But he really was just a big, lovable, innocent kid. That was a nice story to tell via Cheeta, who is of course, deeply in love with both Tarzan and Weissmuller.

SMITH: Well, describe for me what Cheeta does as he goes through his life in Hollywood, some of the more sordid stories, let's say.

Mr. LEVER: Well, that's outrageous that you just want to know the most sordid stuff, but…

SMITH: I do. I want to know every single bit of gossip about Cheeta. I mean, that's why you read a Hollywood tell-all, right? You're not reading it for the philosophy.

Mr. LEVER: Well, what does he do? I mean - people get into the habit of thinking that Cheeta will sort of add a decadent touch to various orgies so people get into the habit of saying let's having the monkey around, you know. A little touch of darkest Africa will turn us on. But of course, Cheeta's just sitting there bored out of his head watching Marlene Dietrich and Mercedes de Acosta have sex in front of him. He crashes Doug Fairbanks' car. He bites Lupe Velez on the bottom. Well you know, he does quite a lot, actually.

SMITH: And how much of that is based on reality?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVER: Absolutely none of that is based on reality.

SMITH: Well then, why tell the story?

Mr. LEVER: The main reason to tell the story is - I suppose it's the story of somebody who hasn't got a clue who they are. You know, he thinks he's a great movie star, but in actual fact, he's a prisoner. Cheeta gets everything completely upside down. So when he sees - you know, when he sees the heads of animals, the hunted animals mounted on the wall of a Hollywood mansion, he's sure that these are the, you know, the mementos of much loved pets that are preserved on the walls, you know?

He's convinced that everything we do is for the good of animals. They're trying to rescue us. It's a great project.

SMITH: One of the ways we see this non-human perspective of Cheeta is in the book where he talks about how he thinks that movies work. Could you read that for us?

Mr. LEVER: Okay. You heard of the primitive who thinks the camera is stealing his soul, but of course the opposite was true. We enacted the dream, and as a kind of byproduct of converting the dream into the past, the cameras gave us our souls. They poured soul over us, and if they gave you enough of it, you started to become an immortal.

SMITH: Well, you know, as we watch the series of Tarzan movies, the dream sort of becomes a little bit of a nightmare for Cheeta. There's this constant conflict between him and Maureen O'Sullivan who plays Jane. They're almost sort of competing for the attentions of Tarzan. Here's a scene from "Tarzan and His Mate" and Cheeta has just stolen Jane's dress.

(Soundbite of film, "Tarzan and His Mate")

Ms. MAUREEN O'SULLIVAN (Actress): (As Jane) Cheeta, can't you see I've got nothing on?

(Soundbite of chimpanzee)

Ms. O'SULLIVAN: (As Jane) Give it to me. Give it to me. Give it to me.

Mr. LEVER: It's always a question of whether or not Jane is going to go home. This is the main thing. Can she be lured back to civilization? She's vain, and she can be lured back with a silver dress and so on, and Cheeta knows it.

SMITH: That's sort of the dramatic arc, I guess, of your book is the destruction of Jane and, in some ways, the destruction of this family that they had sort of put together.

Mr. LEVER: But what's really interesting about that is that it's unstoppable if you continue a series. In 1932, you've got a very beautiful Arcadian tragedy. You know, it's a comedy, but it's got sort of mythical depth to it, the first Tarzan movie, and the second one, "Tarzan and His Mate." And then of course as it continues, you see that anything that goes on for a while becomes a soap because it has to continue being happy. It can't continue to tell the truth.

So as the series goes on, poor old Cheeta doesn't understand that what he's up against is time. He thinks he's against Jane, who's trying to keep everything hunky-dory, and here comes Johnny (unintelligible), trying to keep everything really swell as boy, and he recognizes that all these forces are against the preservation of this paradise.

He can't get out of this fact that these two are time, and Tarzan isn't time. And of course Tarzan is time because Johnny Weissmuller's beautiful body, which America sort of grows up learning about time from the decay of Johnny Weissmuller's torso until in 1948 you have a middle-aged man running, Tarzan in the movies, which is one of the worst films you could possibly imagine and very sad.

SMITH: You get so serious sometimes I have to remind myself that we are talking about a fake autobiography of Tarzan's sidekick here.

Mr. LEVER: It's a nice form, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVER: Most of my favorite comic novels are very, very sad, you know, like "Lolita." You know, it's a despairing kind of laughter, and yet you couldn't think of a funnier book than "Lolita." The sadder it gets, the funnier it gets.

SMITH: James Lever is the author of "Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood." As Tarzan would say, umgawa(ph).

Mr. LEVER: Umgawa, Robert.

SMITH: Okay, so some people claim that the real chimpanzee who played Cheeta is still alive, 76 years old, living like a real retiree in Palm Springs, California. R.D. Rosen(ph), is that true?

Mr. R.D. ROSEN (Writer): No, it's not true. He's 48, he's not 76, and he was once trained by a man who I think trained some chimps who played Cheeta in the early Tarzan movies.

SMITH: Now, you were hired several years back to write a biography of Cheeta, but along the way, you found that there was an awful lot of holes in the Palm Springs chimp's claim to fame. So what made you first suspect that the Cheeta in Palm Springs might not be the original Cheeta?

Mr. ROSEN: It was never my intention to be the whistleblower on Cheeta's actual age. Obviously, I began this in a state of great excitement. I was amazed that Cheeta was alive. The first wrinkle was a story that had been repeated in Newsweek, in People magazine, in various articles, in newspapers and now was part of his biography, and that was that his first owner had bought him or found him in Liberia in 1932 and smuggled him onto a Pan Am transatlantic flight and brought him home, during which the chimp got out, ran up and down the aisles of the plane.

The stewardesses then called - stewardesses were shrieking, they pacified him with bottles of warm milk. It was a fascinating story until I thought, wait a second. Did they have commercial transatlantic travel just five years after Lindbergh's flight?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSEN: You know, Google produced an answer for me in about six seconds, which is no. There was no commercial, transatlantic travel until 1939, and then it was suspended, of course, for World War II almost immediately.

So that was the little end of the yarn that I started to pull on, and the whole thing unraveled.

SMITH: So where did all these stories of Cheeta's stardom come from?

Mr. ROSEN: They came largely from Tony Gentry, the first owner of Cheeta. I think as a kind of innocuous, Hollywood, self-aggrandizing lie. He passed this Cheeta off as a Cheeta who had actually appeared in Tarzan films, which some of his earlier chimps had, and people ate it up.

I don't think he could foresee down the road what some of the consequences were of this, that Cheeta would become an international phenomenon.

SMITH: Writer R.D. Rosen, thank you very much.

Mr. ROSEN: You're welcome.

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