Primate of the Century

Cheeta is still a natural in front of the camera. Not surprising, really — he's been at it since he was an infant chimp back in the 1930s, starring opposite Johnny Weissmuller in over a dozen Tarzan films. At age 71, Cheeta was just certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest nonhuman primate in the world. When I caught up with him last Monday, Cheeta had received two television crews, and as usual he warmed to them, hamming it up for the visitors with grins and kisses for his caretaker and friend, Dan Westfall. Even now, Cheeta knows when he's on.

Like many of his contemporaries from Hollywood past, Cheeta retired to Palm Springs. That's where Westfall moved him when Tom Gentry, Cheeta's original trainer and Westfall's uncle, died. Now, the chimp is an active senior, taking in daily sun and sundry activities, and occasionally accepting honors such as the world record or the lifetime achievement award he received a few years back from the citizens of Palm Springs.

Although he's two or more decades past his life expectancy, Cheeta's aging gracefully. He is not decrepit or smelly. And he has no gray: his body is still covered by dark black hair except for the pinkish bare skin on his face, palms and the soles of his long, willowy feet. (Hair coloring would seem true to form for an aging actor living in the Springs, but in fact elder chimps do not turn silver like gorillas.) And then there are his eyes: Despite his age, Cheeta has a deep, alert gaze, lit from within by those eerily sentient chimp eyes that always make me think, Give or take a few nucleotide base pairs, that could be me over there.

Having interviewed animals a few times, I've discovered that the best questions can never be answered. We'll never know if Cheeta resented his second billing as "The Jungle Comedian." Or if he knows any scuttlebutt about the allegedly tumultuous relationship between Bonzo and Ronald Reagan. Or what does Cheeta think about, you know, "The Controversy" involving the bear from B.J. and the Bear, who was clearly not a bear but a chimp. And then there's always the existential ringer: What is it like, exactly, to be a chimp?

So by default we're left with the obvious: What does Cheeta do most days? He watches TV, preferring cartoons and animal shows, often making them interactive by hooting along. He paints. And he eats. And sometimes he eats paint, along with a varied diet including fresh fruit, vegetables, biscuits and hard-boiled eggs. "He eats a lot of different things," said Westfall. "He'll eat an onion like an apple," he added, perhaps explaining why Cheeta cut a loud and lengthy fart right in the middle of the interview (technically, his only quote). But when Cheeta is not putting food or his paintbrush in his mouth, he labors over an endless series of abstract works on canvas. These are sold by Westfall and his partner, Abe Karajerjian, to raise money for their caretaking efforts, which include not only Cheeta but other retired Hollywood primates.

"We're trying to buy some more land to accommodate more animals," said Westfall as we walked to the habitats where he keeps Cheeta along with another chimp, two orang-utans, and half a dozen monkeys. "We sell Cheeta's paintings for $125 to raise funds. Anyone interested can send us a letter at P.O. Box 8162, Palm Springs, 92263. Or e-mail Cheeta at chimpanz@gte.net. It's a good cause."

Indeed it is. Many primates, in Hollywood and private homes, are mistreated and/or abandoned when they become difficult to care for. Westfall and Karajerjian would love to take them all in, but they've had to stop accepting new ones, for lack of money and space — there's just no more room for their burgeoning backyard zoo. "We've sold a lot of paintings," said Westfall, "but there's a ways to go."

In addition to the chimp art, Westfall adds, buyers also get other items, like Cheeta's "autographed" headshot. We stood, in relative awe, in a room with walls covered by Cheeta's publicity photos, awards and many of his paintings. They are quite striking: Chimpanzees, like humans, see in full color, and Cheeta apparently picks his palette deliberately when he feels the creative spirit. "He goes through different periods," Westfall explained.

In that same room was an upright piano and an organ. I wondered aloud: Does Cheeta ever get on the keys? "No," Westfall and Karajerjian said. "He knows not to jump up there." I told them I meant to ask if he plays the piano. "Oh yes!" they replied enthusiastically. "He plays all the time. He loves it." He had played earlier that day, they said, mugging for the cameras as usual.