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'Me Cheeta' is Hollywood chimpanzee's tell-all

You've all heard the ancient wheeze about a million monkeys at a million typewriters eventually creating the works of Shakespeare. That, to put it in a more family-friendly way than Cheeta himself does, is hogwash.

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Since millions of humans at millions of typewriters have produced only one Shakespeare, what are the odds of monkeys even managing a Danielle Steel or two?

But let me quote Cheeta himself, on the set of Tarzan and the Mermaids, trying to get across to his alleged director the notion that tequila was a sine qua non of his performance that day:

" 'Ooh oohooha ooha oohaa aah aah aah aahaa aahha-aaahha-aahha-eeehuh-eeehhuh-aahheeeeeeEEH!' I pointed out."

Needless to say, they fired him on the spot. And that was the end of his career as Tarzan's right-hand man. He would appear onscreen only twice more: once opposite Bela Lugosi, once opposite Rex Harrison. Neither movie was a hit, and neither was a happy experience for the simian who calls himself an artist and a pioneer among animal actors.

Me Cheeta is to the usual run of Hollywood biographies and memoirs as Lombard is to Lohan. It's funnier, sadder, sharper and more salacious than anything since, oh, Shelley Winters' first memoir — and did Shelley Winters ever bite Johnny Weissmuller's third wife on the butt while said wife was making love to Ward Bond? Cheeta did.

As for the movies, or what Cheeta prefers to call the dream world: Let Brando's latest biographer allow him to sneer at the art of acting; Cheeta knows better, just as he knows that the young Brando stole shamelessly from him.

Nor was Brando alone among human actors sitting at the feet of Cheeta. Take Mickey Rooney. "I found it a little disappointing that his widely acclaimed Puck in Warner's A Midsummer Night's Dream (released the year after my debut in Tarzan and His Mate) should have leaned so heavily on my performance," Cheeta, uh, writes, and thanks to DVDs it's not hard to see that he's right.

Me Cheeta is a love story, the story of a chimpanzee's love for the childlike perfect human, Johnny, the Olympic swimmer and beautiful young man who bulked up but never grew up. Weissmuller, about whom no one has an unkind word to say, had it all and lost it all, mostly through naivete, and Cheeta follows him through a dozen movies and half a dozen wives, right to the end: the dying Johnny being exploited by No. 6 for a few thou from the tabloids.

The publicity for Me Cheeta calls it a fictionalized memoir, but it's really a novel, a 19th century picaresque that follows our hero from obscurity (in an African jungle) to stardom and back to obscurity. If he were a has-been baseball player he'd have ended up signing autographs for a living; Cheeta did backflips and wore funny hats, until he could flip no more.

It's a funny story and a filthy one (it's true about dear old Constance Bennett, he writes, though he absolutely denies those stories about himself and Dolores del Rio), and it's a sad one, too, because we humans — whom Cheeta loves — always seem to be failing him.

The book was published anonymously in England, and its authorship was to remain anonymous through its American debut in March. But word leaked out: Me Cheeta is the work of Oxford grad James Lever, written at the suggestion of his British publisher, who could have had no idea what he was launching.

After reading his way through 1930s and '40s Hollywood, Lever has given us a delightfully nasty picture of the good (David Niven, Doug Fairbanks, the alpha males like L.B. Mayer, dear old Connie and, of course, Johnny), the bad (Johnny's wives, including No. 3 Lupe Velez and No. 4 Beryl Scott, Mickey Rooney, Chaplin and, of course, Maureen O'Sullivan, a.k.a. "Jane") and the ugly (Esther Williams, and did I mention Mickey Rooney?).

It was Jane who tried to civilize Tarzan, and Beryl who tried to civilize Johnny Weissmuller. Unlike Huck Finn, Johnny and his alter ego could never light out for the territory. In Cheeta's loving paws, that makes Johnny a kind of tragic hero, and Me Cheeta a remarkable book.

David L. Beck is a writer and editor in St. Petersburg.

Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood

Ecco, 320 pages, $24.99

'Me Cheeta' is Hollywood chimpanzee's tell-all 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]
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