The fictionalized memoir Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood tells the story of filmdom's golden age from the point of view of Tarzan's famous sidekick.
Cheeta the chimpanzee is the purported author of the book, though ghostwriter James Lever admits to "assist[ing] Cheeta in getting it into print."
Lever's work of fiction imagines a chimp still alive in his 70s and living in an animal sanctuary in Palm Springs, Calif., though in reality, several Cheetas were used in the Tarzan films. One chimp long believed to be the original Cheeta — a story since debunked (see the sidebar at left) — still resides in Palm Springs.
Set largely in the 1930s, the book chronicles the decadence — and subsequent decline — of Hollywood's glamorous heyday. Lever says that while there were plenty of human characters he could have focused on, Cheeta provided a unique perspective on the industry.
"Cheeta is a character who, unfortunately, believes very much in humanity," Lever tells Robert Smith. "He thinks he's a movie star, but in reality, he's a prisoner."
Lever says he prepared to write from a simian perspective by reading "a yard of books" on chimpanzees, including the work of primate researcher Jane Goodall.
But in the end, the character of Cheeta might best be described as a sort of cultural anthropologist — albeit one who attends orgies with Marlene Dietrich, crashes Douglas Fairbanks' car and bites Lupe Velez on the bottom.
Through it all, Cheeta remains a loyal companion to Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who played Tarzan in 12 films and who Lever describes as a "wonderful guy with an unhappy life."
Weissmuller "had six marriages, he was bankrupted — probably by his very close friend and business associate — and he ended up a very sad man in Acapulco in his 80s," says Lever. "But he really was just a big, happy, lovable, innocent kid, and that was a nice story to tell, via Cheeta, who was deeply in love with both Tarzan and Weissmuller."
In the book, Cheeta's affections do not extend to Maureen O'Sullivan, the actress who plays Jane and who, the chimp believes, is his competition for Tarzan's affection. But Lever says the real conflict of the book isn't with the actress.
"Cheeta doesn't understand that what he's up against is time; he thinks he's up against Jane," says Lever. "America grows up learning about time through the decay of Johnny Weissmuller's torso — until in 1948 you have a middle aged man running around playing Tarzan in the movies ... which is very sad."