An actor’s life is not a happy one. And that goes double, it seems, for actors of the non-human variety, even those who share 94 percent of their DNA with their fully bipedal co-stars. The latest celebrity chimpanzee to come to a sad end is Travis, who had appeared on US television on the Maury Povich Show, in clothing ads with Morgan Fairchild and in a TV pilot with Michael Moore and Sheryl Crow, and who was shot by police on Tuesday after he suddenly attacked his owner’s friend and could not be restrained.
It is rare that a chimp acting career ends well. Peggy, the first famous great ape (stop-motion gorillas atop Empire State Buildings excepted), suffered indignity from the start by being forced to assume the gender-inappropriate name Bonzo to star opposite Ronald Reagan in the 1951 film Bedtime for Bonzo. Peggy then languished and died in obscurity while her co-star went on to preside over the free world.
Then there was J Fred Muggs, a chimp more or less raised from infancy, proto-Truman Show-style, on the Today Show between 1953 and 1957. He became increasingly aggressive — though there were rumors that his jealous co-host aggravated this by spiking Muggs’ drink — and was finally dropped after allegedly biting guest Martha Raye. After a brief foray into fingerpainting, he is now said to be living quietly in Citrus Park, Florida.
And then there’s Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s pet. One can only guess how brief the sigh of relief was after he left his first home, a cancer-research laboratory, before he realized where he’d fetched up. Bubbles made several public appearances with his owner in Jackson’s heyday but in old age was exiled from the Neverland ranch (where Jackson apparently had several other chimps doing odd jobs and cleaning). For a long time, nothing was seen or heard of the long-suffering animal but rumors of his death turned out to be exaggerated.
He now lives on a ranch in Los Angeles and one suspects does not miss the showbiz lifestyle one little bit.
Tarzan’s Cheeta has perhaps fared best, if the autobiography he brought out last year, full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, is anything to go by. Which of course it isn’t, as (a) the role of Cheeta was assayed by numerous chimps over the years, and (b) none of them was literate. They all retired to various zoos and ranches and hopefully, in this marginally more enlightened age, we shall not have to rip their like from their natural habitat again.