Chimpanzees, along with gorillas and orangutans, are our closest relatives among all the animals on the planet. Chimps are intelligent, artistic, emotional, and so darn cute! On the other hand, you could say that about human movie and TV stars. But chimpanzees have some extra advantages in entertainment: they are small, they look funny dressed as humans because of the relative size and shape of their arms and legs, and they have few inhibitions. Plus, they don't demand large salaries or champagne in their dressing rooms!
Tarzan's sidekick was a chimpanzee named Cheeta, but only in the movies. The books by Edgar Rice Burroughs never mentioned him, or any other chimp for that matter. The character Cheeta first appeared in the 1932 Johnny Weismuller movie Tarzan the Ape Man. Beginning with the third Tarzan movie, Tarzan Escapes in 1936, Cheeta was played by a chimp originally named Jiggs who appeared in a dozen Tarzan movies as Cheeta, and a couple more as a nameless chimpanzee. The simian actor eventually became known by the name Cheeta, even when he was playing other characters. His last film role was in Dr. Doolittle in 1967. Cheeta celebrated his 75th birthday on April 9, 2007! The above picture shows Cheeta enjoying a birthday message from Jane Goodall. He even has his own MySpace page.
Future US president Ronald Reagan starred in Bedtime for Bonzo in 1951. Reagan played a professor who attempts to teach Bonzo morality as an experiment. Bonzo was played by a chimp named Peggy. Yes, Bonzo was a girl! She reprised the role in the 1953 sequel, Bonzo Goes to College.
More chimps, in chronological order, after the jump.
3. J. Fred Muggs
It's hard to believe The Today Show has been on the air for 56 years. When the show debuted in 1952 with host Dave Garroway, it wasn't an immediate hit. On January 28, 1953, Garroway got a sidekick, a baby chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. Muggs would play the piano, pretend to read the paper, and participate in skits. He was the first animal regular on a live TV show. Muggs appeared regularly through 1957, and made The Today Show a hit with viewers and advertisers. You can see a video of J. Fred Muggs upstaging Gene Rayburn on a game show.
4. Ham the Astrochimp
Ham was the first chimpanzee in space. He was trained to do simple operations (such as pushing a button in reaction to a light) as part of the Mercury Project. Ham blasted off into space on January 31st, 1961 from Cape Canaveral aboard the MR2 capsule. His suborbital flight lasted less than 17 minutes, but he completed the tasks he was trained to do, proving that such tasks would be possible for a human in space. Alan Shepherd's historic flight aboard the Freedom 7 followed three months later. Ham retired to the National Zoo in Washington, and also lived at the North Carolina Zoo before he died in 1983.
5. Lancelot Link
Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp was a Saturday morning children's series that ran on ABC from 1970 to 1972. It was a parody of spy shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the James Bond films. Chimpanzees played all the characters, with human voices overdubbed. Lancelot was a secret agent working for A.P.E. (Agency to Prevent Evil). He also headed a band called The Evolution Revolution, which enabled the show to include musical numbers. Some can be seen on YouTube.
BJ and the Bear aired on NBC-TV from 1979 to 1981. The series starred Greg Evigan as BJ, a truck driver who traveled with his chimpanzee named Bear. The show has an online fan club, with episode guides, photos, and cast information.
At the height of his career in 1985, Michael Jackson adopted a chimpanzee he named Bubbles. Bubbles had previously lived at a research facility in Texas. The chimp accompanied Jackson to press conferences, recording sessions, and even award shows. Jackson and the chimp parted ways when Bubbles' behavior became hard to handle. Bubbles was later found living on an animal ranch in Slymar, California, where he is reported to be doing fine.
The most popular chimpanzee active in the media today is Pankun, a regular on two TV shows in Japan, Tensai! Shimura Doubutsu-en (Genius! Shimura Zoo) on NTV and Doubutsu Kisou Tengai! (Unbelievable Animals) on TBS. He is often seen doing very human things, such as riding a train or fishing with his dog, James.