It was claimed yesterday that Cheetah made his first appearance in Tarzan and His Mate in 1934, and later went on to appear in a dozen films about the jungle hero.
The spokesman said it was “with great sadness that the community has lost a dear friend and family member on December 24”.
She said: “Cheetah, the star of the Tarzan films, passed away after kidney failure during the week of December 19.”
Debbie Cobb, the director of the sanctuary, said the chimp had loved to finger paint and watch football as it grew older. Some of the artwork, dubbed “ap-stract” paintings, was sold to fans. “He was very compassionate”, Mrs Cobb said. “He could tell if I was having a good day or a bad day. He was always trying to get me to laugh if he thought I was having a bad day. He was very in tune to human feelings.”
Ron Priest, a volunteer at the sanctuary which has looked after Cheetah since the 1960s, said: “When he didn’t like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it at them. He could get you at 30 feet with bars in between.”
Cheetah belonged to a golden age of animal film stars, with audiences flocking to see Rin Tin Tin, Champion the Wonder Horse, Lassie and cowboy Roy Roger’s faithful mount Trigger.
The Tarzan films, based on the works of author Edgar Rice Burroughs and chronicling the adventures of a man raised by apes in Africa, proved hugely popular with audiences from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Weissmuller, an Olympic swimmer-turned actor who died in 1984, aged 79, played the role of Tarzan, while Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane, died aged 87 in 1998.
Alongside O’Sullivan, Cheetah quickly became an established co-star as Weismuller’s comic foil, often warning the vine-swinging Tarzan of lurking dangers and leaping to his rescue.
But there have long been doubts about the real identity of the chimpanzee that played the role. According to film experts, 10 chimps starred in the Tarzan movies and a number of owners have vied to have their chimps recognised as the genuine movie-star.
The owner of another ape purported to be the film star, which was named Cheeta, claimed he smuggled the chimp out of Liberia aboard a PanAm flight in 1932, hiding the newborn primate inside his overcoat.
But in 2008 the animal’s biographer, American journalist Richard Rosen, discovered the cigar-smoking ape was in fact born in 1960 and had never been in a Tarzan film.
The case inspired James Lever, a British writer, to create a spoof biography of Cheeta, highlighting the improbably nature of the story.
“Nobody seems to know very much about the chimps who played Cheetah. I rather think he’ll be dying a lot over the next few years,” he said last night. The most likely 'real’ Cheetah was a chimpanzee named Jiggs, who died of pneumonia in 1938 and is buried in Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park. He is believed to have starred in the first two Weissmuller Tarzan films.