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Excerpt: 'Me, Cheeta'

On my last day in motion pictures I found myself at the top of a monkey-puzzle tree in England, helping to settle a wager between that marvelous light comedian and wit Rex Harrison and his wife, the actress Rachel Roberts, and thinking, This is gonna look great in the obituaries, isn't it? Fell out of a fucking tree. This was in '66, during a day off from filming my supposed comeback picture, Fox's disastrous megaflop Doctor Dolittle, with Dickie Attenborough and Rex. We were on the grounds of some stately home in the charming village of Castle Combe in County Wiltshire, some time after a heavy lunch.

Rex was convinced that the tree would puzzle me. Rachel thought I'd be able to work it out. Arriving at the terms of the bet had not been easy. How exactly was I to demonstrate my mastery of this cryptic plant?

"You ought to let it start at the top, and then it's got an incentive to climb down," said Lady Combe. Servants were ordered to fetch a ladder. She was delighted at the success of her party. "This is exciting. Is it always so much fun with you film folk?"

"Now then, Cheeta," said Rachel, holding a pack of cigarettes very close to my face. "You see these Player's? They'll be waiting at the bottom for you. You understand? Yummy cigarettes. Don't you dare let me down."

"Darling, I've just had rather a splendid idea," said Rex. "Why don't we forget the money? If the monkey makes it you can sleep with Burton, if he'll have you, and if it doesn't, then I can divorce you but you have to promise not to kill yourself."

"Getting nervous, Rex?"

"Au contraire, my sweet. Let's call it two thousand."

"Oh dear," said Lady Combe." Is something the matter?"

"Yes," said Rex." Your cellar is atrocious."

Rex and I had had a number of differences on the set, but nothing you wouldn't expect to see between a couple of stars pushing a script in different directions. Far from being the coward and sadist Rachel frequently described him as, Rex was, somewhere beneath the caustic exterior he had designed to conceal his vulnerabilities, a good man and a very special human being. Nonetheless I'd been upset to have every one of my off-the-cuff contributions vetoed. This interminable "Talk to the Animals" song had already taken us a week. Perhaps I was a little rusty — I hadn't worked in movies for almost twenty years — but Rex had nixed every one of the backflips or handstands I'd been trying to liven it up with. So I was pretty keen to get this tree climbed. Plus I wanted the cigarettes — and, anyway, I wasn't about to be outwitted by a tree.

But the French call them "monkey's despair." From a distance, each limb had appeared invitingly fuzzy, furred like a pipe cleaner or the interior of Rex's arteries, but as soon as I grasped one I discovered that the thing was made entirely out of horrible spiky triangular leaves, more like scales than leaves. Unfortunately, Rachel had already ordered the ladder to be removed and I could do nothing but cling to the crown of the tree, slapping my head with one hand and communicating via some screaming, which required little translation, that I was perfectly happy to let Rex have the money.

"Don't make such a fuss, Cheeta! It's just getting adjusted," Rachel assured the little crowd, as I tried cautiously to inch down that torture chamber of a tree for her. But it really was impossible. The French were right. The English name had led me to believe that the tree would be no more than some mildly diverting brainteaser, the chimpanzee equivalent of the Sunday crossword — but this was a puzzle only in the sense that being violently assaulted by a plant is, yeah, a somewhat puzzling experience. Fucking typical English understatement.

"I rather think," Rex commented, "you owe me two thousand pounds."

"Don't go off half-cocked, darling, like you always do ... It's only been up there a minute."

Jesus, was that all?

"Don't be absurd, you drunken bitch. It's stuck."

"You're not welching me out of this one, Rexy-boy," I heard Rachel say. "I never expected it to start climbing right away. You just hold your damn horses."

"Now, Rachel, please, it's perfectly clear the poor animal's in distress," I heard another voice interject. Oh, great: Dickie. "The pair of you should be ashamed. Lady Combe, can we please please please get that ladder back up? This is quite frightful!"

"You touch that ladder, Lady Whatsyourface," Rex said, "and I promise you, there'll be tears before bedtime. Nobody touch that bloody ladder! My pathetic shell of a wife is making a point. Dickie, do piss off and stop blubbering."

"Thank you, darling," said Rachel.

"You're welcome, darling," said Rex.

They weren't all that much fun to be around, Rex and Rachel, it does have to be said. I'd never liked the goddamn English anyway, with their razor-wire elocution, their total lack of humor and their godawful pedantic spelling. I clung on, cheeping in distress and swaying eighty feet above the ground. This had all begun a week ago, as we were embarking on Rex's endless song, which I don't think he believed in any longer. He regularly punctuated "Talk to the Animals" with violent outbursts of animal-related abuse. He was failing to cope with the toupée-munching goat, the parrot that kept shouting "Cut," and the general incompetence of the inexperienced English animals, and he was beginning to take it out on me.

"I don't mind the bloody ducks and the sheep," he'd complained after we'd abandoned shooting for the day again, "so much as this monkey trying to upstage me all the time."

This was distressing to hear. I'd been lucky to get the job after two decades of stage work and it was important to keep my co-star happy. I accepted Rachel's half-offered cigarette and demonstrated one of my old standbys, the amusingly raffish side-of-mouth exhalation. But Rex was unappeased.

"And now it's pinching your fags," he said, "or did you do that deliberately? Is it that time of the afternoon already?"

"What an absolutely irresistible charmer you are, my sweet," said Rachel. "I was just thinking how much it resembled you, though it's still got all its own hair, hasn't it? I expect it can still get it up, too."

From this point on, Rachel began to refer to me as Little Rexy — "Ooh, look! Little Rexy's smelling his own poo!" — and would then make references to my superior intellect, charm, personal appearance, talent, virility and odor, which of course were the last things the universally despised, impotent, alcoholic, cruel, vain, brittle, snobbish and mephitic but still, under that carapace of protective acerbity, very gentle and insecure human being Rex needed to have rubbed in.

Meanwhile, he was oscillating between this rather threatening fantasy of buttonholing various exotic creatures on obscure subjects and straightforward abuse of animals. "If this unspeakable fucking shit of a goat touches my hairpiece again, I'll rip its throat out," he'd say in his inimitably crusty manner, and then he'd be off again, wearing his "gentle" face, with his unlikely plan to set up a multispecies salon —

I'd expatiate on Plato with a platypus

On sex I would talk man to manta ray

I'd discuss dialectical materialism with a micro-organism

I'd enquire of an echidna if Picasso were passé . . .

and on and on. I mean, this song of Rex's was endless —

Oh, how I yearn to yack with yaks in Yakkish Or interrogate a fruit bat about Freud

I'd like to natter with some gnats in Gnattish

I'd harangue orang-utans about the Void . . .

Ostensibly a beautiful dream, it missed the point. Nothing needs to be said. There is no need for humanity to put its love for animals into words, no need for further explanation or apology. We understand each other perfectly. And besides, Rex's idea raised the nightmarish possibility of animals having to participate in the sort of "sophisticated" discussions the unbelievable Chaplin used to host in Beverly Hills, with unfortunate fauna being hounded for their opinions on the latest Eugene O'Neill, etc. Jesus, that poor fruit bat, I thought. If Rex got onto Freud, he'd be there all night, hearing about how bizarre it was that so many of Rex's girlfriends had killed themselves, or tried to: I saw Rex touring the remaining forests of the planet agonising to unwary wildebeests at the water hole about, for instance, his failure to call an ambulance when his lover Carole Landis killed herself with Seconal because he wanted to keep the affair quiet. Then turning on some warthogs and screaming that they were shits who didn't have half the money or talent he did. I could hear him now (nobody could get the song out of their heads) below me: "Oh silly little clever little monkey /You're going to plummet to your death in just a tick / tum-ti-tum-ti-tum, stick it up your bum / tah-ti-tah-ti-uh ... ick, ick, uh ... " Sadi-stic?

Belatedly I understood the full horror of the situation. It had been my co-star Rex who had made the suggestion that I accompany the other leads to Combe Hall. It was he who had floated the swattable second serve of a notion to Rachel that "If the monkey's so much cleverer than I am, then surely it should be able to climb that tree..."

Or was I being paranoid? Ask Carole Landis if I was being paranoid. Oh, what larks!

I heard Dickie sniveling eighty feet below ("This is all very upsetting!") and Rex cleverly setting up his mentally ill wife to take the blame ("Satisfied, darling? Shall we bring it down yet?"). I swayed above them all on the boneless branches that bit my hands and feet and looked out over the pretty fields of County Wiltshire. I watched the shadows of low, flat-bottomed clouds pass across the rain-spoiled wheat, like paranoid fantasies through Veronica

Lake's vodka-sodden mind, and saw them dissolve into a gray mass, becoming a black line at the horizon, reminding me of an unfortunate snake I once knew. England — where chimps meant tea. Somewhere out there was Jane, if she was still alive, tough as old boots, crow-footed but trim, and ferocious about the rent. Maybe Lady Combe was Jane? And Boy, too, who'd ended up in England. He was probably somewhere across the fields — a part-time film producer with his hand between the thighs of the filly he was taking down to see Ma in the MG.

I once knew a man who did talk to the animals. All he'd ever needed was a single word.

Well, in attempting to inch closer to the trunk where the branches were thicker, I jabbed my palm, lost my grip, tried again and grasped nothing. I fell. Ho-hum. Death. I had no business being here anyway. You hear a lot of crap on the Discovery Channel these days about animals making a comeback. Take it from me: don't bother, you can't ever come back. It was a terrible movie and I wasn't any good in it. I descended and bumped into my first ever memory on the way: Stroheim! Hadn't thought about him in years!

I carried on plummeting through the tree's interior and, though I had no say in it, my fall was broken by several instinctive grabs, not so painful at that speed. It must have looked pretty good, I imagine, as I looped in three or four swings through the branches to land on my feet — ta-dah! — next to the pack of Player's. The audience in the garden was startled into the first real applause I'd heard in a long time. I, of course, looked nonchalant and helped myself to a cigarette. What do you think about that, Rex?

He looked like a guy who'd just lost two thousand "quid," to utilize a little Limey-speak.But he was only a weakling and a bully and a near-murderer, scumbag, self-pitier, miser, liar, ass and oaf on the outside — who isn't? Somewhere on the inside there was a decent human being. Oh, all right: Rex Harrison was an absolutely irredeemable cunt who tried to murder me — but still, you have to try to forgive people, no matter what. Otherwise we'd be back in the jungle.

I forgive you, Rex.

Anyway, I was unsurprised and quite relieved when I found out that evening that they didn't need me any longer. Rex had had a word. And that, folks, was the end of that.

Excerpted from Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood by James Lever. Published in March 2009 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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Cheeta, with James Lever