Santa Barbara, Calif. — A lifelong involvement with the media has inured me to surprises. Or so I thought, until last summer when I started living with the ghost of a famous chimpanzee.
Some three decades ago, a pair of young screenwriters whipped up a tale of a college professor who, for purposes of demonstrating the unimportance of heredity, raised a chimp like a human child. The fledgling authors had visions of Cary Grant as the professor, delivering their satiric bon mots with his usual devastating precision.
However, their opus wound up on the Universal lot, where it was assigned to the studio's all-purpose leading man, an actor named Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a steady if unspectacular performer, quite lacking in Grant's dimpled charisma. The writers were crushed, their dreams of instant glory punctured. I know, because one of them was me.
But fellow-author Rafe Blau and I hadn't reckoned on Reagan's costar. The title role in "Bedtime for Bonzo" went to a precocious 5-year-old chimpanzee who , even before the picture finished shooting, was more popular than Reagan and Diana Lynn.
Visitors to Hollywood deserted Laurence Olivier to descend on the "Bonzo" set. The chimp's 14-minute struggle with a vacuum cleaner (a victory for Bonzo, on points) was hailed as the longest continuous "take" ever achieved by an animal actor. His air-conditioned bungalow was lovingly photographed, his dietician and special makeup man subjected to lengthy interviews.
The movie itself was, to no one's surprise, a box office bonanza. Bonzo won a "Patsy" statue -- the animal equivalent of the Oscar -- and a sequel was promptly launched.
In "Bonzo Goes to College," the chimp enrolled at Yale, where he pulled the Big Game out of the fire with a prodigious 70-yard pass (Bonzo was credited at the time with having the intelligence of a human 8-year-old, which presumably qualified him for the Yale backfield). However, Ronald Reagan did not accompany his little colleague to the playing fields of New Haven (whether by choice of the actor or the studio remains one of those knotty issues best left to future historians).
Slow dissolve to indicate the passage of time. The two young writers have become older writers, with various laurels including a Christopher Award for the screenplay of "Fear Strikes Out." Bonzo has departed this mortal plane. The former utility actor has risen to the governorship of California. And "Bedtime for Bonzo," while cherished by a handful of late-show TV faithful and enjoying a cultish vogue on certain college campuses, has largely faded from the public consciousness.
Enter the 1980 presidential campaign. With Ronald Reagan emerging as Republican front-runner, faint echoes of Bonzo are heard. Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show, whose producer was the director of "Bedtime for Bonzo," has never quite abandoned the chimp; in July, as the Republicans convene in Detroit, a delegate holds up a gigantic (and, as it turns out, prophetic) sign proclaiming "Bedtime for Jimmy." The Democrats counter from New York in August with advertising posters from the original film, and accompanying jibes at Reagan's B-movie background.
In editorial cubicles, ears go up. Americans like a spot of fun with their politics, and the Carter-Reagan confrontation gives promise of being less than sparkling. Old files are consulted. In Canada, where Rafe Blau lives, a commentator on national TV explains learnedly that Reagan shared the spotlight with a chimp in "Bonzo Goes to College." Rafe writes the network a brief note setting the record straight. He is invited to Toronto to enlighten the public in person -- and Bonzomania is on its way.
Rafe confesses in the Washington Start that Bonzo lives on "in a remote corner of my mind called San Simian." He further reports that Bonzo has tender memories of his beloved "Uncle Ronnie," and that the chimp, while denying vice- presidential ambitions, would not be averse to "an ambassadorship to a banana republic."
Picking up on this whimsy, I improvise for a newswoman friend an exclusive sign-language "interview" with Bonzo, assertedly discovered living in seclusion on my balcony in Santa Barbara. Her story portrays Bonzo as a primate senior citizen pursuing the California good life of jogging, meditation, and health foods.He is said to recall Uncle Ronnie as being very sure-footed for a human, "able to turn quickly, especially to the right."
Other newspaper people, perhaps in flight from campaign oratory, plunge gleefully into the Bonzo game. The Republican candidate himself starts clowning with a stuffed-chimp "mascot" aboard his campaign plane.
At this point we are reminded by Rafe's son that our original contract with Universal gave us commercial rights to the Bonzo character. Rafe trundles down to New York and enlists the services of the International Licensing Associates. Within two weeks Bonzo licenses have been snapped up by poster and T-shirt manufacturers, followed by makers of belts, buckles, suspenders, baseball caps, and novelty giftware. This triggers a new spate of feature stories, editorial cartoons, and media coverage. Between photographs for a magazine in Japan, I do a telephone interview with the London Telegraph and a live broadcast over the Australian National Radio. The Paris Herald reports that "L'Heure du Dodo de Bonzo" is the most popular movie on French TV.
Rafe and I decide that Bonzo deserves a 1980 incarnation. After a diligent talent search, we come up in northern California with Bonzo III, a putative grandnephew of the 1950s star. People magazine runs a two-page spread on the chimp and his perpetrators; NBC-TV invites us all to New York for a Christmas Eve appearance on the "Tomorrow" show. The licensing lineup spreads to embrace a major toy company sleeping bags, a line of children's clothes, and a syndicated comic strip expected to feature Bonzo as a wisdom- dispensing "elder stateschimp," a kind of cross between Henry Kissinger and Will Rogers.
And I find myself wondering what would have happened if we hadm landed Cary Grant as our iconoclastic professor 30 years ago. Obviously, we would not be in our present situation.
Then again -- Cary Grant might be president.