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An Encounter With the Animals Out in the TV Advertising Jungle

November 19, 1987|HOWARD MANN | Mann is an actor and writer who lives in Van Nuys. This episode occurred in New York and has no relation to the recent investigation in Los Angeles of allegations that chimpanzees were beaten during the filming of "Project X" at 20th Century Fox

Actors aren't the only ones in show business with troubles. Animals have their share of woes, too.

I learned this when I did a TV commercial for a suntan lotion. I played the part of Tarzan, a big surprise to me, considering the nature of my physique. The only other character in the commercial was Tarzan's trusty pal Cheetah.

When I reported to the set, the assistant director handed me the standard Tarzan outfit--loin cloth, club and fright wig. He told me to relax for a while, saying, "We have to wait for the chimp. I hear he's always late."

An hour later, the chimpanzee made his entrance. All he needed was Ginger Rogers. He was dressed with top hat, white tie and tails, apparently his garb for traveling to work.

His trainer--a short, round, muscular man, introduced us.

"Tarzan, I'd like you to meet your Cheetah. His real name is Mister Kokomo. Mister Kokomo say hello to Tarzan." The ape put out his right hand and curled his fingers around my thumb and tugged on it.

"Mister Kokomo likes you," the trainer said. "If he likes you, he'll work with you."

After Mister Kokomo shed his tails and looked as nature intended, the director gave us the briefing.

"Tarzan, you're out in the sun all day, gathering coconuts for dinner. You come home with a terrific sunburn. Mister Kokomo picks up the aerosol can and sprays the suntan cream on your back. You feel immediate relief. You break out with a big smile and you say, 'Good Cheetah, make my day.' "

He called the trainer over and said: "Make sure Kokomo sprays Tarzan's back. And tell him not to put his hand over the name of the product. We must see the name."

"No problem," the trainer said. "Koko is a pro. He's done 20 commercials and five features. He's up for a series, too."

The director called "Action!," the camera rolled, Mister Kokomo pressed the button on the can. The only problem was he missed my back and sprayed me in the face.

"Cut!" the director hollered. "In the back, Kokomo, in the back!"

We did another take. Again the ape missed my back. This time he got me in the chest. The trainer ran over to the chimp. "Please Koko, spray Tarzan in the back." He slapped me on the back. "See here, the back."

Eight takes later, Mister Kokomo finally hit my back. The trainer beamed. He handed the chimp a sugar cube and kissed him. "Wonderful Koko, wonderful," he said.

"It wasn't wonderful," the director said. "His hand hid the name of the product. I told you, we've got to see the name. What do you think we're selling?"

"You're right," the trainer said. "Don't worry. He'll get it." He kneeled and faced the chimp. "Look, Koko, don't hide the name, OK? That's what they're selling." He picked up the can and demonstrated what he meant. "Hold the can like this. Don't hide the name."

It entered my mind that if the chimpanzee could comprehend this essential of American advertising, he would have to be a genius among apes. Darwin would have flipped out.

Three hours and 40 takes later, Mister Kokomo was still obscuring the name of the product. The director was foaming at the mouth. The trainer was tearing his hair out. I was counting my overtime pay.

The trainer stomped over to the chimp. He looked Kokomo full in the face and yelled, "What the hell are you, a wise guy? A lousy creep of a wise guy?"

He grabbed the frightened chimp by the hand and yanked him out of sight behind some bushes. A moment later, I heard a resounding whack, then a whimper. Then another whack and a bigger whimper. Finally, a loud, crashing whack and a series of heart-rending moans.

They emerged, Mister Kokomo looking completely whipped. Gone was his cockiness. His shoulders were slumped. His eyes looked pained and teary. How human he seemed.

Everyone stopped to stare at the trainer. He felt compelled to explain what he had done.

"You gotta remember: These are animals. You can't be too nice to them. They don't understand that. You have to show them who's boss, see?"

It was too much for me. I walked up to him, shook my finger in his face and said, "Just keep your mouth shut. I don't want to hear another word, understand?"

"Let's get on with it," the director said.

We shot the scene three more times. Mister Kokomo finally got it right. He sprayed me on the back. He didn't hide the name of the product.

"It's a wrap," the director said. "Thank God."

After I changed my clothes, I went over to the chimp and extended my hand. His grip was warm and sure.

"It was nice working with you, Mister Kokomo," I said.

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