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October 16, 1994|Sharon Whitley

For more than 30 years, from Florida to New Jersey and now to Encinitas, Mr. Winters and Mr. Jiggs have been roommates. They've shared the ups and downs of show biz, even the breakup of a marriage.

An eduring friendship--but a weird one: Meet Ronald Winters, human, and Mr. Jiggs, chimp.

The two met in 1964 when Winters was importing animals in Florida "before the Endangered Species Act"--and had a chance to get a baby chimp. "I really loved him right away, because he was so nice," says Winters, 60. Winters named him Mr. Jiggs after the comic character in Maggie and Jiggs, and moved him in with his family.

Once he saw that Mr. Jiggs seemed to have a theatrical knack, Winters traded the import biz for show biz, and took a shot at show biz. He and Mr. Jiggs were soon performing in skits on such shows as the Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas shows, not to mention thousands of other, lower profile gigs.

These days, though, they are in semi-retirement, though Mr. Jiggs still does the occasional bar mitzvahs, cocktail and birthday parties. "We do one or two a month," says Winters. "He likes to do them because he gets champagne and ice cream that he usually doesn't get at home."

Jiggs, 31, is 4 feet tall and weighs 150 pounds; he could live to be about 60. He sleeps on a double bed in his own room. "I can tell when he's ready for bed," says Winters. "He takes a sheet, smoothes it out, then pulls it up over him like a security blanket." Should nature nature call, Jiggs will get up, turn on the bathroom light, use the toilet, flush, turn out the light, and return to bed. "He's like a 5-year-old kid," says Winters.

He even has his own TV set and loves watching animal shows--"or cowboys and Indians: He likes action shows."

The "basically vegetarian" chimp uses a spoon and fork ("he doesn't like to get his fingers sticky") for more formal meals. He's even sat at linen-covered tables in train dining cars, politely partaking. "He's never been refused service," says Winters. "He's the perfect customer--he never complains."

However, Jiggs has not always been the perfect roomie: "I came home late one night and found him sitting in the middle of my king-size bed with creme de cacao soaked in the mattress," Winters sighs. "I lock up the liquor now."

The two enjoy camping once a month in Winters' motorhome (yes, Jiggs buckles up too). "Jiggs will put his hand out the window and pawn a Coke or beer from other campers," says Winters, who's divorced and keeps baby photos of Jiggs on his fireplace mantel, next to those of his son, Ken, now 19.

"Jiggs has learned to live in civilization," he adds. "He understands the world he lives in." Which is more than you can say for most of us.

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