"Oliver screamed very loud, because he was frightened," Miller told me. "It was very disturbing to me then. It disturbs me to think about it now." Miller himself was growing increasingly uncomfortable on the Japan tour. Far from rescuing Oliver from the life of a circus freak, he appeared to have delivered the animal onto a bigger stage, over which he was losing control. Miller said that the final blow came during a televised press conference, when it was announced that a young and attractive Japanese actress had offered to mate with Oliver and to allow the act to be recorded in the interests of science. "Japan was a fiasco," he said. "It was the beginning of the end for me. In fact it was the end of the end."
When Miller got back to the United States, he started looking around for a place to unload his missing link. He ended up giving Oliver away to an animal trainer in California named Ralph Helfer, on the condition that Helfer take care of Oliver for life. Miller had owned him for less than a year.
To people in the animal-entertainment business, Ralph Helfer is a legend. In the 1960s he ran a thriving enterprise called Africa USA, which for a while met virtually all of Hollywood's wild-animal needs—big cats, elephants, bears, chimps, and other exotic species. All received what Helfer called "affection training," which purported to replace the whip, gun, and chair of the old-school handlers with love, understanding, and respect. Africa USA fell on hard times, however, and by the fall of 1976, when he acquired Oliver from Michael Miller, Helfer was running a theme park off Interstate 5 called Enchanted Village, which also provided animals to the motion-picture industry.
"Lots of people came to see him," Helfer told me recently, over breakfast in Newport Beach, California, not far from one of his offices. "The Bigfoot people came. They brought tents and literally camped around his cage. We had primate-research people come—good ones. There wasn't anybody who walked away without saying 'We don't know what he is.' Everybody had their ideas, but nobody ever resolved it."
Helfer told me some things about Oliver I hadn't heard yet: that his fingernails were long, "like a woman's," and that he would peel grapes before popping them into his mouth. Chimps urinate anywhere, he said, but Oliver would only go directly into the drain in the floor of his cage, standing up and holding his penis like a gentleman. "I don't think he was a missing link," Helfer said, "but something happened back there in the forest. This was not a chimpanzee."
Enchanted Village went bankrupt in 1977, and Helfer opened another animal park, called Gentle Jungle; that business, too, ran into trouble, and eventually folded. Helfer gave Oliver to one of his trainers, Ken Decroo, who had started his own exotic-animal rental company. By this time Oliver was doing a little work in front of the camera, though he was not particularly good at it. I recently met Decroo, who told me that Oliver hated being ordered to do things, and did not react well at all to being rushed. If a director, setting up a shot, started screaming at him, Oliver would become even more unmanageable. There was also the problem of the mutual animosity between Oliver and other chimpanzees. Decroo said that the only person other than himself who could really handle Oliver was Bill Rivers, another Gentle Jungle trainer. Under their management Oliver and some other chimps were able to perform in a couple of television commercials, and in the animal equivalent of bit movie parts—the wild scenes, without actors around who might get hurt. Oliver's biggest role was in a Dick Clark TV show called Animals Are the Funniest People, where he played the President in a skit with Loretta Swit. But stage-managing Oliver was never easy.