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Life Has Been Lucrative for Don McLeod Since a Luggage Company Made a Monkey Out of Him

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He flies first-class. Limousines whisk him to appearances before throngs. After wrapping a cameo in Steve Martin’s forthcoming flick, The Man With Two Brains, on the Coast, he barely pauses to rewind his message machine before jetting into the Big Apple to join Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd on the set of Trading Places. He figures to pull down six figures this year. No doubt about it. Don McLeod is one hot gorilla.

Monkeyshines are nothing new for McLeod, a 34-year-old professional mime who has performed with Diana Ross and toured in a one-man show in which he impersonates entire jungles and barnyards. But it wasn’t until he donned a gorilla suit in 1980 and began bashing suitcases in American Tourister commercials that the world became McLeod’s banana. Tourister pays him $5,000 to $7,000 per spot, not to mention residuals. He also makes $1,500 a day for personal appearances, thumping his chest before admiring crowds that include women who occasionally deposit mash notes in his maw like letters in a mailbox. “Hi, you hairy macho guy,” read one. “Meet me in the coffee shop at two.” Says Don, who has been going with a Chilean dancer named Macarena for the past nine years, “I never show up.”

Simulating a simian isn’t all glamour. His ponderous rubber feet have gotten stuck in escalator treads and once jammed a gas pedal, causing a car he was test-driving for a film sequence to swerve into traffic (fortunately, no one was hurt). The suit itself is a 20-pound foam, fur and fiberglass monstrosity that takes half an hour to wriggle into. The first time McLeod donned it, his immediate impulse was to scream, “My God, get me out of here!” Since then “self-hypnosis” has kept him calm—if not cool.

Shooting a movie in sweltering Puerto Rico in 1979, he was temporarily paralyzed from heat prostration and almost died. “Now I know when I start seeing stars and tiny black spots,” he says, “I have four minutes to get the head off.” Tourister trains an industrial fan on his face during mandatory “head breaks,” and he also gets time off for a “three-banana-daiquiri lunch.” Even so, during a day in the gorilla get-up, McLeod’s trim 5’7½”, 145-pound frame sheds up to seven pounds.

The adopted son of a farmer and a schoolteacher in Alberta, Canada, McLeod moved to tiny (pop. 250) Manchester, Calif. with his family when he was 5. An only child, he “played cowboy and Indian,” developing the ‘ “vivid imagination” that later led him to the Pasadena Playhouse and a fine arts degree from the United States International University in San Diego.

Now writing a book about going ape, McLeod has joined an adoptees’ rights organization and is searching for his birth parents. “Maybe I’ll find out my mother was a gorilla in the Miami zoo,” he jokes, “and she gave me away.” Mom, if she’s out there, will have to be a forgiving sort.