Today it is rare that one sees a drama or even a comedy television series centred around an animal. There seem to be none on the broadcast networks, none on the many cable channels, and not even any of them on the streaming services. That having been said, there was a time when there were several shows with an animal as the main character. In the Sixties one could watch TV shows that starred a dog or a dolphin or a bear or even a kangaroo. Most of these shows were based on feature films that had also starred animals and most of them were produced by one man (more on him later). What is more, in the Sixties even shows on which humans were the main characters often had animals who played large roles on the shows.
Of course, animal shows were nothing new in the Sixties. They had been quite popular in the Fifties as well. Two shows centred on dogs debuted in 1954 alone. One was The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, which centred around a dog named for the canine star of the Silent Era. The other was Lassie, inspired by Eric Knight's novel Lassie Come Home and the six MGM feature films. Lassie would prove extremely popular and very durable, lasting an entire 19 seasons. There was no shortage of shows about horses in the Fifties, with Fury, The Adventures of Champion, and My Friend Flicka airing during the decade. Given the popularity of shows about animals in the Fifties, it should not be surprising that there would be a new cycle towards shows about animals in the Sixties.
Indeed, an argument could be made that the Fifties cycle towards animals shows ended even as the Fifties became the Sixties. National Velvet premiered in 1960. While the show technically starred Lori Martin as Velvet Brown, arguably her co-star was her thoroughbred horse named King. Two other shows about animals would debut in 1961, although both of them were sitcoms. The first was a classic still seen in reruns today. Mister Ed starred Bamboo Harvester as the horse of the title, who had a most unique ability: he could talk. While Mister Ed is fondly remembered today, the same cannot be said of the other sitcom to debut in 1961. The Hathaways starred the Marquis Chimps, who lived with a couple played by Peggy Cass and Jack Weston. Its ratings were so low that ABC had difficulty finding sponsors. Worse yet, The Hathaways received largely bad reviews. Today it is often counted among the worst shows of all time.
Like the animal show cycle of the Fifties, the cycle towards animal shows in the Sixties would begin with two shows about dogs. That having been said, the first was not American, but rather a Canadian import. The Littlest Hobo was based on an American film of the same name released by Allied Artist in 1958. Like The Littlest Hobo (1958), the TV series centred upon a German Shepherd who wanders from place to place helping people. In the series the dog was rarely named on screen, except for those times when the humans he befriended gave him one. Elsewhere the dog was always referred to as "Hobo".
Hobo was played by a reverse masked German Shepherd named London. London was cared for and trained by Charles P. Eisenmann, who had also served as the dog trainer on the 1958 feature film. While London played Hobo in most scenes, sometimes London's relatives (Toro, Litlon, and Thorn), also reverse masked German Shepherds, would also be called upon to play the wandering dog.
The Littlest Hobo debuted on September 24 1963 on CTV in Canada and was syndicated not only in the United States, but eventually around the world. It began airing on ITV in the United Kingdom in 1964 and still later it aired in West Germany in 1967. It ran for two seasons and 61 episodes. The Littlest Hobo was rebooted in 1979 by CTV. Charles P. Eisenmann was the trainer on the new series, on which various reverse masked German Shepherds played Hobo. According to Mr. Eisenmann in his book A Dog's Day in Court, one of them was indeed the grandson of London, who was also named "London". If anything the new show was more successful than the original. It ran for six seasons and 114 episodes.
The second show that sparked the cycle towards animal shows in the Sixties was not a new show, but rather one with a new format. When Lassie debuted in 1954 its format could easily be described as "a boy and his dog". For the first three years Lassie was the constant companion of young Jeff Miller and lived with the Millers on their farm. In 1957 Lassie became the canine companion of young Timmy Martin, the foster son of Ruth and Paul Martin. It was in 1964 that the format of Lassie was entirely changed. The Martins had to move to Australia and were unable to take Lassie with them, Lassie was then adopted by n by U.S. Forest Ranger Corey Stuart and would spend the next six years working with the United States Forest Service.
For the final season of Lassie on CBS the show changed formats once again. With no explanation as to why she was no longer working with forest rangers, Lassie was portrayed as wandering from place to place not unlike Hobo on The Littlest Hobo. CBS cancelled Lassie a the end of the 1970-1971 season as part of what has become infamously known as the Rural Purge, the mass cancellation of shows that appealed to rural areas, older people, or both. In the case of Lassie it would seem likely that the show was cancelled because it appealed primarily to children. Sadly, like rural people and older people, children are less desirable to television advertisers.
The cancellation did not end Lassie, however, as the show continued as a syndicated original for another two years. The show also saw another change in format. Lassie now became the companion of Garth Holden, who ran a home for orphaned boys called the Holden Ranch. Lassie ended its run in 1973 after nineteen years on the air. This makes Lassie the fourth longest running American prime-time TV show after The Simpsons, Gunsmoke, and Law & Order.
Regardless of its format, Lassie had a fairly strong connection to the movies produced by MGM. In the first few seasons Lassie was played by the same dog who had played her in the movies, a male collie named Pal. And, just as in the movies, Pal was cared for and trained by Rudd Weatherwax. For the rest of the run various descendants of Pal played Lassie. Rudd Weatherwax remained Lassie's trainer for the entirety of the show's run.
Of course, Lassie would be featured in other media after the cancellation of Lassie. In 1972 a Saturday morning cartoon, Lassie's Rescue Rangers, debuted. In 1978 the feature film The Magic of Lassie was released. From 1997 to 1999 a new TV series, The New Lassie, ran in syndication. In 1994 there was one more feature film, simply called Lassie, released.
A third show that sparked the cycle towards animal shows in the Sixties dealt not with a dog, but with a dolphin. Flipper was based on the 1963 feature film of the same name, and both were produced by Ivan Tors. The movie Flipper was released on August 14 1963. It proved successful enough that it was followed by a sequel, Flipper's New Adventure, released in June 1964. The TV show followed the sequel almost immediately, debuting on NBC on September 19 1964.
The TV show Flipper centred on the dolphin of the title, who befriends the family of a Park Ranger of the Coral Key Marine Preserve in the Florida Keys, Porter Ricks (played by Brian Kelly). The idea for the initial film was conceived by screenwriter and actor Ricou Browning (who had played the Gill-Man in Universal's Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels) when he observed his children watching Lassie. The story was fleshed out between Ricou Browning and Jack Cowden.
While in the TV series Flipper was male, he was actually played by a number of female dolphins. He was first played by a female named Susie, although a female named Kathy would take over the bulk of the role. Other females named Patty, Scotty, and Squirt also played Flipper from time to time. A male dolphin named Clown was used for those scenes in which Flipper did his famous tail walk. The reason Flipper relied primarily on female dolphins for the lead role is that they are less aggressive than females and generally do not bear the scars from fighting that male dolphins often do.
Flipper proved to be fairly successful, ranking no. 25 out of all the shows in prime time for the 1964-1965 season. It continued to perform fairly well in its second season, ranking no. 29 for the year. Its ratings fell in its third season and it did not rank in the top thirty that year. It was cancelled at the end of the season. Regardless, it did very well in syndication and can still be seen from time to time on television, as well as streaming. A new series, known both as Flipper and Flipper--The New Adventures, aired from 1995 to 2000 in first run syndication and on the network Pax. A new movie, Flipper, was released in 1996.
Aside from its lasting success, the TV show Flipper would have a lasting impact in another way. Ric O'Barry had served as the chief trainer for the dolphins on the TV series. After the death of Kathy, the dolphin who most often played Flipper, from what he believed to be suicide, in early 1970, Mr. O'Barry became an activist advocating against keeping dolphins in captivity. He founded The Dolphin Project, an organisation dedicated to the protection and welfare of dolphins.
The success of The Littlest Hobo, Lassie in its new format, and Flipper guaranteed that the networks would debut more shows featuring animals in the next few seasons. What is more, a majority of those shows would be produced by Ivan Tors. Ivan Tors had first met with success in the Fifties with fact-based science fiction movies such as The Magnetic Monster (1951), Riders to the Stars (1954), and Gog (1954). He entered television with the syndicated anthology series Science Fiction Theatre in 1955. He would have a hit with the syndicated action adventure series Sea Hunt in 1958, and also produced the shows The Aquanauts and Man and the Challenge. The success of both the movie and the TV show Flipper marked the path Ivan Tors's career would take for the rest of the Sixties, as a producer of TV shows centred around animals. Ivan Tors would generally produce a movie based around an animal, which would be followed very shortly by a TV show based on the movie.
This was certainly the case with his next series, Daktari. In 1965 Ivan Tors's movie Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion was released. The film was centred around a veterinary hospital in East Africa with a very unique pet, a cross-eyed lion named Clarence. Ivan Tors had based the idea for both the film and the TV show on the work of veterinarian Dr. Antonie Marinus Harthoorn, who operated an animal orphanage in Kenya. Like the film, Daktari centred on a veterinary clinic, the fictional Wameru Study Centre for Animal Behaviour, in East Africa. In fact, the title is the Swahili word for "doctor". The show starred Marshall Thompson as Dr. Marsh Tracy and Cheryl Miller as his daughter Paula. That having been said, the real stars of the show were the lion Clarence and the chimpanzee Judy.
Just as Flipper on the TV show of the same name was played by multiple dolphins, Clarence was played by more than one lion. Clarence played Clarence most of the time (the actor's name was the same as the character's), but unfortunately Clarence was frightened by any sort of vehicle. In those scenes with vehicles present, then, a lion named Leo was used. At the time Leo was the lion appearing in the MGM logos of the time. Yet another, much less gentle lion also named Leo was used for those scenes in which Clarence was called upon to growl or snarl. Judy the Chimp had previously appeared in the Disney film The Monkey's Uncle (1965) and would guest star on Lost in Space and other shows while she was still on Daktari.
Daktari debuted on January 11 1966 on CBS. It proved to be very popular, ranking no. 14 for the 1965-1966 season. It proved to be even more popular in its second season, ranking no. 7 for the year. Unfortunately in its third season its ratings plummeted and it didn't even rank in the top thirty for the year. For its fourth season CBS moved it from Tuesday night to Wednesday night, but it continued to struggle in the ratings. Its last first run episode aired on January 15 1969. Like Flipper before it, however, Daktari would have lasting success as a syndicated rerun.
Ivan Tors's next animal show would be based upon a children's book. Walt Morey, had written for such pulp magazines as Argosy, Complete Sports, Fight Stories, Texas Rangers, and others. He had retired from writing after the decline of the pulps, but resumed writing in the Sixties and produced the children's novel Gentle Ben. Published in 1965, the novel centred on an Alaskan brown bear who befriends a young boy. Ivan Tors bought the rights for the novel for both a movie and a TV series. The movie, eventually titled Gentle Giant, was partially financed by CBS, and was actually filmed before the TV show. As it turned out, the release date for Gentle Giant was moved back to Thanksgiving, by which time the TV show Gentle Ben had been on the air for about two months.
Both the movie and the TV show Gentle Ben saw several changes from the novel. While the novel was set in Alaska, the movie and TV show were set in the Florida Everglades. While the boy in the novel was a teenager, the boy in the TV show as only six years old. In the novel the father went from working for fishermen to operating a fish trap, while in the show he went from being a fisherman to becoming a game warden. The names of the characters were also changed.
The movie Gentle Giant and the TV show Gentle Ben had essentially the same cast. Dennis Weaver, then most famous for playing Chester on Gunsmoke, played the father Tom Wedloe. His son was played by experienced child actor Clint Howard, the brother of Ron Howard who was then playing Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. There was a change in the casting of the mother. Played by Vera Miles in the film, the mother was played by Beth Brickell. In both the film and the TV show the role of Ben was primarily played by Bruno the Bear. For the film a few other bears played Ben at different stages of his life. Bruno was used for most of Ben's scenes on the TV show as well, although other bears were used for various scenes. Any scene involving Ben entering the water generally used a bear named Drum. A younger bear named Buck was used in those scenes requiring Ben to run. Throughout the series several bears were used.
Gentle Ben debuted on September 10 1967 on CBS. It proved to be popular in its first season, ranking no.19 out of all the shows for that year. The show did prove to be a source of some controversy. The controversy was made only worse by the fatal attacks of two different women in two different incidents by grizzly bears at Glacier National Par in Montana on August 13 1967 (a little under a month before the TV show debuted). Even Ivan Tors, in a newspaper article by Robert Musel, published around August 23 1967, warned that bears and many of the other animals featured in his TV series can be dangerous. An editorial entitled "The Real Ben Isn't Gentle" appeared at the time of the show's debut in the Montana newspaper The Helena Independent Record warning of the danger of bears. PTA magazine criticised the show, noting again that bears are dangerous animals. Even years after the show went off the air, Gentle Ben was controversial in its portrayal of bears. John Hast, the chief safety officer of the National Park Service, complained in 1971, "Gentle Ben was the worst thing that ever happened to us. People saw this big lovable bear on television and when they see a bear in the park I guess they think it's the same one."
While Gentle Ben did well in its first season, its ratings dropped precipitously in its second season. Gentle Ben was cancelled at the end of the season. The cancellation did prove to be the source of some controversy. A letter writing campaign was even mounted to save the show, to no avail. The show would see some success in syndication. In 2002 Animal Planet aired a TV movie, Gentle Ben, which was followed in 2003 by a sequel, Gentle Ben 2.
The final show of the Sixties starring an animal was not produced by Ivan Tors and it was not even made in the United States. Skippy, known as Skippy the Bush Kangaroo in much of the world, centred on the kangaroo of the title, the pet of a young boy living at the fictional Waratah National Park in Duffys Forest outside Sydney Australia. It is unclear precisely who first came up with the idea behind Skippy, although it was a product of Fauna Productions, a company formed by Australian actor John McCallum, movie director Lee Robinson, and lawyer Bob Austin. John McCallum had appeared in such films as It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), The Woman in Question (1950), and Trent's Last Case (1952). He was also married to legendary British actress Googie Withers. Lee Robinson had directed such films as King of the Coral Sea (1954), Walk Into Paradise (1956), and Dust in the Sun (1958).
Fauna Productions noted the popularity of such animals shows as Lassie and Flipper worldwide. They also wanted a subject that would guarantee international success. Ultimately they decided upon a kangaroo as the central character. John McCallum had wanted to call the kangaroo, "Hoppy", but it was Lee Robinson who suggested the name "Skippy". A pilot was produced in 1966 and filmed in colour for the international market (Australian television was still aired in black and white at the time). Fauna Productions was able to sell the series to the Nine Network on the strength of the pilot. Skippy debuted in Australia on the Nine Network on February 5 1968.
International success was not long in coming. The show was soon airing in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere. The international success of the show ultimately led to a feature film, The Intruders, released in 1969. It was in 1970 that the series was sold for first run syndication in the United States. Ultimately Skippy the Bush Kangaroo aired in 128 countries. In the end Skippy proved to be the first Australian show to be successful world-wide and remains one of the most successful Australian shows of all time.
As on other animal shows, Skippy was not played by just one animal. In fact, each episode required the use of between nine and fifteen kangaroos. The show was shot at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and the nearby Waratah Park.
The first run of Skippy ended in May 1970 after 91 episodes. The show persisted in syndication around the world for decades, and would be repeated several times on the Nine Network. A sequel series, The Adventures of Skippy, was produced in 1993. This revival ran for only one season and 39 episodes.
In the United States the cycle towards animal shows was coming to an end in 1969. That season both Daktari and Gentle Ben went off the air. Except for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, no animal shows would debut on American prime-time network television for the remainder of the decade. Even Lassie would be cancelled by CBS in 1971, a victim of the Rural Purge. It ran two more seasons in syndication before ending its run. While the Seventies would see a few shows about animals (such as Here's Boomer), never again would American network television see a number of shows centred on animals similar to the cycles of the Fifties and Sixties.
Of course, here it must be noted that in addition to these shows that starred animals, there were also a number of American prime-time network shows in the Sixties on which animals played a significant role. Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour regularly featured episodes on which animals were the stars. As a show about a circus, the short-lived Western Frontier Circus naturally featured several animals. On The Beverly Hillbillies Elly Mae had an entire menagerie of "critters", everything from a common housecat to a chimpanzee, while the Clampett's hound dog Duke was a central character. Dog (played by Higgins, who would go onto play Benji in the first movie of the same name) played a major role on Petticoat Junction, while Arnold the Pig was a regular character on Green Acres. While Chuck Connors was the star of Ivan Tors's Cowboy in Africa, animals were a big part of the show. Animals also appeared frequently on Tarzan and Maya.
Looking back it is easy to understand the popularity of animal shows in the Sixties I rather suspect a good portion of the American population loves animals, and not simply those that they keep as pets. What is more, it seems to me that children in particular love animals of all types. It shouldn't be surprising at all that animal shows have traditionally appealed most to children. It should then come as no surprise that the Sixties would produce a cycle of shows starring animals and would produce yet others in which animals played major roles.
Of course, this begs the question of why the cycle towards animal shows ended and there has not been one ever since. As mentioned earlier, I think that can simply be explained by the network's pursuit of the 18 to 49 year old demographic (the so-called "key demographic"). It is a bit of a myth that the networks suddenly discovered demographics in the late Sixties. As early as the late Fifties Oliver Treyz, the president of ABC from 1956 to 1962, often used demographics to show that the then third rated network appealed most to the 18-34 demographic and made arguments as to why that was the most desirable demographic. Throughout the Sixties both ABC and NBC made an effort to air shows that would appeal most to adults aged 18 to 49. Rather than the networks suddenly discovering demographics, it was more a case of CBS changing its programming strategy so that they too would pursue the key demographic. Prior to the late Sixties CBS had simply concentrated on the overall ratings of shows, without much regard to who was watching them.
As a result of demographics playing a greater role for the networks in the late Sixties and early Seventies, certain types of shows would cease being seen for the most part on the networks. Essentially the networks wanted to avoid anything that appealed to an older audience, a rural audience, or an audience that was composed primarily of children (as far as advertisers are concerned, children really don't count). While other shows in the notorious Rural Purge were cancelled because their audiences were too old, too rural, or both, I have to suspect Lassie was cancelled because its audience was too young. Of course, with the networks pursuing the key demographic, they naturally would not be airing shows that appealed mostly to children, and the animal shows appealed primarily to children.
Indeed, since Lassie ended its network run there have been only a few shows about animals to debut in the United States. Except for the few that aired on the networks in the Seventies, most have either aired in first run syndication or on cable channels such as Animal Planet. I have to suspect that until the networks learn that the key demographic is not that "key", there probably won't be any shows starring animals in network prime-time any time soon.
Regardless, the Sixties produced a number of shows centred on animals that remained popular for years. Nearly all of them went on to long syndication runs and nearly all of them are available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Even though not much in the way of new animal shows have been made in the past forty five years, those made in the Sixties continue to remain popular and I have to suspect always will be.