Born Free: A Roaring Good Time

Before we get into this month’s series, I just wanted to say a big THANK YOU to all of you who read my blog. Today is my 300th blog post. I have absolutely thoroughly enjoyed getting to know so many classic television cast and crew members, and I have learned so much the past six years. This month we are looking at “Life with Pets” blog series by learning a bit more about some of the classic shows about families and their pets. So far, we have learned about some unusual pets: monkeys, dolphins, and bears. Today is no exception; we are looking at the series Born Free which featured a lion.

Photo: imdb.com

Like Flipper and Gentle Ben, Born Free was also based on a movie titled Born Free. which was released in 1966. In 1974, it became a television series. The film was based on a true story. Considering how many people fondly remember the show, I was surprised to learn that it only was on the air from September to December.

Muldaur and Collins Photo: imdb.com

The show tells the story of George (Gary Collins) and Joy Adamson (Diana Muldaur) who lived in Kenya with their lioness Elsa. George and Joy were game wardens who helped care for wildlife. They primarily protected them from weather disasters and poachers. Part of the show’s mission was to educate viewers about animal conservation. Other cast members included Hal Frederick as Makedde; Dawn Lyn, Dodie from My Three Sons, as Reagan one of their friend’s granddaughters who lives with them for a while; and Peter Lukoye as Nuru.

In the Adamsons’ true story, Elsa and her sisters who were orphaned were treated like pets by the couple. George was forced to kill their mother when she charged him, but he later said he understood she felt threatened. Joy fed the four-day-old cubs unsweetened milk mixed with cod liver oil, glucose, bone meal, and salt. After the first couple of weeks, they took their food from baby bottles. They were allowed to roam like house pets but at night they were put into a pen of rock and sand to protect them from hyenas, jackals, elephants, and other lions.

Eventually, Elsa’s two siblings were sent to a zoo in the Netherlands, but Elsa being a runt, could not make the trip. Joy then taught her how to behave like a wild lion so she could survive with the other animals.

On the show, the episodes were a bit different. In “Maneaters of Merti,” two lions have begun killing humans, so George leads a search with villagers and game wardens to find them.

In the middle of the season, “The Flying Doctor of Kenya” aired with Juliet Mills starring as Dr. Claire Hanley who is making her first village medical tour. She needs to learn the customs of the villagers as well as how to adapt to the tough living conditions. Joy helps her get acclimated to the new job.

The theme song was composed by John Barry which was the same song used in the movie. Barry won an Oscar for the film’s soundtrack. Lyrics were provided by Don Black. Most of us remember the words to the song from hearing it on the radio. They were:

Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart

Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star

Stay free, where no walls divide you
You’re free as the roaring tide
So there’s no need to hide

Born free, and life is worth living
But only worth living
’cause you’re born free

(Stay free, where no walls divide you)
You’re free as the roaring tide
So there’s no need to hide

Born free, and life is worth living
But only worth living
’cause you’re born free

To walk with others... | Kate on Conservation
George Adamson Photo: kateonconservation.com

I was also surprised to learn that the show was actually filmed in Kenya. NBC put the show on Monday night against The Rookies and Gunsmoke which were both in the top 20-30% of popular shows. After 13 episodes, the show was canceled due to low ratings.

62 George and Joy Adamson ideas | george, lions, out of africa
Joy Adamson and Elsa Photo: pinterest.com

Although Joy and George were divorced by the time the television series was created, she served as a consultant for the show and supervised the stories. Sadly, she was stabbed to death in 1980, and George was shot by poachers in 1989 while trying to help a tourist.

Elsa did acclimate to the wild but visited George and Joy from time to time. She brought her three cubs to show the couple. Elsa was five when she contracted a tick-borne blood disease similar to malaria. She passed away and was buried in the Meru National Park. When Joy died, she was buried next to Elsa. George was buried in the Kora National Park in northern Kenya where he was working. He was buried near his brother and Boy, another lion featured in the film version.

The legacy of the film and television show is that the Born Free Foundation has a mission to protect the lions of Meru National Park.

Photo: twitter.com

Although I was surprised by a few things in this show, one thing I was not surprised by was its quick cancellation. For some reason, so many shows in the sixties were adapted from movies and could not be sustained as a weekly show. M*A*S*H was one of the few shows to do this well. It seems though it would be a tough thing to sustain interesting shows when you are limited to natural disasters and poachers. Here again, you would assume the scenery would almost be a character you could develop. I’m also sure it was not cheap to film the show in Africa which would make it harder to keep if it was not producing decent ratings.

While none of the shows we have learned about in the series became long-running shows, next week we wind up our series with a look at one of the enduring pet shows.

Gentle Ben: A Bear Hug for Everyone

As we continue our blog series about The Life of Pets, we feature a show about a boy and his bear: Gentle Ben. In 1965, Walt Morey published his novel, Gentle Ben. He had written adult books, but then his wife, a teacher, challenged him to write an adventure kids’ book similar to a Jack London story. Gentle Ben is the story about Mark and his bear Ben. He set the story in Alaska, where he had worked, and he said many of the characters were based on real people. He also said the story of a boy befriending a bear was also based on real stories he read and heard about. The book sold almost 3 million copies.

Photo: ebay.com

The Morey family owned some land which became the Walt Morey Park in Wilsonville, Oregon, a bear-themed adventure. An eight-foot statue of Gentle Ben is one of the park sights.

Photo: metv.com

The book became a movie on the big screen, and like Flipper, it moved to the small screen a few years later. In fact, the house for the Ricks family on Flipper is the same house used by the Wedloe family on Gentle Ben.

The television show debuted on CBS in 1967 and continued for two seasons, with 58 episodes. The series was produced by Ivan Tors who also produced Flipper, Sea Hunt, and Daktari. The TV show was set in Florida instead of Alaska. Tom Wedloe (Dennis Weaver) is a wildlife officer in the Everglades and he lives with his wife Ellen (Beth Brickell) and son Mark (Clint Howard, Ron’s brother) and his pet bear, Ben. Clint and Ron’s father Rance also penned a few of the scripts for the show.

Other characters showing up weekly included Hank Minegar (Robertson White), a local squatter, and Mark’s friend Willie (Angelo Rutherford).

Photo: DVDTalk.com

Like Flipper, there were several bears who played Ben, but the bear used most was Bruno, a black bear. Bruno had a good disposition and a variety of facial expressions. Bruno and his friends traveled from Canada because they had thicker coats which photographed better. They were declawed and most of their teeth had been removed.

Ben only made animal noises but they were spoken through Candy Candido, a voice actor and musician. I’m not sure why a kookaburra was used for Flipper and a human for Ben; you would think they could have used recordings of a dolphin and a bear. Bruno later moved to Hollywood to continue acting and died about 1980.

Most of the stories featured Tom’s work with wildlife and included animal management, children getting lost in the Everglades, weather disasters, and illegal activities such as poaching.

Gentle Ben was a great success and reached #2 in the ratings its first season. The popularity of the show was translated into a lot of merchandise including a board game, books, a stuffed bear, and comic books. The show was on Sunday nights sandwiched between Lassie and The Ed Sullivan Show.

During its second season, the show failed to even get into the top twenty. Lassie also suffered and received a significant drop in the ratings. I think the fact that the shows were on opposite Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color probably had a lot to do with its ratings drop. Also, if you liked animals you had to make a choice because Lassie competed with Wild Kingdom.

While the show highlighted family values and respect for nature, it was criticized for portraying wildlife as a pet. Ben even stayed indoors with the family sometimes. In 1971, National Park Service Officer John Hast recalled that “the television series 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. They don’t realize how wrong they are till they are bleeding.”

Photo: pinterest.com

I think kids from the sixties have fond memories of Gentle Ben, and many kids remember watching it. However, I guess the novelty of the show wore off quickly. You can only have so many things a real bear can do. Compare this show to Mister Ed where featuring a talking horse might seem far-fetched; however, that show lasted on the air eight years because Ed was as much of a character as anyone else on the show.

Shows like Flipper and Gentle Ben had their place, but they just didn’t have the memorable characters, quality scripts, or lush photography that might have extended their popularity. However, they are worth remembering and discussing. They prodded kids to imagine having their own special animal that only they could tame and love.