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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.