Animals In The Arts – TV Val Cairney
The following images are not those of the actual tv pets, but are representations of their breeds.
Hi everyone, and thank you for joining me on this episode of Val Talk’s Pets. Last episode I talked about how intelligent our pets are. When thinking about the amazing intelligence of service dogs for example, I started thinking about other roles that animals play. And if that isn’t a hint, I thought about animals in the arts, like television and movies. There are actually a lot of animal movies where a particular animal is the feature of the film. But, I thought I would start this exploration into animals in the arts by looking at television. There really is a history to animals in television shows, and I wondered how these animals came to actually be performing in a recurrent role for a television show? So, with no further ado, let’s take a look at our favourite animal featured television shows through history.
I thought I would start with one of the earliest and most famous TV dogs and that is Rin Tin Tin. The original Rin Tin Tin was actually a movie star. According to Wikipedia he lived from September 1918 to August 10th 1932. I’ve seen many photos of the original Rin Tin Tin and he was a beautiful male German Shepherd. Apparently he was born in Flirey, France, rescued from a battlefield during WWI by an American soldier. Lee Duncun the soldier nicknamed Rin Tin Tin, Rinty and trained him, soliciting for any role in movies no matter how small and eventually obtained a silent film job for Rinty. Now the history of the original Rin Tin Tin through film is quite extensive, but it is the legacy I’m looking at right now. The Rin Tin Tin legacy was made into a television show called The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and it aired from October 1954 to May 1959. Set in Arizona, at Fort Apache, little boy Rusty and Rinty are the only survivors of an attack on their wagon train and are adopted by the 101st Cavalry where Rinty is commissioned as an honorary corporal.
For 164 episodes Rinty and Rusty help the cavalry and the people of Mesa Grande to establish order in the American West. According to Wikipedia, “three different German Shepherds were used as the titular character. Rin Tin Tin the IV and one other dog were descended from the original “Rinty” of movie fame. The other dog used was an unrelated dog named Flame Jr.” Now, in this case the apple did fall far from the tree because, “due to Rin Tin Tin the IV’s poor screen performance, the character was mostly performed by Flame Jr.” But, the show was fun and exciting for its time and it wouldn’t have even been a show if it hadn’t been for Lee Duncun and the shepherd he saved from the battlefield back in WWI. To this day, whether you have seen any old movies or the old TV show, the name Rin Tin Tin, stands out as one of the most stalwart examples of a canine in the arts.
Not just dogs were stars in TV, but a horse became very famous in his TV show called Mr. Ed. Mr. Ed was about a talking horse and it was based on a series of children’s books by Walter R. Brooks. Mr. Ed, according to Wiki, was a palomino played by a gelding named Bamboo Harvester. He was voiced by a former western film star named Allan Lane. The show aired from January to July in 1961 and then switched networks and aired from October 1961 to February 1966. Mr. Ed’s owner on the show is Wilbur Post, who is a rather klutzy architect. According to Wiki, “many of the program’s gags follow from Mr. Ed’s tendency to talk only to Wilbur, his mysteriously well cultured essence, his rapscallion tendencies, and his precociously human-like behavior that far exceeds anything those around Wilbur expect of a horse.” So of course people hear Wilbur speaking to Mr. Ed and wonder if he’s lost his mind and things ensue from there. The interesting thing about Mr. Ed is that it was never actually addressed as to why this horse could talk and only Wilbur could hear him. “In the first episode, when Wilbur expresses an inability to understand the situation, Mister Ed offers the show’s only remark on the subject. “Don’t try. It’s bigger than both of us”. And that was it. Let’s look at the star himself, Bamboo Harvester. Bamboo Harvester lived from 1949 – 1970. He was an American Saddlebred Arabian cross. Now, this is the interesting part, Bamboo was trained by Will Rogers’s protégé, Les Hilton. “In 1968, two years after the cancellation of Mister Ed, at the age of 19, Bamboo began to suffer from a variety of age related ailments, including kidney problems and arthritis.” Bamboo crossed the rainbow bridge in 1970. During the Mister Ed run, a second palomino named Pumpkin had been used for still shots and some personal appearances. He lived until 1979 and became unofficially known as Mister Ed after Bamboo’s passing. And of all things, apparently Bamboo’s passing is quite full of controversy. It was thought that Bamboo died from an inadvertent tranquilizer and it became a controversy that this horse was not the real Bamboo Harvester. Another story says he was actually euthanized. Apparently we will never really know the truth.
Okay, moving on to another famous animal TV personality. How many remember Flipper? Flipper was about a bottlenose dolphin who was a wild pet of a chief warden at Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve and his two sons. It aired from September 1964 to April 1967. The show was actually a spin off from the movie Flipper from 1963. According to Wikipedia Flipper was portrayed by several female dolphins because females are less aggressive and don’t have the scars and disfigurements many male dolphins have from altercations. Interestingly, the five female dolphins performed in all scenes except the tail walk. A male dolphin named Clown was brought in for this as the females had difficulty mastering this act. And this is so funny, because Flipper would talk to the boys or to the Dad, Porter Ricks and he would have that dolphin ah ah ah sound. Well it turns out, that sound was actually a doctored song of the Australian Kookaburra bird. Flipper was able to communicate with head nods and shakes and chattering to let the Ricks family know about missing people, or bad people to create a real hero in the character of Flipper. Now, this is quite interesting. The head trainer of Flipper Ric O’Barry “became a world-renowned animal activist after the death of the dolphin that portrayed Flipper most often. O’Barry stars in the Oscar award-winning documentary The Cove, which features dolphin capture and captivity.
Not everyone will remember this show but we certainly got it in Canada, and that was Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Skippy was made from 1966 – 69 and broadcast from 1968 – 1970. At the height of popularity Skippy was broadcast in 128 countries to an audience of over 300 million viewers. According to nsfa.gov.australia, the adventures of Skippy and 10 year old Sonny, took place in the Waratah National Park in Sydney. Skippy and Sonny would get into all kinds of scrapes and Skippy could always save the day as she could use “her paws to open doors, operate a radio and pick up all manner of objects.”
Skippy was played by at least 9 different kangaroos. The plot was revealed as Skippy being an orphaned kangaroo and as aso.gov.australia says, Sonny the 10 year old boy character, rescues Skippy from the bush and brings her up as part of the family. It is very clear that Skippy “is not a pet as this would be illegal. She is free to roam the park. However, she has formed a strong bond with Sonny and his family and eats and sleeps at Ranger headquarters.” Just like the sound that Flipper made, Skippy also had this Tchk tchk sound. Apparently kangaroos do not really make this sound so in order to have Skippy “talk” they would give the kangaroo something to chew, hence the sound.
As nfsa.gov.australia points out, “Skippy introduced Australia and its wildlife – to the world. The show carried strong environmental themes about protecting the bush and its inhabitants and also featured and portrayed Australia’s First Peoples in a positive light.”
Our next TV animal is Gentle Ben. Gentle Ben was first introduced in a novel for children. Gentle Ben was a bear who adventures with a boy named Mark Wedlow. The series aired from Sept 1967 to August 1969. The producer of Gentle Ben Ivan Tors was also the producer of Flipper. The series took place in Florida where Mark’s father was a wildlife officer in the Everglades. Several black bears were used to play Ben but according to Wikipedia, Ben was primarily played by Bruno the bear. Bruno was their favourite bear to work with because he had a good disposition and a range of facial expressions. The additional bears, as Wikepedia points out, were obtained from Canada or near the Canada – U.S. border because those bear’s coats were thicker and more photogenic than those bears located further south in the U.S. The bears were declawed and had most of their teeth removed.” And because that just leaves a bad taste, the last comment on this show is that Bruno was said to have passed away in 1980 or 1981.
My next famous TV dog is close to my heart and that is The Littlest Hobo. Now there was an original black and white TV show of The Littlest Hobo that was a Canadian show that aired originally from 1963 to 1965, based on the American film released in 1958. But in 1979, the series was revived and ran until 1985. The Littlest Hobo was a German Shepherd that appeared out of nowhere in some town and helped whoever was in need at that time. This could be thwarting criminals or saving someone’s life. The grateful recipient of Hobo’s help would always want to give him a loving home, but Hobo always hit the road at the end of every episode, content to follow his own road to wherever it would take him. I loved The Littlest Hobo. It was filmed in northern Ontario towns and that just made it even more special. But the dog that played Hobo was my hero. The series used five German shepherds, but the most famous was London, and the show always credited him as the starring role. All the dogs were trained by former baseball player Charles “Chuck” Eisenmann. The show itself was by today’s standards, quite hokey, but it became an iconic show for Canadians imbedding its theme song forever in the hearts of those that loved the show. Maybe tomorrow, is the song that comes straight to mind when The Littlest Hobo is mentioned. I, too, know it as well. Maybe tomorrow I’ll want to settle down, until tomorrow, I’ll just keep movin on.
My next TV animal star I found to be rather different from the regular hero type animals in the other series, is Wishbone. Wishbone was a Jack Russell terrier that dressed up in costumes and brought to life classic literature. What a concept! Wishbone aired from 1995 to 1997. Wishbone re-enacted to name a few, Romeo and Juliet, Ivanhoe, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I mean it just goes on. According to Wikipedia, Wishbone was played by a Jack Russell dog named Soccer. Soccer was quite famous in commercials and was chosen from 100 dogs who auditioned for the role. Wishbone “was considered by many to be one of the most beloved TV dogs of the 1990’s.” “He lived with his trainer Jackie Martin Kaptan on the Plano, Texas ranch were the Wishbone series was filmed and was buried there after his 2001 death.” The magic of Wishbone was that “only the viewers and the characters in his daydreams (could) hear Wishbone speak. The characters from his daydreams see Wishbone as whichever famous character he (was) currently portraying and not as a dog.” When you think about it, what a concept. This is an amazing way to introduce the classics to children. If you ask any child who watched Wishbone regularly, they can remember parts of classics like Robin Hood or Don Quixote as if they read the books. At the very least they would definitely recognize the titles and a bit about the plot. Thank you Soccer for being such a good sport and a great animal actor.
Now last but not least, no journey through animals on TV would be complete without Lassie. Is there anyone that doesn’t know Lassie? Lassie ran from September 1954 to March 1973. As Wikipedia points out, Lassie was “an American television series that follows the adventures of a female Rough Collie dog named Lassie and her companions both human and animal.” Lassie was the “seventh longest-running U.S. primetime television series after The Simpsons, Law & Order Special Victims Unit, Gunsmoke, Law & Order, Family Guy and NCIS. Lassie had some reinventions over time. Timmy was introduced 4 years in where Lassie’s family took in an orphan. Lassie’s family had to move to Australia and she couldn’t go, so she ended up taken in by a U.S. forest ranger and began work with the U.S. Forest Service. Lassie left the forest service with no particular explanation and ended up on a ranch for orphaned boys. Lassie was the epitome of canine intelligence, empathy and the ability to pull heartstrings and a few tears. Lassie, although a female dog in the show, was actually played by male collies. “From the first film in 1943 to the last episode of the famous TV series, nine different dogs played Lassie.” According to news.artnet.com, the reason Lassie was played by boy dogs was that “female collies tend to “blow coat” (a) massive hormone-induced shedding process with each heat cycle.” The males blow coats as well but not as noticeably. The original Lassie was Pal. Pal according to Wikipedia “retired after filming the television pilots, and died in June of 1958. He sired a line of descendants who continued to play the fictional character he originated.” Pal’s descendants “Mire and Hey Hey bookended the syndicated run of the Lassie TV series.” (showbiz CheatSheat) Lassie set the bar very high for dogs on TV and to this day remains iconic.
Well I think that covers the big names of animals on TV. Of course there was Hammy Hamster, Chita the monkey in Tarzan and who could forget Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger just to name a few more. But, the amazing animals that I’ve had so much fun researching really do show how incredible animals can be and how attracted we are to seeing them in the role of hero and educator. Keeping these animal’s legacies alive is really a part of honouring their talent. What better way to show how knowing is caring but to salute animals in the arts. Thanks for listening!
Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.
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