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Gentle Ben is a bear character created by author Walt Morey and first introduced in a 1965 children's novel, Gentle Ben. The original novel told the story of the friendship between a large male bear named Ben and a boy named Mark. The story was later made into the popular U.S. television series Gentle Ben (1967-1969) and the film Gentle Giant (1967), and spawned a number of television tie-ins such as other children's books and comic books. In the early 2000s, the story was remade as two made-for-TV movies which originally aired in 2002 and 2003.
1965 children's novel Gentle Ben
Walt Morey, who had formerly authored books for adults, wrote and published Gentle Ben, a children's novel, at his wife's urging. In the book, Mark Andersen is a young teenage boy who lives in Alaska with his fisherman father and mother, Karl and Ellen Andersen. Mark is lonely after the death of his older brother, and befriends an Alaskan brown bear named Ben that was captured as a cub by local drunkard Fog Benson. Ben, now a large adult bear, spends his days chained alone in a shack on Benson's property, and the lonely bear bonds with the lonely boy who secretly visits him. Mark's parents are initially upset that he visits Ben, but eventually see that Mark and Ben have a special friendship and buy Ben from Fog Benson for Mark, on the condition that Mark help his father with the fishing to pay him back.
However, Fog Benson and his friends attack Ben and Ben fights back, injuring Fog. The townspeople, who generally fear brown bears as being wild and unpredictable, and even Karl Andersen now think that Ben is dangerous and Mark is forced to abandon Ben on an island, where Ben is still menaced by Fog Benson and hunters. Soon afterwards, Karl's fishing boat is destroyed in a storm, so he takes a job minding a fish trap on the island where Ben is living, which leads to Mark and Ben renewing their friendship. Then Ben helps a rich businessman visiting the island, Mr. King, who has gotten trapped under a rock. Ben gently rolls the rock off him. The grateful Mr. King pays a local guide to protect Ben and ends up going into business with Karl Andersen, so Ben will be safe and the Andersen's financial fortunes are greatly improved.
Originally published by E.P. Dutton, the novel was a success, selling nearly 3 million copies and winning the 1965 Dutton Animal Book Award. Morey went on to write several more children's novels, often involving themes of nature, animals and survival.
1967 film Gentle Giant
Producer Ivan Tors made the film Gentle Giant for Paramount Pictures based on Morey's book. Tors had recently had a popular hit with the film Flipper and subsequent television series of the same name, about a young boy's friendship with a wild dolphin over the objections of his fisherman father. As with Flipper, Tors made Morey's Gentle Ben book into a film and a TV series based on the film.
Originally, Tors planned to release the Gentle Giant film ahead of the TV series, but the release date for the film was moved to be closer to Thanksgiving. As a result, the Gentle Ben TV series began airing in September more than a month before the Gentle Giant film was released, and the film served as promotion for the TV series.
Differences from the novel
Although Gentle Giant follows the same basic storyline as Morey's novel, there are several differences between the book and the film:
- The filmmakers changed the location from Alaska to the Florida Everglades, and changed Ben from a brown bear, a species not native to Florida, to a large American black bear, common in Florida. Tors had an active Florida-based film studio at the time.
- The Andersens' last name was changed to "Wedloe" and the father's name to "Tom" rather than Karl. Fog Benson's last name was also changed to "Hanson".
- The character of Mark was made much younger in the film, played by Clint Howard, who was 8 years old in 1967. In the novel, Mark is a young teenager who is small for his age.
- In the film, Mark and his family give Ben away to a zoo rather than leaving him on an island as in the book. However, Ben escapes on the way to the zoo and swims to a wilderness area of the Everglades.
- In the film, Mark's father is a pilot who works spotting fish for fishermen, has a plane crash and then becomes a wildlife officer, whereas in the book, Mark's father is a fisherman whose boat is destroyed in a storm, causing him to take a job maintaining a fish trap.
- The character "Peter King" does not appear in the film. At the end of the film, instead of Ben rolling a rock off Peter King, Ben instead rolls a fallen tree off Mark's father, regaining his trust.
- At the end of the film, Ben is shown protecting his female mate and cubs, a scene which is not in the book (and is unlikely behavior for a male bear).
Clint Howard, an experienced child TV actor, was cast in the main role of Mark, and Dennis Weaver and Vera Miles played his parents, while the villain Fog Hanson was played by Ralph Meeker. Howard and Weaver also played the same roles in the weekly television series. Clint Howard's father Rance Howard appeared in the film as "Tater Coughlin", one of Fog Hanson's gang, but played a completely different recurring role (that of "Henry Boomhauer," a backwoodsman and friend of the Wedloes) in the TV series.
Several black bears appeared in the film, portraying Ben's mother, Ben at different stages of his life from cub to full-grown adult, and Ben's mate and cubs. According to Derrick Rosaire, the same female bear was used to play both Ben's mother and an older Ben. Ben as a full-grown adult was played primarily by Bruno, who also was the main bear playing Ben in the TV series.
1960s television series Gentle Ben
The CBS television series Gentle Ben ran from September 10, 1967 to August 31, 1969, airing a total of 58 episodes in two seasons. The show stars a young Clint Howard as Mark Wedloe, and chronicles his adventures with a lovable 650-pound American black bear named Ben. Although several black bears were used to play Ben, depending on what behavior was required for a particular scene, the role was played primarily by Bruno the Bear.
Musician and voice actor Candy Candido provided the voice of Ben in scenes where the bear was portrayed as thinking out loud. Dennis Weaver played Mark's father, Wildlife Officer Tom Wedloe. Beth Brickell had the role of his mother, Ellen. Rance Howard, who is Clint's real life father and the writer of several episodes for the show, played Weaver's neighbor and friend, Henry Boomhauer. Weaver's character often traveled the Everglades via airboat and Jeep, while Howard senior's Boomhauer drove a swamp buggy.
The series was produced by Ivan Tors, also the creator of Lloyd Bridges's Sea Hunt. The series also changed the locale from the book's Alaska to Florida. Screenwriter Tam Spiva wrote five of the series episodes.
Bears in the series
Several American black bears from Ralph Helfer's Africa U.S.A. animal ranch were used in the series. The bears were obtained from Canada or near the Canada-U.S. border because their coats were thicker and more photogenic than those of bears located further south in the U.S. They were declawed and had most of their teeth removed.
Helfer stated that four bears were used to portray Ben, with other sources naming or listing additional bears. The primary bear actor was Bruno, who also played Ben in the Gentle Giant film. Bruno was the favorite because of his good disposition, broad range of behaviors, facial expressions, and ability to work with children. A bear named Buck, who closely resembled Bruno but was slightly smaller, younger and more agile, was used for scenes requiring the bear to run. According to Clint Howard, Bruno and Buck together did approximately 75 percent of the acting work.
A bear named Drum frequently appeared in scenes requiring Ben to enter water. Drum's coat was a lighter color and had to be spray-painted to match the dark fur of the other bears. In the 1980s, Dennis Weaver recalled that a bear named Hammer, who occasionally misbehaved on the set, was used for scenes involving water. Other bears used included Oscar, Baron, Tudor, Virgil, and a bear (identity unknown) with a tendency to fight who was used for fight scenes. Bear trainer Tuffy Truesdell, who owned nine bears including the elder and younger Victor the Wrestling Bear, said that his bears did "most of the stand-in work" for the TV series.
The primary trainers and handlers who did most of the day-to-day work on the series were head trainer Monty Cox (who said that he was hired after "Ben" had "chewed up" a previous trainer), and Vern Debord. Other animal trainers involved included Ron Oxley, Steve Martin, Derrick Rosaire Sr., and Pat Derby. Oxley and Martin made personal appearances at fairs and events with a bear (often Drum) billed as "Gentle Ben". During the 1970s, Rosaire appeared with the Emmett Kelly Circus and elsewhere with a trained bear he called "Gentle Ben" which he claimed appeared in the series and/or the Gentle Giant film; according to at least one source, this bear was one of the bear "stand-ins".
During the show's run, Bruno briefly went missing after a 1969 flood which devastated Helfer's Africa U.S.A. complex. He was found two weeks later alive and safe. Following the flood, he was relocated (along with his stunt doubles and other animal actors) to the Ivan Tors Studio animal training school at the Homosassa Springs Attraction in Homosassa Springs, Florida. He also narrowly escaped death or serious injury when a runaway locomotive derailed and crushed his cage. Fortunately, his trainers had taken him out of the cage for a walk shortly before the accident.
After the Gentle Ben series ended, Bruno lived in California with Ron Oxley and made a well-publicized appearance (with Oxley as his trainer) in the 1972 film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean with Paul Newman. Bruno reportedly died in 1980 or 1981. Buck entertained visitors for many years at the Homosassa Springs Attraction, which was later purchased by the State of Florida and made part of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Hammer retired from acting in 1969 and became the first black bear at the Dreher Park Zoo (later renamed the Palm Beach Zoo) in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he lived for almost 20 years. The fate of the other bear actors involved in Gentle Ben is not currently known.
Although the bear character in a subsequent television series, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, was also named "Ben", that character was played by a grizzly bear rather than a black bear, and the show, character and bear actor had no connection to Gentle Ben, except for trainer Steve Martin supplying some animals (including a "backup" grizzly named Grizz) to the Grizzly Adams show.
2000s TV movies
In the early 2000s, two TV movie remakes of the original series were sponsored by the Animal Planet cable channel in association with Hallmark Entertainment. In both remakes, "Ben" was played by Bonkers, a 6-foot-tall, 650 pound male American black bear trained by Ruth La Barge.
Gentle Ben (also known as Gentle Ben: The Movie and Gentle Ben: Terror on the Mountain) was first shown on 25 March 2002, although some cable airings list it with a 2003 date.
Gentle Ben 2 (also known as Gentle Ben: Danger on the Mountain) was first shown on 5 January 2003. It was known as Gentle Ben: Black Gold for its UK release.
The following cast appeared in both 2000s films:
- Dean Cain as Jack Wedloe
- Corbin Bernsen as Fog Benson
- Ashley Laurence as Dakota
- Reiley McClendon as Mark Wedloe
- Cody Weiant as Ashley June Benson
- Collin Bernsen as Kyle
- Gil Birmingham as Pete
- Jack Conley as Cal Stryker
- Jeanne Cooper as Rowland
- Martin Kove as Cully
- Bonkers the Bear as Ben
- "Walt Morey, 84; Author of 'Gentle Ben'". Los Angeles Times. 1992-01-14. Retrieved 2014-07-24.
- Morey, Walt (1992). Gentle Ben. New York: Puffin Books. ISBN 0140360352.
- "Gentle Ben: Season One". DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video. Retrieved 2014-07-24.
- 'Season 1' Box Cover Art Arrives for the Long-Awaited DVDs, TV Shows on DVDs
- The 2nd (and Final) Season is Coming to DVD in Early 2014, TV Shows on DVDs
- "Grizzly and Wild Bears: Gentle Ben," TVAcres.com, accessed May 19, 2015.
- Bonkers biography and filmography, Bearwithus.biz, accessed May 19, 2015.
- American Humane Association, "No Animals Were Harmed: Gentle Ben," humanehollywood.org, accessed May 19, 2015.
- Gentle Ben 2: Danger on the Mountain (2003) IMDB entry