Gentle Ben facts for kids
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 provided the basis for the 1967 film Gentle Giant (1967), the popular late 1960s U.S. television series Gentle Ben, a 1980s animated cartoon and two early 2000s made-for-TV movies.
1965 children's novel Gentle Ben
Walt Morey, a filbert farmer and former boxer, had previously written many pulp fiction stories for adults dealing with subjects such as boxing, the Old West, and outdoor adventures, published in magazines such as Argosy. However, due to the decline in demand for pulp fiction caused by the advent of broadcast television in the 1950s, Morey stopped writing for ten years. His wife, a schoolteacher, challenged him to write adventure stories that would interest young readers, similar to those of Jack London. After several years, Morey took up her challenge with the goal of producing an adventure story for young readers that adults could also enjoy.
The result was Gentle Ben, which was based on Morey's own past experiences working and traveling in Alaska. Morey said that many of the book characters were based on real Alaskan people he had met. According to Morey, the concept of a boy's friendship with an Alaskan brown bear was also taken from real life, and such friendships and interactions between humans and bears were not unusual in Alaska.
Originally published in 1965 by E.P. Dutton, the novel was a success, selling nearly 3 million copies. As an unpublished draft it won the Dutton Animal Book Award resulting in its publication. Morey won the Dutton prize a second time in 1968 for Kävik the Wolf Dog. Morey went on to write many more children's novels, often involving themes of nature, animals and survival, but is perhaps best known for Gentle Ben.
Synopsis of the novel
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 regard brown bears as wild and unpredictable, 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 wealthy businessman and trophy hunter visiting the island, Peter King, who is trapped under a rock. Ben gently rolls the rock off him. The grateful 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.
An 8 ft (2.4 m) tall (life size) carved wooden statue of Gentle Ben the bear stands in Walt Morey Park in Wilsonville, Oregon, a bear-themed park created on land that previously belonged to the Morey family. In 2012, the Gentle Ben statue was stolen from the park by local teens and dumped in a roadside ditch. It was later found and returned to the park.
1967 film Gentle Giant
1960s television series Gentle Ben
The CBS television series Gentle Ben premiered September 10, 1967 and ran until August 31, 1969, airing a total of 58 episodes in two seasons. The series chronicled the adventures of young Mark Wedloe (played by Clint Howard) and his lovable 650-to-750 lb (290-to-340 kg) black bear named Ben.
Gentle Ben was produced by Ivan Tors, who also produced the Gentle Giant pilot film. Tors was an established producer of successful TV series, including Lloyd Bridges' Sea Hunt, Flipper and Daktari. Like the Gentle Giant film, the TV series Gentle Ben was set in Florida (allowing Tors to use his own studio facilities there) rather than Alaska, and Ben was a large black bear instead of the brown bear of the original novel. The TV series picked up the story where Gentle Giant left off, with Mark's father Tom Wedloe already a wildlife officer in the Everglades, and Ben an adult bear and established family pet living outside (or sometimes inside) the Wedloes' house.
Cast of the TV series
The TV series had few regular characters, consisting of the Wedloe family and their friend and neighbor Henry Boomhauer. Clint Howard and Dennis Weaver continued their roles from the Gentle Giant film. The role of Ellen Wedloe, played in Gentle Giant by Vera Miles, was recast for the TV series with Beth Brickell. The Boomhauer character appeared in several of the episodes and was played by Clint's real-life father Rance Howard (who also wrote episodes for the show).
Other recurring characters included Hank Minegar, a squatter played by Robertson White (who had a different small role in Gentle Giant) and Willie, a friend of Mark's, played by Angelo Rutherford.
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 (who also played adult Ben in the Gentle Giant film).
Musician and voice actor Candy Candido provided the voice of Ben. Although the network wanted to have Ben speak like a human on the show, Tors disliked the idea, so Ben made only animal noises.
Bears in the TV series
Ralph Helfer's Africa U.S.A. animal ranch provided Bruno and other bears (as well as other animals) used in the series. The bears were obtained from Canada or near the Canada-U.S. border because those bears' coats were thicker and more photogenic than those of bears located further south in the U.S. The bears 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, who may have been used in particular scenes or as stand-in bears. Some episodes and sequences also involved bear cubs or other bear characters that may have required additional bears.
Bruno was the favorite bear actor 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 a slightly smaller, younger and more agile bear, was used for scenes requiring the bear to run. According to Clint Howard, Bruno the bear and Buck the bear together did approximately 75 percent of the bear acting work.
A bear named Drum frequently appeared in scenes requiring the bear to enter water. Drum's coat was brown and had to be spray-painted to match the black coats of the other bears playing Ben. In the 1980s, Dennis Weaver recalled that a bear named Hammer, who occasionally misbehaved on the set, was used for bear scenes involving water. Other bears reportedly used included Smokey, Oscar, Baron, Tudor, Virgil, and a bear (identity unknown, possibly Hammer) with a tendency to fight who was used for bear fight scenes. Bear trainer Tuffy Truesdell, who owned nine bears including the elder and younger Victor the Wrestling Bear, also claimed that his bears did "most of the stand-in work" for the TV series.
According to most sources, the primary bear trainers and bear handlers who did most of the day-to-day bear work on the series were head bear trainer Monty Cox (who said that he was hired after "Ben" had "chewed up" a previous bear trainer), and Vern Debord. Other animal trainers involved in the series included Ron Oxley and Steve Martin. Derrick Rosaire Sr. and Pat Derby have also claimed involvement, although it is not clear whether they worked on the TV series or just on the Gentle Giant pilot film. Bruno and some of the other bears were trained using "affection training", which stressed establishing a respectful bond between animal and trainer, rather than using punishment or food rewards. However, food rewards were used to motivate at least one bear who responded better to that method. Bruno reportedly lived with Cox in a Miami apartment, sometimes even following him into the shower and sleeping in his bed.
During and after the run of the TV series, the name "Ben" or "Gentle Ben" was used to refer to a number of bears who had appeared in the show. Bruno's name was changed to "Ben" while he was appearing in the series; it was changed back to "Bruno" after the show ended. Oxley and Martin made personal appearances at fairs and events with a bear (often Drum) billed as "Gentle Ben." In the late 1960s and 1970s, Rosaire Sr. appeared with the Emmett Kelly Circus and elsewhere with a trained bear he called "Gentle Ben" that purportedly played the role. Rosaire Sr., his son and grandson have said over the years that this bear was a female bear who played both Ben's mother and Ben in the Gentle Giant film. (Ben's mother never appears in the TV series as she is killed at the beginning of the film, and the TV series takes place after the events of the film.)
Tuffy Truesdell also trained a wrestling brown bear known as "Gentleman Ben" and occasionally called "Gentle Ben" or "Ben", who wrestled in at least 80 matches for various promotions in the late 1960s and 1970s. Although Truesdell claimed that his bears did work on the TV series, there is no evidence linking the particular bear he called "Gentleman Ben" to the TV show, particularly since the show used black bears rather than brown bears.
After the Gentle Ben series ended, Bruno moved back to California with trainer Ron Oxley and continued his acting career, making a well-received appearance 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 in Florida (now 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. Derrick Rosaire Sr. continued to exhibit his bear named "Gentle Ben" throughout the 1970s. The fate of the other bear actors involved in Gentle Ben and the Gentle Giant pilot film 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.
- Dean Cain as Jack Wedloe
- Corbin Bernson as Fog Benson
- Ashley Laurence as Dakota
- Reiley McClendon as Mark Wedloe
- Cody Weiant as Ashley June Benson
- Collin Bern sen as Kyle
- Gil Birmingham as Pete
- Jack Conley as Cal Striker
- Jeanne Coopr as Rowland
- Martin Kobey as Sully
- Bonkers the Bear as Ben
In popular culture
- Since the 1960s, "Gentle Ben" has been widely used by many writers as a humorous name when referring to a bear.
- "Gentle Ben" has also been used as a nickname for various public figures named Ben, including American professional golfer Ben Crenshaw, Australian cricketer Ben Hilfenhaus, and former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.
- The "Homer Badman" episode of The Simpsons animated cartoon (Season 6, episode 9, originally broadcast on November 27, 1994) included a parody of a TV talk show called Ben, hosted by a bear named "Gentle Ben" with a microphone strapped to his head. "Gentle Ben" responds to audience members' comments and questions with growls, then gets distracted by a backstage buffet, runs amok and starts to eat, at which point he is surrounded and shot by marksmen wearing jackets labeled "Ben Control" and the TV screen cuts briefly to a test pattern, then an interstitial card. The sequence has been mentioned in several compilations of funniest moments from the long-running show.
- In the "Rangeboy" episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete children's television series (Season 1, episode 4, originally broadcast on December 19, 1993), Big Pete refers to a (probably) fictional Gentle Ben episode, where Ben saves a blind kid from a mineshaft. He refers to Ben as a positive character in order to persuade his father to wear a bear costume while he is occupied as a rangeboy at his father's golf club.
Gentle Ben Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.