Question: When I was a kid we used to hear this about just about any animal star, but isn't it true that Flipper was really a girl? Earl V., Manlius, N.Y.
Televisionary: That she was, Earl, at least for most of the sequences (sometimes other dolphins were brought in to perform particular tricks). In fact, according to the series' dolphin trainer Ricou Browning a scuba-diver and former stuntman who knew all about performing in the water from his days playing the Creature from the Black Lagoon female dolphins are more cooperative, which is why they used a dolphin named Mitzi for the 1963 Flipper feature film and a 4-year-old named Lisa for the series that ran on NBC for four years, beginning in September 1964.
"Any difficulty we have in teaching her to perform is usually our fault, not hers," Browning, who marveled at his charge's intelligence, told TV Guide a few months after the show launched. "We haven't yet found ways to make ourselves understandable to her as quickly as we should. Once we find a way to convey our meaning, she can do just about anything."
In preparing Lisa for the role, Browning swam with her in his skin-diving gear until she got used to his presence. Then he picked out tricks and maneuvers she did naturally and rewarded her for doing them on command (via hand signals that wouldn't be heard while shooting) with pieces of herring. Like any other star, she was pampered, living in a private sea-water pond in Miami and traveling to the clearer waters of the Bahamas for filming.
When executive producer Ivan Tors announced the Flipper movie, people thought he was nuts for making a film starring a dolphin. But after talking to experts, Tors was confident a dolphin could be trained to do what he wanted. "The secret was getting into the water," he said. "Dolphins are schooling mammals and are unhappy when they are alone. They readily accept human companionship. They like to be stroked and fondled. That's the key affection."
Tors also knew from two key experiences that he was onto something, the first with a dolphin named Suzy. "I threw two balls, a large one and a small one, into the water, and the big one hit Suzy right in the mouth," he recalled. "But she didn't pick it up. Instead, she swam over to the small one, put it into her mouth and then scooped up the large ball in her open mouth. That way she could carry both balls on one trip. That is logic. Clearly Suzy was evaluating data in a split second."
If that wasn't enough to sell Tors on dolphins, his second meaningful encounter with one of the animals proved to be a real lifesaver. "I was working with a dolphin underwater, a dolphin who did not particularly like me," he said. "I overworked and got winded and didn't know if I could make it to the shore. That dolphin got under me and carried me all the way to the dock. She sensed my trouble and acted. A thing like that almost makes you get down on your knees and pray."
It was Tors' open mind that allowed him to try making a movie with a dolphin. But interestingly enough, it was opened by different kinds of research done for his movies, with one pastime in particular one you don't see mentioned much in TV Guide these days proving to be the most valuable: his experimentation with psychopharmacology and, specifically, LSD. "It was one of the most profound experiences of my life," he said. "The experience opened creative avenues which will take me the rest of my life to digest so much to digest."
The show's human cast, meanwhile, may not have taken that particular kind of trip, but they, too, were open-minded or realistic, as it were enough to know why their show was a hit. Nobody kidded themselves into thinking the real star was land-based; it was all finny business. "Flipper's the raft it all floats on," Brian Kelly, who played Coral Key Park chief ranger Porter "Po" Ricks readily admitted. And though she was only on the show for a season, Ulla Stromstedt (more on her here), who played an oceanographer named, oddly enough, Ulla Norstrand, quickly figured out the same thing. "Flipper is the star of the show, anyway," she said in 1966. "And we say, 'Flipper! You understand us? Go! Go for help!'"