Question: When I was a kid, I loved the show Daktari, mostly for the animals. My question is, did they actually shoot that show in Africa? Robert A., Santa Cruz, Calif.
Televisionary: Some footage for Daktari, which was based on the 1965 movie Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion and ran on CBS for three years beginning in January 1966, was shot in Africa, John. But for the most part, the show was filmed at Africa U.S.A., a now-defunct wild-animal park that was located about 40 miles north of Hollywood.
However, when producers of the series did shoot in Africa, it often made for an adventure as exciting or foolhardy, depending on who told the story as anything that appeared on screen. And star Marshall Thompson, who played the titular veterinarian operating in Africa "Daktari" was the locals' version of "doctor" was usually in the thick of it.
Take the time Thompson, producer Leonard Kaufman and two cameramen were shooting footage of animals in the wild and found themselves surrounded by elephants, with a big male confronting them. "There is an old African proverb, 'You cannot drive a jeep backwards faster than an elephant can charge forward.' I disproved it," Thompson said.
Of course, that wasn't good enough for the actor, who decided that in order for them to get the best footage possible, the jeep should charge the elephant back. Ignoring the three-to-one vote against doing so, Thompson drove at the animal until one of the cameramen said: "Can we stop now? I can see his eyes." Thompson, for his part, was unperturbed. "Everyone should have one elephant charge in his life," he said. "It picks up the metabolism."
And those weren't the only courage points the actor racked up. He charged a rhino for more close-up footage and ate whatever the natives put in front of him without complaint. And his worst animal-related injury was sustained not in the wild, but on the set in the good old U.S.A. The show's animals were "affection-trained," which involved feeding and pampering them into being docile rather than using fear or discipline. Yet when Thompson tried to return a leopard's affection by grabbing it hard, the animal gave him a love bite on his right arm, leaving quite a scar. "It was my fault," Thompson later admitted. "I was clumsy. There are no dangerous animals. Just stupid people."
Co-star Cheryl Miller, who played Thompson's daughter on the show, was decidedly not stupid. She had a few early difficulties while going through four weeks of training to learn the animals' moods and behavioral patterns before shooting began on the series "I've had a few try to bite me, but I moved away fast," she said but she soon proved herself to be quite skillful with the beasts on the show. Co-creator Ivan Tors told TV Guide he cast her "because she had the basic chemistry. You either like animals or you don't." Trainer and Africa U.S.A. owner Ralph Helfer further explained: "She wasn't one of the sweaty-palmed ones. The animal knows. That girl is so good that she can do things with [Daktari tiger] Sarang not even the trainers can do."
Not that "good" was good enough, mind you. The trainers used another way to make sure things went as safely as possible: They always fed the animals before taking them to work in the morning.
Some of the more interesting work done with the show's animals was handled by makeup expert John Holden. When an African elephant was needed and all that was available was a smaller-eared Indian model, Holden fixed it up with larger ears and no one was the wiser. The aforementioned Clarence didn't like trucks, so a stand-in named Major was used in those circumstances after Holden gave him a tail tuft and painted on a forehead scar to match Clarence's.
All that tolerance for glamour paid off for critters like Clarence and Judy the chimp, who were more popular with fans than the show's human stars. Note the order in which a second-grader listed the best things about the show in this letter, for example:"Dear Mr. Thompson. I like your show very much. I like Judy and you."
That type of thing didn't sit too well with Hari Rhodes, who played a native named Mike on the show. "You should read my fan mail," he said angrily in 1968. "It's all about Clarence the lion. 'Is he really cross-eyed?' Or Judy the chimp. 'Is she really so smart?'"
As far as I'm concerned, however, such ire blinded Rhodes to the key benefits of casting animals in lead roles. Take the elephant, for example. He worked for peanuts.
(Oh, c'mon I had to.)