Question: Who were the stars of Gentle Ben?
Answer: Now, there's a question, Trina. You see, ostensibly Dennis Weaver, Beth Brickell, Clint Howard and Rance Howard were the stars of the CBS series, which ran from September 1967 to August 1969 and focused on the adventures of an Everglades family and their bear pal, Ben. But since it was an Ivan Tors production (Flipper, Daktari), it meant the bear was the real star. In fact, Tors reportedly used to greet the bear before the actors whenever he visited the set because, he said, he had known the bear longer.
As you might imagine, that was a bit of a trial for the other cast members, some of whom took it in stride and others who had a tough time with admitting to Ben's prominence and importance. "This is not a kiddy show!" Brickell told TV Guide in a 1967 interview. "The bear does not ever save the day!" (Of course, that was coming from a woman who was so competitive she couldn't ever admit she came second. "My biggest problem in life is I always have to be the best," she said. "I can't even play Monopoly with Clint Howard without trying to beat him. Now he's a little boy and that's ridiculous! But you know, I always thought I was a champion at Monopoly and Clint is really good.")
Others let such things roll off them. Weaver, as cool a character off-camera as he was on, drolly admitted that Ben was the big draw and the humans had no choice but to accept it. "I think the bear's winning," he said. "You don't argue with a bear." (It should be noted that while Weaver was being admirably humble, TV Guide reviewer Cleveland Amory singled him out as the linchpin of the show, calling him "positively dashing" and "equally convincing, whether patting the backside of his wife or that of his 10-foot black bear.")
No one knew what Ben, formerly named Bruno, thought, but trainer Monty Cox was tired of the whining. "The boy's upstagin' me, the bear's upstagin' me, the raccoon's upstagin' me that's all I hear around here," he said in 1968. It's hard on Ben. The humans are working with their egos and the bear is not."
Ben's biggest problems, it seemed, were boredom, the Florida heat (Cox would take him home for a shower when he slowed down) and the fact that he was, well... a bear, and didn't always understand exactly what he was being asked to do. Take the time a script called for him to reject his food. The trainers filled him up with 12 loaves of bread, 10 apples, 10 oranges, 10 carrots and a gallon of milk, hoping for a shot where he'd push his meal away. "But every time we started to shoot, he'd eat again," Cox recalled. "So we put cold cream on the food, and Chanel No. 5 everything on the set labeled nontoxic. Just to discourage him. But he still ate it. He smelled good for quite a while."
As anyone who's ever hung out on a set knows, there are very long periods of sitting around waiting, and when you're a bear, there's just one thing to do: go to sleep. The problem with that, of course, was when it came time to shoot, the crew was saddled with a groggy bear. (Ben also wasn't much for running; when a scene called for it, a stunt bear named Buck was brought in.) So in order to entertain himself, Ben took to stealing cigarettes from the mouths of nearby smokers and eating them, his most frequent victim being little-person Murray Wood, who worked as Clint Howard's stand-in. But Wood knew who was boss on the set, and that was the 650-pound guy with the teeth, claws and show title. "If the bear steps on your foot, you don't move till he decides to get off," Wood said.