When I learned of Jim Fowler’s death last week, a stream of images flowed through my mind in black and white. A wildebeest running before a stripped-down helicopter with men hanging from open canopies. A gator—or was it a croc?—thrashing in a muddy swamp, flinging aside the men trying to rope it. A man in a cowboy getup, lassoing a jaguar.
I hadn’t seen those images in more than 40 years, except in my mind. But the mere mention of Fowler and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” the pioneering wildlife program he co-hosted for more than 20 years, brought them flooding back.
Fowler was the show’s muscle. An imposing man at nearly 6 feet 6 inches, he turned down a chance to play professional baseball to study raptors, and wound up as television’s prototypical stuntman-educator. Together with the show’s elder spokesman, zoologist Marlin Perkins and Stan Brock, who also worked the toothy end, Fowler brought the wonders of the natural world to living rooms like mine.
Others would follow Fowler’s example, notably the “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, but from its inception in 1963 until it ended production in 1988 there was nothing else on television remotely like Wild Kingdom. The half-hour show went into nationwide syndication in the 1970s, and my brother and I watched every Sunday evening without fail. We always called the show Mutual of Omaha, which is a testament to the value the sponsorship returned to the company. There’s a certain cynical brilliance in a program that promotes life insurance by sending folks to wrangle pumas while neck-deep in Amazon floodwaters, or leap from a flying helicopter to tag an elk.
Fowler once escaped a herd of 200 charging elephants and was knocked cold by a chimpanzee named Mr. Moke who punched him “square between the eyes,” according to his obituary in the Washington Post, but neither incident compared to the time a 22-foot anaconda swallowed his arm up to the shoulder. According to the Post’s account, the indigenous people who’d gathered to witness the spectacle wisely scattered, leaving Fowler to calmly wait for the snake to tire, then wriggle out of its grasp.
Apparently, the cameras weren’t rolling that time. I vividly recall the anaconda episode from my childhood, but when I found it on YouTube I was surprised to see that it was not Fowler who wrestled the big snake, but Brock and Perkins. Strange, because my strongest memory of the silver-haired Perkins is of him sitting stiffly in a wood-paneled library (in Omaha, I always imagined), introducing the action about to go down in Africa or the Amazon.
That dichotomy became the source of endless gags about the show, thanks largely to “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson who made it a recurring theme of his monologues. “Johnny would imitate Marlin, saying, ‘I’ll stay back at camp mixing drinks for the native girls while I send Jim downriver to wrestle the two-horned rhino in heat,’” Fowler recalled.
Perkins never said anything of the sort in the show’s 300-plus episodes, and the fact that so many people think he did reflects the ephemeral nature of television at the time. “Wild Kingdom” aired Sunday nights at 7, and if you missed it you’d hear all the details at school the next day. Now we type a few words into a search engine and watch programs from 40 or 50 years ago. The fact that we now have eight seasons of “Magnum P.I.” at our fingertips has surely robbed my generation of many thousands of productive hours, but in the service of remembering a figure like Jim Fowler the internet’s deep archives are a welcome tool.
“Wild Kingdom” rebooted a few years ago with a new host and a more modern take on the old formula, but the show’s YouTube channel also has 323 archived episodes of the original series. Watching a few of them again (and in color!) it’s striking what a pioneer Fowler was. The program does seem dated, especially the early single-camera shows with their overwrought soundtracks and obviously staged reaction shots (just watch Perkins and Fowler rolling in the swamp for this alligator sequence). But the conservation aesthetic comes through loud and clear. The idea that protecting wildlife is a higher calling than killing it infuses the show, even if it’s never spoken.
“There are so many shows that are based on teeth and claws, and what Jim was doing was trying to replace fear with knowledge about wildlife, and with concern and appreciation,” Fowler’s colleague Peter Gros told the Post. “He was trying to create some hope and interest in the next generation about what they can do to participate in preserving the natural world,” added Gros, who was Fowler’s co-host in the later years of Wild Kingdom and a spinoff show, Spirit of Adventure.
Fowler had a long career as a wildlife ambassador after Wild Kingdom went off the air. He appeared on Carson’s show nearly 50 times, always with a menagerie of cute or strange or creepy animals. He was a regular on the “Today” show and made late-night appearances long after his friend Carson retired. Thanks to Fowler, the khaki-clad straight man became a late-night standard, and no one did it better. He handled the animals, set up the jokes and always managed to stay on message.
“There’s no denying that television is one of the most powerful propaganda media we’ve ever invented,” Fowler said. “But you don’t often see a spokesman for the natural world.”