This half-hour adventure show was another nature-themed effort from Ivan Tors, producer of Daktari and Flipper. Young Clint Howard (brother of The Andy Griffith Show’s Opie, Ron Howard) starred as Mark Wedloe, a little boy who lived in the Florida Everglades with his mother Ellen and his wildlife officer father, Tom. There weren’t too many kids in the nearby swamp area for Mark to play with, but he did have one notable non-family friend: Ben. This friend happened to be a tame, 650-lb. black bear.
A trained bear named Bruno played the role of Ben and was handled by trainer Monty Cox. Other characters included Willie, a young friend of Mark’s, and Spencer, an adult character who was friends with Tom. Rance Howard, the real-life father of Clint, played Henry Boomhauer, a backwoodsman who was friendly with the Wedloe family.
Gentle Ben was a television adaptation of the film Gentle Giant, which also starred Weaver and Howard. The show was shot on location in Florida and followed Mark’s adventures with Ben, which often involved other forms of wildlife. For instance, there was one episode in which a vicious tiger escaped into the wild when a plane (co-piloted by a young Burt Reynolds) crashed.
Along with escaped maneaters and such, Mark and his adult friends also had to deal with all those nasty hunters who tried to capture or kill Ben. The show was not without humor, however, especially when depicting Tom’s work as a wildlife officer. An amusing episode in this vein had Tom trying to keep an angry farmer (played by guest star Slim Pickens) from going after a popular local alligator after the farmer became convinced the alligator was eating his chickens.
The show played Sunday nights on CBS for two seasons until it ended its run in August of 1969. The show continues to be a family favorite today through syndication. It remains memorable not only for the thrilling nature adventures it depicted, but for also for Clint Howard’s excellent performance as Mark. Howard made the transition from child star to adult actor and continues to work in television and film today, including appearances in every film directed by his brother Ron.
One final piece of advice: Ben was a gentle sort, but that doesn’t mean you should run out in the woods to try to make friends with enormous black bears. Start with hamsters or fish.
USA / CBS – Ivan Tors / 56×25 minute episodes / Broadcast 10 September 1967 – 31 August 1969
Producers: Ivan Tors, Andy White, George Sherman
DENNIS WEAVER as Tom Wedloe
CLINT HOWARD as Mark Wedloe
VERA MILES as Elen Wedloe
BETH BRICKELL as Elen Wedloe