CHICAGO — "Wild Kingdom," the television show that for a quarter-century took Marlin Perkins to jungles, swamps and even a wrestling match with a giant snake, has joined some of its animal stars on the endangered species list.
Mutual of Omaha, the show's only sponsor, has decided to halt production of the syndicated program in favor of a new real-life adventure series aimed at a different market, officials said this week.
Since the first "Mutal of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" was broadcast Jan. 6, 1963, the show has taken viewers on adventures in 50 countries and helped spark the animal rights and environmental movements. It won about 60 awards, including four Emmys.
"Most people in this country who are animal lovers were made so by the 'Wild Kingdom.' It is the sire of all the animal documentaries that are now on the tube," said J. Fred MacDonald, curator of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago and a professor at Northeastern Illinois University.
Three new episodes are being filmed this year--Nos. 327, 328 and 329--and officials at Mutual of Omaha, based in Omaha, say the show won't be extinct because reruns will be broadcast over "Wild Kingdom's" syndication network of about 200 stations.
But company officials decided last year to halt production of new "Wild Kingdom" episodes in favor of a series called "The Spirit of Adventure," aimed at network television, said Len Tondl, executive vice president of public relations.
The new show is "the usual type of documentary and it's just not our style at all," said Don Meier, the Chicago producer who created "Wild Kingdom" with Perkins.
For more than 25 years, "Wild Kingdom" gripped television viewers as Perkins, who served as host until he died in last June at age 81, narrated stories about encounters with wild animals.
"Marlin was a guy who wanted to live the experience personally," Meier said. "He was down there diving among the sharks or climbing the mountain or wrestling the anaconda snake."
The last three episodes maintain that tradition, taking Perkins' replacement and former sidekick, Jim Fowler, to film great white sharks off Australia and Bengal tigers in India and Nepal, Meier said.
"Wild Kingdom" grew from a 1950s series that began as a time filler one slow afternoon in Chicago, when Perkins was director of the city's Lincoln Park Zoo, Meier said.
The televised tour of the monkey house, with Perkins shaking hands with the primates, "was such a big hit they decided to put it on every Sunday night," Meier recalled.
"Zoo Parade," starring Perkins, ran on NBC from 1950 to 1957, MacDonald said.