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A New Captain on Deck

John McDonough Is 'The All New Captain Kangaroo' and Brings His Own Personality and Bushy-Bearded Look to the Role

September 04, 1997|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When John McDonough went to try out for the lead role in "The All New Captain Kangaroo" TV series, he noticed a lot of other actors sporting the original Captain's distinctive Dutch-boy hairstyle.

But through multiple auditions, McDonough refused to go the copycat route by jettisoning his own bushy-bearded look and by donning a mop-top wig to cover his thinning hair. The 43-year-old actor intuitively knew that it was far more important to capture the gentle spirit and compassionate warmth of the once beloved children's character, who first came to light when the "Captain Kangaroo" TV series debuted in 1955.

"[During the audition process] I felt I had to be able to stand on what I'm made of, knowing that all those years of watching the program helped form what I'm made of," observes McDonough, who grew up--like millions of other Americans--watching the original series.

It's little wonder that the syndicated show's producers at Los Angeles-based Saban Entertainment Inc. pegged the Connecticut native for the Captain Kangaroo role after a nationwide talent search. The stout McDonough is a gregarious teddy bear of a man with a disarming manner.

During a recent visit to Los Angeles to promote "The All New Captain Kangaroo" (which will air Sundays at 7 a.m. on KCOP-TV Channel 13, beginning Sept. 14), he proved an effervescent raconteur. Colorfully told anecdotes about his theatrical background and how he once helped support his acting career by starting his own coal supply and delivery business were punctuated by moments of robust laughter.

"We weren't looking for someone who was an actor per se," executive producer Eric Rollman says. "Of course they had to have good acting abilities. But we were looking for someone whose personality was that of [the Captain]. We didn't want someone who was putting on a persona to play the part. We wanted someone who is the Captain. I think we found that in John. The way you see him on camera and performing in the show, that is John."

Much like the original series, "The All New Captain Kangaroo" is designed to appeal to children between the ages of 2 and 6. But in this case, the show is also being targeted at those parents with fond childhood memories of being entertained by the Captain. The hope is that these nostalgic parents will guide their young kids to the new series.

Starring Bob Keeshan, "Captain Kangaroo" aired for nearly 40 years. CBS broadcast the show each weekday morning until 1984. The series then moved to public television, where it quietly folded in 1993.

Saban's game plan is to mix familiar elements from the original series with a few new ingredients designed to give the show a more contemporary flair. So the Captain's old flock of sidekicks, such as Mr. Green Jeans, Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit and Grandfather Clock, will all be back, though with different performers and voice actors.

"All these parents were coming up to me last weekend and they would all ask, 'Do you still have the Ping-Pong balls?' " McDonough says with a chuckle.

The answer is an unequivocal yes. In the original series, Ping-Pong balls would often come cascading down over the head of the Captain when Mr. Moose told his familiar "knock-knock" jokes to the show's gullible host.

Joey the kangaroo and Copernicus P. Digit are two new characters that are being added to the Captain's Treasure House setting. The latter is an animated figure who will be the show's link to today's information world.

Saban did contact Keeshan about participating in "The All New Captain Kangaroo," either as a captain emeritus figure or as an advisor. But he declined involvement when the production company refused to give him more artistic control. That Saban produces the relatively violent and highly merchandised children's shows "Power Rangers Turbo" and "X-Men" caused Keeshan to wonder if the company was truly interested in upholding the benevolent spirit and non-exploitative intent of "Captain Kangaroo."

"I don't have any negative feelings toward [the new series]," states Keeshan, a child-care advocate, author and actor, who recently played the wizard in a theatrical version of "The Wizard of Oz" in St. Louis. "I hope they do a good show. American children can use good programming. But if they are going after the money, for the huge merchandising and that sort of thing, that's too bad. . . . America regards children as a marketplace and at the same time we don't take care of them and we let them live in poverty."

Saban does plan to launch an extensive line of related merchandise, from apparel and plush figures to learning toys and home videos. But it claims it will do so in a responsible manner.

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