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Michaela Denis, 88; Blazed Trail in Wildlife Films

May 18, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Michaela Denis, who, with her late husband, Armand, pioneered wildlife documentary programs on British television in the 1950s, has died. She was 88.

The British-born Denis, who lived for many years outside Nairobi, Kenya, died of undisclosed causes May 4.

Armand and Michaela Denis' first TV series, "Filming Wild Animals," made its debut in 1954. Other series followed: "Filming in Africa" (1955), "On Safari" (1957-59), "Michaela and Armand Denis" (1955-58), and "Safari to Asia" (1959-61).

The couple spent most of their time traversing Africa, but they also made filmmaking forays to South America, Australia, New Guinea and other exotic locales that most home viewers only dreamed of visiting.

Their cameras recorded everything from elephants in the Congo to headhunters in New Guinea.

They braved flies, mosquitoes, heat and cold, often spending hours patiently waiting in trees to get the best shots.

The two became known for what the Guardian newspaper in London described as their "casually intimate voice-overs," including this recurrent -- and often mimicked -- exchange:

"Look, Michaela."

"Yes, Armand."

The bespectacled Armand Denis, an Oxford-trained chemist from Belgium, had a heavily accented, somewhat sonorous voice.

The overtly enthusiastic Michaela Denis was a perfect complement to her husband, who was 17 years her senior.

She was clearly the more camera-friendly half of the documentary duo, and is credited with helping attract viewers to their wildlife programs.

An attractive blond who wore khaki shirts and men's pants, Michaela Denis always managed to look camera-ready.

On filmmaking expeditions in Africa, the couple and their crew traveled with a car and two trucks loaded with camera equipment and supplies, which always included one indispensable item: Michaela's cosmetics case.

She was often shown breaking out her powder compact or comb and once said she wouldn't think of getting into the water with crocodiles until she had used her eyebrow pencil.

The makeup, she once explained, helped them make friends with the native women, who were fascinated by her lipstick and powder. But that wasn't the only reason she never left her makeup case behind.

"I wanted to be glamorous," she later admitted.

That she was. But Michaela Denis was no jungle prima donna, and she managed to maintain her cool, even when being charged by a hippopotamus, mauled by a gorilla, bitten by a baboon and half-strangled by a python.

More than once, the couple, who did not believe in killing wild animals, had to clamber up trees to avoid charging rhinos and elephants.

She was born Michaela Holdsworth in London on Aug. 28, 1914. Three months later, her father, an English archeologist, died in combat during World War I; she was brought up by her Russian-born mother and grandmother.

After winning a scholarship to a fashion school, she trained as a dress designer in Paris, where she lived until the start of World War II.

After the war, she moved to New York City, where she met her future husband at a party.

Armand Denis, who had turned to filming and exploring the primitive areas of the world after making money from his invention of the automatic volume control system for radios, was being divorced from his first wife, Leila Roosevelt (a cousin of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt), who accompanied him on his expeditions.

In 1948, the same year the divorce was granted, Armand married Michaela during a filmmaking trip in La Paz, Bolivia.

A year later, Michaela Denis was doubling for actress Deborah Kerr on location in Uganda for "King Solomon's Mines."

Denis generated international headlines when the car she and other members of the film company were riding in overturned. She suffered a fractured nose and cheekbone that required plastic surgery.

Before turning to television, the Denises made full-length movies, including "Below the Sahara" (1954). Michaela Denis also wrote books, including "Leopard in My Lap" (1957) and "Ride on a Rhino" (1960).

Although the couple built a house outside Nairobi in the late 1940s, they also had a penthouse in New York City and homes in Florida and Antwerp, Belgium.

After retiring in Nairobi, Armand Denis died in 1971 of Parkinson's disease.

Four years later, Michaela Denis married her lawyer, Sir William O'Brien Lindsay, a former chief justice of Sudan, who died in his sleep a couple of months later.

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