Old Gems: The Littlest Hobo, Lassie, Champion The Wonder Horse, Gentle Ben, Flipper, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince

There is a long television tradition of hyper-intelligent dogs and animals being able to solve all manners of problems and crimes to the backdrop of a great theme tunes. It goes back to the 1950s and the days of black and white TV but although the animals and locations changed, they were pretty much all the same show at heart. So today we’re going to have a brief look at a few of these “saviour animals”, all of whom seem capable of understanding English and saving human beings.

So after the jump, in no order whatsoever, we have Champion the Wonder Horse, Gentle Ben, Flipper, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, The Littlest Hobo, Lassie and Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince. There are more heroic animals out there, but that’s enough for one day, don’t you think?

The Adventures of Champion aka Champion the Wonder Horse (1955-1956)
One of the first super-animals, this was slightly different from later shows in that it was set during the old west. In it, young Ricky North and his friends Champion (the wonder horse) and German Shepherd dog Rebel generally had all sorts of daring adventures, usually accompanied by a lot of Champion racing around a lot and neighing. I don’t remember a whole lot more of that. I was four when I watched it.

Gentle Ben (1967-69)
Originally a children’s novel by author Walt Morey first published in 1965 and set in Alaska, this was later made into a film and television series, as well as made-for-TV movies which originally aired in 2002 and 2003. The TV series chronicled the adventures of a lovable 650-pound American black bear named Ben and his human friends – including Dennis Weaver – down in Florida’s Everglades. For some reason, the movies featured Superman Dean Cain.

Flipper (1964-1967, 1995)
An adaptation of the 1963 film, Flipper, and its 1964 sequel, Flipper’s New Adventure, Flipper followed the adventures of a bottlenose dolphin named Flipper who is the wild pet of Porter Ricks, a park warden, and his sons Sandy and Bud. Flipper lives in a lagoon near the Ricks cottage at Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve. With Rick’s family, Flipper helps protect the park and preserve and its wild inhabitants. He is also instrumental in apprehending criminals in the park.

Flipper is generally recognised by the characters in the show (and the theme song) as being a particularly intelligent and capable dolphin. I would guess all that apprehending criminals might have something to do with that.

The show was resurrected in 1995 and is largely remembered for featuring Jessica Alba (although she was kind of young at the time and all the clips on YouTube are creepily of her in a bikini so I won’t embed them here).

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1966-1968)
An Australian TV series running to 91 episodes, this featured Skippy, a wild female Eastern Grey Kangaroo, befriended by Sonny Hammond, the younger son of the Head Ranger of Waratah National Park. The stories revolved around events occurring in the park, including its animals, dangers arising from natural hazards in the Park’s environment, and the actions of various visitors to the Park. Oh, and the amazing telepathic skills of Skippy that allowed her to communicated with humans – the show was banned in Sweden because psychologists believed that the show would mislead children into believing animals could do things that they can’t.

The Littlest Hobo (1963-1965, 1979-1985)
There were three versions of The Littlest Hobo – a 1958 American movie, a Canadian filmed TV series and another – the best remembered version – which was also Canadian but shot on videotape. However, all three productions revolved around a stray German Shepherd dog who wanders from town to town, helping people in need. Although the concept was similar to that of Lassie, the Littlest Hobo did not have an owner, and despite the attempts to adopt him of the many people whom he helped, he appeared to prefer to be on his own and would head off by himself at the end of each episode. Cue the horribly catchy theme song.

Never actually named on-screen, the dog’s background is also unexplained on-screen. Where does he come from? How and/or why did he end up on the road? Is he just going anywhere and everywhere? Or is he looking for someone or somewhere in particular? And why does he keep helping people? Maybe he was actually Jesus in disguise.

Lassie (1954-1973)
To go into every single version of Lassie would take forever – and that’s what Wikipedia is for. But the most famous TV incarnation of rough collie Lassie was from an astronomically popular TV show that ran for 19 years. The show’s first ten seasons followed Lassie’s adventures in a small farming community. 11-year-old Jeff Miller, his mother, and his grandfather are Lassie’s first human companions until seven-year-old Timmy Martin and his adoptive parents take over in the fourth season. When Lassie’s exploits on the farm end in the 11th season, she finds new adventures in the wilderness with a succession of United States Forestry Service workers. After traveling without human leads for a year, Lassie finally settles at a children’s home for her final two syndicated seasons.

Amazingly, for much of its run, the plot of every episode was the same: boy gets into some sort of trouble, usually with a wild or misunderstood animal. Lassie then dashes off to get help or rushes in to save her master’s life herself. After being reunited with family and breathing a sigh of relief, the boy received a light lecture on why he should not have done what he had done. The end. Cue commercial. Well done, Lassie. Doggie want a medal?

Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince (1983)
Let’s end with something a bit different though. In Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince, Yubi, the prince of the planet Antars, which has been taken over the tyrant Zanu, has escaped to Earth with his droid Zax. When Yubi and Zax land on Earth they are befriended by a stray dog named Benji. Pursuing them are two bounty hunters named Darah and Khyber, along with their droid Zord, who have been sent to Earth to find and capture Yubi.

Most of the plots involved Darah and Khyber chasing Benji, Zax and Yubi in a black van, and their efforts almost always ended in failure, usually due to Benji’s quick thinking and loyal assistance. That’s dogs for you – even smarter than aliens.

  • I seem to mentally associate Champion the Wonder Horse with my mum cutting and or washing my hair/fringe. So I must have been very young indeed.
    Did anyone see that programme about Skippy last year (?) on BBC4 (?) featuring Germaine Greer’s recollections? Freaky programme.
    And The Littlest Hobo = Jesus? You are SOOOO right.

  • I seem to mentally associate Champion the Wonder Horse with my mum cutting and or washing my hair/fringe. So I must have been very young indeed.
    Did anyone see that programme about Skippy last year (?) on BBC4 (?) featuring Germaine Greer’s recollections? Freaky programme.
    And The Littlest Hobo = Jesus? You are SOOOO right.

  • Champion the Wonder Horse I mainly remember for the theme tune, which I loved.
    Gentle Ben & The Littlest Hobo I don’t remember AT ALL… and I was too old for the alien one.
    Of the others. Absolutely adored Flipper and have wanted a pet dolphin who talks to me ever since, and I think I flipped between love and hatred for Skippy. Lassie I loathed. Far too sentimental for my hard little 8 year old heart. I bet if I watched it now I would weep buckets…

  • nobledave

    Dreamed about these shows last night that I watched as a kid … The Littlest Hobo (THE original series, didn’t watch the “new” one), Lassie, Flipper and Gentle Ben. Dreamed that they couldn’t make these today. Mainly since networks aren’t what they used to be; animal filming restrictions; and they’re too tame compared to stupid “reality shows!”

  • Mark Carroll

    Are the animal filming restrictions now quite onerous? I really don’t know anything about them. I’ve wondered if the “whoever-it-is checked that we didn’t step on any fluffy bunnies” bit in the credits is somehow very hard to get out of bothering with, and if it’s a bit like, say, the various Orthodox Jewish organizations putting their stamp of approval on various food products / restaurants (for a fee, naturally). Or, say, how bad it is if you actually need to step on a cockroach in the filming, given how probably many people all over the country are gleefully killing the things off by the dozen anyway. Is it very hard to, say, film at an abattoir at which they’re really doing exactly what they’d be doing anyway without the camera rolling? I can’t imagine that you’d lose much audience by using a more permissive “approved by” animal organization but perhaps there are other constraints too, to do with standard union contracts or something.

  • SK

    I think it’s the old showbiz saying, ‘Never work with Charlie Sheen or animals.’