He was charged by a herd of 200 elephants, escaping only with the help of a flatbed truck, and was once knocked unconscious by a surly chimpanzee named Mr. Moke, who punched him “square between the eyes.” But neither incident compared to the time a 22-foot anaconda swallowed his arm up to the shoulder.
“Luckily,” said Jim Fowler, the longtime co-host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” “I knew what to do.” As the tribe gathered around him fled, Fowler remained calm, waiting for the anaconda to tire itself out before he wriggled out of its grasp and returned to work, preparing for another episode of “Wild Kingdom.”
For more than two decades, Fowler brought the wonders of the natural world to millions of Americans, mixing entertainment and adventure with storytelling that raised awareness of the planet’s biological diversity and environmental woes. He died May 8 at his home in Rowayton, Conn., of a heart ailment at 89.
Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing more than 200 pounds, Fowler was known for swimming through snake-infested waters, diving with sharks and rappelling down remote cliff faces while his partner, zoologist Marlin Perkins, often watched from the jeep or narrated from the studio — much to the delight of “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson.
“Johnny would imitate Marlin, saying, ‘I’ll stay back at camp mixing drinks for the native girls while I send Jim downriver to wrestle the two-horned rhino in heat,’ ” Fowler once recalled. In fact, both men played a crucial role in popularizing the wildlife series and nature documentaries.
Lugging heavy cameras and tripods to all seven continents, they introduced baby boomers to unusual creatures as well as indigenous people. Their show spawned legions of imitators, including shows on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet by Steve Irwin.
Premiering on NBC in 1963, “Wild Kingdom” ran in syndication beginning in 1971 and was broadcast to more than 220 stations, reaching an estimated 30 million weekly viewers and winning four Emmys. The series was initially helmed by Perkins, a white-haired former director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Marlin Perkins’ sidekick
Fowler served as co-host and sidekick, then he took over after Perkins retired in 1985, leading the program until production wrapped the next year. The series was revived by Animal Planet in 2002.
He also hosted a successor program, “Mutual of Omaha’s Spirit of Adventure,” served as the wildlife correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show and was a frequent guest of TV hosts like Carson. For “Wild Kingdom,” Fowler braved windchills of 76 below while tracking polar bears in Alaska, perched on a helicopter pontoon to tag a moose by the ear, lassoed an alligator and used a “catcher stick” to rescue a puma from floodwaters.
An authority on birds of prey, he established his bona fides as an adventurous wildlife filmmaker when he flew to British Guyana in 1955 to study the harpy eagle, one of the world’s largest raptors. Accompanied by ornithologist Jim Cope, he spent weeks exploring the northern Amazon, using ropes and climbing spikes to ascend to the rain forest canopy and study the birds in their natural habitat.
He returned to the U.S. with 16mm film footage, material for an ornithological research paper and three harpy eagles, one of which joined him for an episode of the “Today” show. The appearance drew the attention of Perkins, who had hosted the Chicago program “Zoo Parade” and was looking to start a new nature series.
James Mark Fowler was born in Albany, Ga., on April 9, 1930.