ARTICLE

CELEBRATING MARLIN PERKINS AND JIM FOWLER’S LEGACY

June 24, 2024

When Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom premiered on Jan. 6, 1963, it introduced millions of Americans to a new genre of television: wildlife programming. Though other shows aired during its original run, no other nature series continues to stir up name recognition and fond childhood memories quite like Wild Kingdom.

To enjoy Wild Kingdom, viewers didn’t need to be animal experts. All they needed was an appetite for adventure, because Hosts Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler were their guides to the natural world.

Even today if you say, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” it isn’t long before someone starts talking about Marlin and Jim, and their extraordinary encounters with wildlife. Many will recall Marlin’s wrestle with an anaconda in the Season 6 episode, “Giants of Dadanawa,” as a favorite encounter. Throughout their 22 years of hosting, Jim and Marlin shared many memorable moments and became legends in the story of wildlife conservation.

Discover how Marlin and Jim went from animal experts to TV stars, all while keeping true to their roots.

 

A black and white image of two men wearing suits on a television set with animals. One is holding a microphone, the other has a small monkey on a leash. You can be part of the large camera that says "WNBQ Television" on it.

 

Marlin and Jim before Wild Kingdom

From Zoo Parade to Wild Kingdom

Marlin’s wildlife career started as a grounds crew member at the Saint Louis Zoo, where he earned $3.75 a week. He didn’t stay a groundskeeper for long — within two years he became curator of reptiles, exponentially growing the zoo’s collection to 500 animals. From there, he was the Saint Louis Zoo’s director as well as director the New York Zoological Gardens and Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Chicago brought him his first opportunity with television, hosting a local show, Zoo Parade in 1949. By the next year, the series ran nationally and showcased animals from the zoo. It was produced by Don Meier, who later went on to create and produce Wild Kingdom.

“He started off in TV when there were about 200 receivers in the Chicago area,” said Marlin’s daughter, Marguerite Perkins Garrick.

By the time Zoo Parade ended in 1955, Marlin was recognized as an animal expert. He traveled for speaking engagements including to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1962, home of one of Zoo Parade’s former sponsors, Mutual of Omaha. It was in Omaha that Marlin spoke with CEO V.J. Skutt about a new series that would later become Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

Learn more about the creation and early days of Wild Kingdom.

A black and white image of a man, Jim Fowler, with a large harpy eagle perched on his hand. He's wearing a protective glove on that arm and his other arm is touching the chest of the eagle.

How did Marlin and Jim meet?

While Marlin was hosting Zoo Parade, Jim was finishing up his degrees in zoology and geology from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. He then worked at a raptor sanctuary in Florida and later studied harpy eagles along the Amazon River in Brazil.

Jim’s expertise of harpy eagles landed him a spot on NBC’s Today show in 1961. But more importantly, it caught the eye of Marlin, who then invited Jim to host Wild Kingdom.

 

Two men, Jim Fowler and Marlin Perkins. Marlin, the man on the right is holding a lizard. There is a blue sky and trees behind them.

 

Marlin and Jim host Wild Kingdom

When viewers first saw Marlin and Jim in the first episode, “Myths and Superstitions,” the hosts had a palpable enthusiasm for wildlife and an eagerness to share their findings with the world. The duo would go on to host more than 20 seasons, taking viewers to six of the seven continents.

Debunking the myth: Marlin in the studio, Jim in the field

The series featured moments in both the studio and in the wild. In studio, Marlin donned a suit and tie while Jim sported a khaki shirt and pants, looking ready to head out into the field. Perhaps this duality of fashion is what started the notion that Marlin was always in the studio and Jim did his “dirty work.” But Tonight Show host Johnny Carson was the one who cemented the sentiment.

“Johnny Carson started that and I can’t seem to shake the image. It isn’t true, you know. Marlin was right there with me on almost all of the stuff,” Jim told the Associated Press in 1993.

 

Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler in a canoe on a river. Marlin appears to be using an ore to row while Jim is standing slightly, bent over with his hands on his knees and looking into the water.

 

Watch classic Wild Kingdom episodes back today and you’ll see that Jim wasn’t alone filming on location. Marlin was right there with him, tracking animals and telling viewers what he saw.

“Jim would tell me that was blown way out of proportion,” said Ron Magill, Zoo Miami goodwill ambassador and communications director. “Marlin many times would go in and do a lot of the things Jim did. He defended Marlin wholeheartedly; it was a very big misconception.”

It’s true, however, in the later years of the show, Jim did spend more time in the wild. This was simply because Marlin was 25 years his senior and battling cancer. In 1985, Marlin stepped down as host to focus on his health. Peter Gros joined the Wild Kingdom team and continues to be a part of it today as co-host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant.

 

Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler bottle feeding small deer on their laps. There are two scouts seated on either side of them. They appear to be sitting in front of a camp with tree large tents in setup behind them.

 

Who were the real Marlin and Jim?

Outside their wild adventures, what were Marlin and Jim like? Those who worked with the hosts say they weren’t affected by their fame.

“Marlin was always more interested in hearing what you’ve been doing than telling you what he’d been doing,” said Peter Drowne, Wild Kingdom director of photography and field production. “There are a lot of people in the public eye that are sort of ego involved. But Marlin and Jim were not that way.”

Magill echoes the sentiment for Jim saying, “when you meet him, you realize he’s such a Southern gentleman, such a great person and never full of himself. I’ve worked with a lot of celebrities who are so full of themselves. Jim was the absolute opposite.”

Even when Marlin would return home from his memorable filming trips, he wouldn’t focus on what he saw abroad, but rather wanted to know what had happened while he was gone.

“He always wanted to hear our news first, like if I got the part in a play,” Perkins Garrick said.

An older Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler look at each other while each holding a side of a newspaper. They are both wearing suits.

How Jim and Marlin’s legacy lives on

Humility, charisma and expertise — these are the characteristics that made Jim and Marlin stand out among the pack and they’re what many still recall about the hosts today.

“Jim taught us all how to be humble and respectful at all times,” Magill said. “Look at some of the things he did even on the Tonight Show. There was just a humbleness to him that was fantastic.”

Though Marlin and Jim filmed hundreds of episodes, they made every episode an unforgettable event for all those involved.

“I really appreciated his ability to be the spokesman to the program and involve the audience and give all the people he worked with such a special experience,” Drowne said of Marlin.

But why did Wild Kingdom resonate with the general public? Because its hosts went beyond the scientific facts about animals and invited the audience to truly connect with wildlife conservation.

“Jim was such a great storyteller,” Magill said. “That’s going to define the difference between a person who’s successful in getting people involved in conservation and one who is not. You can have people who do research, can write great scientific papers and can do all the technical things.

“But if you’re not able to connect with the common man who lives among these animals that we’re trying to protect, all your research, all your work is going to be a moot point. Because until we get those people to take ownership and want to care for these animals themselves, we’re not going to be able to save them. And that was the gift Jim had.”

Their legacy lives on today in those they inspired.

“All my life, conservationists, veterinarians, zoologists, field biologists and people who have been moved to volunteer and support wildlife organizations have told me my dad and Wild Kingdom were their inspiration to want to work with and conserve animals,” Perkins Garrick said.

 

Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild hopes to encourage a new generation of conservationists.

 

“Something that’s so imperative about Wild Kingdom, it enables families to sit down and watch and connect on a common level, a common appreciation of something that affects all of us,” Magill said.

We hope it’s something Jim and Marlin would be proud of.

Related posts

Mother, baby, and grandma sitting on hospital bed after delivery Mother, baby, and grandma sitting on hospital bed after delivery

From the Wild Kingdom to Your Kingdom

Protection is in our DNA. From your family to your health and finances, Mutual of Omaha can help you protect what matters most.

LEARN MORE