From the Serengeti to Papua New Guinea and many wild places in between, Peter Drowne had the adventure of a lifetime as the director of photography and field production for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom from 1974-1987.
“It was a real adventure. Really fun,” Drowne said. “Marlin Perkins was always really interested in the people around him. He was a very humble person. Jim Fowler was a talented guy and had a lot of animal experience in his background.”
Filming Wild Kingdom
Drowne started with Wild Kingdom as the cameraman for the episode, “Bighorn Sheep,” in which Marlin visits a small mountain island in the middle of Flathead Lake in southern Montana, home to a large herd of bighorn sheep.
The episode launched Drowne’s career with Wild Kingdom and adventures with Marlin and Jim.
Some memorable moments include the myriad of ways the crew got to the locations — more than just trains, planes and automobiles, but rafts, snowmobiles and even elephants.
“We used an unbelievable number of traveling situations,” Drowne said. “Down the Zambezi in Africa and up in Indonesia, we were doing large river raft expeditions. These big yellow rafts and going through class 6 rapids. Other times we’d be in Land Rovers or a lot of helicopter work.”
While traveling, Drowne would always be armed with his camera, ready to get an interesting angle for viewers back home.
“We were out filming [episodes] right in the helicopter with the animals running below you,” Drowne said. “I like that high adventure part quite a bit. I would try to give the audience the best part.”
One of the great things about Wild Kingdom, Drowne said, is that it was filmed honestly and didn’t sensationalize.
“The camera and technology are not causing attention to itself. No zoom lens shots, no things cutting out parts of the action … it was full continuity,” Drowne said.
This allowed the audience to be involved every step of the way and really feel as though they were in these authentic, wild places, Drowne said. That authenticity was also prevalent in the way Marlin and Jim hosted and interacted with those on set.
Drowne recalls filming an episode with a Boy Scout in the Serengeti. Marlin took the time to show the boy the wonders of the Serengeti including morning patrols in the midst of thousands of wildebeests and lions.
“Marlin was just wonderful to show this young scout all he knew,” Drowne said. “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 Marlin and Jim were different than most hosts in the film industry.
“Marlin was always more interested in hearing what you’ve been doing than telling you what he’d been doing,” Drowne said. “There are a lot of people in the public eye that are sort of ego involved. But Marlin and Jim were not that way.”
Wild Kingdom legacy continues today
Decades later, Host Peter Gros continues the tradition of involving the audience in unique wildlife experiences. Gros’ Wild Kingdom career started in 1985 for the episode “Operation Alligator,” which Drowne directed.
Today, Gros hosts Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild, a series which Drowne said continues the tradition of bringing viewers together as a family to learn about wildlife.
“All different members of the family can find an education and an adventure,” Drowne said. “We got the audience aware of what’s going on in the world of wildlife with the original series. Now the audience wants to learn more. This new chapter takes them into the field to see what’s going on with wildlife and wildlife restoration.”
Both the classic and new series share the same core message of wildlife conservation, yet the approach has changed. The first episodes of Wild Kingdom are more narrative, showing the wildlife with the hosts narrating what is happening. Then Wild Kingdom moved into showing more of the location production. Today, Protecting the Wild shows Gros talking directly to experts in the field, bringing the audience along the way.
“Once you get the audience out there in the wild and get them involved, you get young people saying, ‘I may be interested in a career in wildlife,’” Drowne said.
Sixty years after its premiere, Wild Kingdom is still captivating audiences with its stories of conservation success.
“Protecting the Wild is building on a great tradition. By continuing to involve the audience, keeping it informative, that is going to ensure that Wild Kingdom is going to continue,” Drowne said.