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Hubert G. Wells, a longtime Hollywood animal trainer whose many credits include the original Doctor Dolittle, Out of Africa, Babe: Pig in the City and, in 1970, the bizarre kids tv series Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, died Dec. 25 of natural causes at his home in Thousand Oaks, California. He was 88.
His death was announced on social media by friends and animal training colleagues.
Born in Hungary, Hubert Geza Wells defected to the West following Russia’s crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.
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“Eight years later I moved to California with my Indian leopard and golden pointer,” Wells, the author of the 2017 memoir Lights, Camera, Lions, wrote, referring to the dog-and-leopard show he staged on the East Coast. “A job awaited us, a two-part T.V. show for the Disney Studios. In the following years my animals and, at times, myself as a stunt double, appeared in over 150 films, T.V. shows and commercials.”
Working as a trainer at California’s Jungleland USA animal theme park and zoo, Wells scored his first major feature film credit in 1967 with Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison. Three years later he landed another high-profile training job – high-profile at least among children of the era and, later, devotees of oddball kids TV shows – with Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. That show featured a cast of chimpanzees in a comic take on the secret agent genre, with the chimps costumed and voiced as humans.
By the mid-1970s Wells was the go-to animal trainer for such action series as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman and Manimal. His feature film credits include Born Free (1974), Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Out of Africa (both 1985) and The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). In 1994 he trained camels for The Jungle Book and, four years later, the primates of Babe: Pig in the City.
In 1982, Wells, along with longtime friend and fellow trainer Doree Sitterly, made a memorable appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, bringing along a lion and providing Carson an opportunity to display one of his trademark, laugh-getting animal reaction takes.
On the website for his 2017 memoir, Wells described himself as “an endangered species, a living fossil, a walking dinosaur” in a vastly and rapidly changing Hollywood. “What I have done with real animals future generations will only read about,” he wrote. “Digitally created cheesy wolves in the ‘Twilight Saga’ and ridiculous C.G.I. lion in ‘Narnia’ are replacing live animal actors.”
On his years in show business, Wells distinguished his role as animal trainer from that of circus trainers: “In the circus, the trainer is in a steel cage with his group of predators. In the movies, I was responsible for a large crew and exotic humans like Rex Harrison, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Taylor, and Pee Wee Herman.”
In at least one case, Wells wasn’t quite so protective of a film’s reputation. “On the triple Razzie Award winning film ‘Sheena Queen of the Jungle,’ I took 5 lions, 3 leopards, 4 chimpanzees, 4 white horses , 1 Rhodesian Ridge back, 12 flamingos, 2 macaws, 1 elephant and 1 rhino to Kenya. A world record for animals shipped back to the cradle of mankind.
“‘Sheena’ was a bad picture, almost painful to watch, but for me and my crew it was fun to do and financially rewarding.”
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