Everyone’s Favorite Dolphin: Behind the Scenes Of The TV Show “Flipper”

Flipper was a popular 1960s TV show starring the eponymous Flipper, a dolphin who served as kind of an aquatic Lassie, which helped children solve mysteries and crimes.

Flipper, in the show, was essentially the companion animal to Porter Ricks and his two sons Sandy and Bud. Porter Ricks’ job title was Chief Warden at Coral Key Park, both of which were purely fictional devices employed by the show and which bore no resemblance to the Florida Keys on which the show was filmed.

Flipper Was Inspired by a Movie

Source: Luke Halpin Gallery
Source: Luke Halpin Gallery

The Flipper TV series was inspired by the 1963 movie of the same name, Flipper. It was also influenced by the movie’s sequel, Flipper’s New Adventure. The TV series picked up where the movies left off and Porter Ricks was the lead role because in the second movie his wife Sandy Ricks was killed.

Flipper Was Recreated for the TV Series

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Source: Be Like Water
Source: Be Like Water

In the movies, Flipper the dolphin was an ordinary dolphin. In the TV show, it was felt that this wasn’t going to be a lasting concept so the dolphin became much more intelligent than he had been in the film and was said to understand human behavior, motivation, and speech.

Flipper and the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Source: Snag Films
Source: Snag Films

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the most famous horror movies ever created. It was also produced by Jack Cowden and Ricou Browning who created the Flipper TV show. It was their experience in underwater filming and their ability to direct performances under the waves that gave the show the greenlight.

Revenge of the Creature

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Source: Horrorpedia
Source: Horrorpedia

The first trailer for Flipper also owes itself to “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” In the movie’s sequel Revenge of the Creature, you can find Flippy: The Educated Porpoise. Which was a definite nod from the directors as to their future direction when it came to filming Flipper.

Flipper the Movie Was Based on a Book

Source: Pinterest
Source: Pinterest

The first Flipper movie which would lead to the TV series was filmed and directed by Ivan Tors. Ivan Tors based the film on a book called Flipper which, perhaps not so coincidentally, was written by… none other than Ricou Browning who would help to create the TV series of Flipper.

Flipper Was Filmed in Florida

Source: Alarostegui
Source: Alarostegui

Flipper was filmed in Florida. Much of the filming took place in Greenwich Studios which was based in Miami. However, when shots were required from the “wild” the filming was moved to Key Biscayne which is also in Florida. Many people believe, wrongly, that it was Virginia Key where filming took place.

Coral Key Park Wasn’t Entirely Fictional

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Source: Miami Beach Advisor
Source: Miami Beach Advisor

Coral Key Park was the name of the marine park in the show where Flipper and his human companions regularly saved the day. In real life, the show was supported by the “Miami Seaquarium” which is a real marine show and park. In fact, even today they have a dolphin show called the “Flipper Show” based there.

The Show’s Theme Was by the Legendary Henry Vars

Henry Vars - Henryk Warszawski - The theme of Flipper
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Metro Goldwyn Mayer

Henry Vars is one of the most respected theme composers of all time. He worked on more than 100 movies and several TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s. The theme had William “By” Dunham singing the lyrics. “By” Dunham was famous as a songwriter in his own right and his most famous work can be found in Bob Hope movies.

The Show Was a Huge Success

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Source: Jackson Upper Co
Source: Jackson Upper Co

The first season of Flipper saw the dolphin coming up against the well-loved and hugely popular The Jackie Gleason Show but the American public loved the concept and Flipper finished the year in the Top 25 shows for ratings in 1964-1965. The second season’s ratings showed a slight dip but the show was still very popular.

The Third Season Wasn’t the Charm

Source: Nostalgia Central
Source: Nostalgia Central

Flipper’s success had been, at least in part, down to the fact that The Jackie Gleason Show had come to feel a little tired to the audience. In Flipper’s third season, The Jackie Gleason Show was given a complete revamp and NBC launched I Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart to compete with Flipper. Flipper lost the ratings war and was canceled after 3 seasons.

Flipper Was Played by Five Female Dolphins

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Source: Roadaway
Source: Roadaway

Flipper was, in the show at least, a male dolphin. But the role of Flipper was actually played by five female dolphins because they are less likely to become aggressive than male dolphins. The female dolphins were Susie, Kathy, Patty, Scotty, and Squirt. They acted in all the scenes except one.

The Tail Walk Was Done by a Male Dolphin

Source: Newquay Safaris and Fishing
Source: Newquay Safaris and Fishing

While Flipper was normally played on screen by female dolphins there was a single exception to this rule. The tail walk is Flipper’s most famous trick and none of the female dolphins were able to learn it. So Clown became the only male dolphin to star in the show and only for this one trick.

Flipper Was Voiced by a Bird

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Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

Dolphins aren’t the most vocally articulate of creatures and teaching a dolphin to talk was beyond the scope of the show. Instead, Flipper was voiced by a Kookaburra which is a species of kingfisher native to Australia and New Guinea. It has a huge and unusual vocal range and was perfect for the voice of Flipper.

The Other Animal Star of the Show Was a Pelican

Source: Katie Did What
Source: Katie Did What

There were many animals used in the filming of Flipper including elephants, alligators, seals, and dolphins but only one animal had a recurring role on screen. That was Pete the pelican. Pelicans are large water birds with a long beak and a throat pouch and they are relatively placid with people and able to be trained to some extent.

Brian Kelly Went Bad Boy

Source: Pinterest
Source: Pinterest

Brian Kelly played Porter Ricks in Flipper. He was the warden and father to Sandy and Bud. His character was designed to give the show a “moral center.” After Flipper, Brian wanted to play some “bad boy” roles and took a part in The Love Machine but had a serious accident during filming which left him partially paralyzed and unable to act again. He died of pneumonia in 2005 at the age of 73.

Luke Halpin Became a Stuntman

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Source: Luke Halpin Gallery
Source: Luke Halpin Gallery

Luke Halpin starred as Sandy Ricks in both the Flipper movies and in the TV show. It was the acting role which brought him the most attention during his short acting career. He went on to have a three-decade long career as a stuntman and his work was featured in the TV show Miami Vice as well as the movies Speed 2: Cruise Control and Never Say Never Again.

Tommy Norden Left the Industry

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Source: Nostalgia Central
Source: Nostalgia Central

Tommy Norden was the younger brother Bud Ricks in Flipper and it remains the role for which he is most famous. He continued his acting career for a few years following Flipper before leaving the industry entirely for something new. Today, he runs an executive recruiting company based in New York City.

Andy Devine Passed Away at 71

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Source: Western Encounters
Source: Western Encounters

Andy Devine was in Flipper on a semi-regular basis in the character of Hap Gorman who created much of the show’s mythology. Andy continued to act in many small roles for the decade or so after the show finished before his death at the age of 71 of leukemia.

Ulla Strömstedt Went on To Act in Sweden

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Source: Photo Bucket
Source: Photo Bucket

Ulla Strömstedt appeared in the second season of Flipper as Ulla Norstrand an oceanographer. She was a “love interest” for Porter Ricks though no real relationship developed on-screen between the characters. The majority of her acting work following Flipper took place in her native Sweden before she passed away in France in 1986.

Flipper Lives On

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Source: Retroland
Source: Retroland

Flipper is unlikely to be remade for modern TV viewing thanks to the controversy of using animal stars in modern productions. However, the show is regularly syndicated on cable TV and children’s TV channels around the world. There’s also a character called Flipper which is a dolphin in the Cartoon Network’s The Annoying Orange.