May 09, 2020


(NBC, September 12, 1970-January 9, 1971)

DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, 20th Century Fox Television

Bob Holt – Doctor Dolittle
Hal Smith – Tommy Stubbins
Don Messick – Chee Chee, The Pushmi-Pullyu, Jip, Nico, various
Lennie Weinrib – George, Sam Scurvy, Zig-Zag, various
Robert Towers – Various animals
Barbara Towers – Various animals

            Hugh Lofting was a British civil engineer who enlisted in the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army in World War I. Choosing not to expose his children to the horrors of war, he wrote them imaginative illustrated letters. Those letters became the basis of his children’s novel series centering around the character of Dr. John Dolittle.

Hugh Lofting's art of Dr. Dolittle and Polynesia.

            Dr. Dolittle was a physician in Victorian England from the village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh where he lived with his spinster sister, Sarah. Gradually, he developed a love of animals that caused his house to become a menagerie that scared off his human patients and caused his sister to leave. After learning how to speak to all animals from his parrot, Polynesia, Dr. Dolittle decided to become a veterinarian. Dr. Dolittle then embarked on a journey around the world, helping various animals he came across and adding odd ones to what would become his personal zoo, or a sanctuary for the animals. Later, he became a naturalist and used his abilities to better understand nature and the history of the world. Among the other characters in the series was Dab-Dab, a duck who served as his housekeeper; Jip, his dog; Gub-Gub, his pet pig; Too-Too, his pet owl and accountant; the Pushmi-Pullyu, a gazelle/unicorn hybrid with heads at both ends of its body; the Great Glass Sea Snail, an enormous mollusk with a transparent airtight shell; and Tommy Stubbins, a boy from the village who would become Dr. Dolittle’s apprentice, among others. Tommy would also become the narrator for books set after his appearance.

Cover to the first book.

            The first book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts was published in the United States by Frederick A. Stokes in 1920; later published in the United Kingdom by Jonathan Cape in 1924. 15 books in total were written in the series; the 13th, Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake, was copyrighted in 1923 but not published until 1948, and the last two published after Lofting’s death in 1947. The second book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, won the prestigious Newbery Medal. Although the series maintained an internal chronology, they weren’t often published in chronological order until 1927’s Doctor Dolittle’s Garden. Lofting grew tired of the character and tried to end the series with 1928’s Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, but popular demand saw him return to the series in 1933 with Doctor Dolittle’s Return.

            Dr. Dolittle has been adapted multiple times since its publication. The earliest known one was a silent animated German short from 1928 called Doktor Dolittle und seine Tiere. It has also been adapted into radio and stage plays. After several attempts to do so since 1922, the first film version finally came in 1967. Produced by APJAC International Productions, distributed by 20th Century Fox, written by Leslie Bricusse and directed by Richard Fleischer, Doctor Dolittle starred Rex Harrison as the titular character and combined elements from several of the books: such as the origin of his abilities, the meeting of Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), the acquisition of the Pushmi-Pullyu to fund an expedition, the use of a dog to challenge murder charges (however his own rather than a homeless man’s), crashing on an island where he’s captured by natives, and the search for the Great Pink Sea Snail. After being plagued by numerous production problems, difficulties in managing a large ensemble of animals, and the demanding and often racist personality of the film’s star, the film’s budget ballooned from $6 million to $9 million. It was finally released on December 12 to negative reviews and only saw a box office return of $6.2 million (it ended up going against another animal-themed film, Disney’s The Jungle Book). Despite being a critical and commercial bomb, the studio held an intense lobbying campaign to get it nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, although it only ended up winning Best Original Song and Best Visual Effects.

The crew of The Flounder: Jib, Polynesia, Tommy, Dolittle, Too-Too, Dab-Dab and Chee-Chee.

            Doctor Dolittle was one of three large-scale musical films Fox had made in an attempt to duplicate the success of The Sound of Music. They hoped to double their bets by also duplicating the success of My Fair Lady by reuniting Harrison with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe; however, Loewe had retired and Lerner was fired by producer Arthur P. Jacobs for procrastinating on the script. All three films lost huge amounts of money and left the studio in dire financial straits (ironically, the studio was rescued when The Sound of Music was re-released to theaters in 1973). In anticipation of the film’s success, Fox made a tremendous merchandising push. They also penned a deal with DePatie-Freleng Enterprises to adapt the film into an animated series.

The pirate crew: Sam Scurvy, Miko, Nico, Cyclops and Zig-Zag.

            Developed and written by Lennie Weinrib and Paul Harrison, the series continued Dr. Dolittle’s (Bob Holt) journeys around the world, treating various animals that he came across and helping them with their problems. With him aboard his ship, The Flounder, was Tommy Stubbins (Hal Smith), Chee-Chee, the Pushmi-Pullyu, Jip (Don Messick), Too-Too, Dab-Dab and Polynesia. Along the way, the crew often ran afoul of pirates who were members of the local order of D.O.P.I. (Democratic Order of Pirates International). The pirates were led by Sam Scurvy (Weinrib) and were comprised of the hulking Cyclops, who wore an eyepatch over his good eye; Zig-Zag (Weinrib), an uptight French pirate; Nico (Messick), an Italian pirate; and Miko, a Chinese pirate. They travelled in a submarine whose top was disguised as an island, and wore a combination of traditional pirate garb mixed with suits typical of 1930s gangsters. Sam Scurvy wanted to learn Dolittle’s secret to communicating with animals, which he believed would allow him to control the animals and thus conquer the world.

The Grasshoppers on their album.

            The Further Adventures of Doctor Dolittle (although it was only ever titled Doctor Dolittle on screen) debuted on NBC on September 12, 1970. Like the movie it was based on, the show was done as a musical comedy. However, unlike other musical programs on air at the same time that just stuck any song wherever, the songs by Doug Goodwin were meant to match the events and situations of the particular episode in which they appeared. At a point in an episode, a grasshopper named George (Weinrib) and his band, aptly named The Grasshoppers (Robbie Falloon, Annadell, Colin Johnson, Mike Sherwood and Glyn Nelson), would perform from inside Dolittle’s medical bag after it was converted into a stage for them. Although, it was interesting that Victorian-era grasshoppers were big fans and composers of rock and roll music.    The musical sequences were designed by Arthur Leonardi, who also designed the title sequence. The series’ theme was a reworking of “Talk to the Animals”, which came directly from the film and was written by Bricusse. A collection of 12 of the songs were released by Carousel Records onto the album Doctor Dolittle Presents The Grasshoppers. All other music was provided by Eric Rogers.

Polyneisa asking Dolittle to help rescue her friend.

            Unfortunately, the series fared about as well as the film as it was put on the schedule against another musical, Josie and the Pussycats, and was cancelled after its single season. NBC would keep it on the schedule until the fall of 1972. Doctor Dolittle would continue to find adaptations in animation, stage and even video games. A film attempt wouldn’t be tried again until the 1998 modern reimagining starring Eddie Murphy, which managed to be successful and spawn four sequels through 2009. In 2020, another live-action film was made starring Robert Downey Jr., returning the story to its Victorian setting. Much like the 1967 film, the 2020 one was a critical and box office flop.

“The Grasshoppers Are Coming, Hooray, Hooray!” (9/12/70) – The pirates follow Dolittle to Grasshopper Island where he’s gone to treat the populace who have all lost their voices.

“The Bird Who Was Afraid to Fly” (9/19/70) – Dolittle tries to help Montgomery the gooney bird get over his fear of flying.

“The Land of the Tiger Moo” (9/26/70) – Dolittle has to protect the rare Tiger-Moo from the pirates and get its milk to treat a sick alligator in Florida.

“The Great Turkey Race” (10/3/70) – Dolittle enters an ocean race in order to save the first prize: Toots the Turkey.

“The Peanut Conspiracy” (10/10/70) – Dolittle sets out to make some Peanut-Cillin for an elephant that is allergic to peanuts.

“The Bar Bear” (10/17/70) – The pirates try to steal the medicine Dolittle has cooked up to give polar bears back their coats.

“High Flying Hippo” (10/24/70) – Dolittle concocts a way to rescue a hippo from a cliff ledge, but she loses her nerve to go through with it at the last minute.

“The Near-Sighted Bull” (10/31/70) – After Dolittle helps a bull regain his eyesight, he’s entered into a fight where Scurvy poses as the matador.

“The Silver Seals of the Circus” (11/7/70) – The Pushmi-Pullyu has to fill in for two injured seals to save a circus while the pirates sneak in dressed as clowns.

“A Girl for Greco Gorilla” (11/14/70) – Dolittle brings a homesick gorilla back to Africa and also tries to help find him a mate.

“A Tail of Two Snails” (11/21/70) – Dolittle takes the last of the Giant Pink Sea Snails to a new home after his is polluted and the pirates see their opportunity to strike.

“A Fox Called…Sherlock?” (11/28/70) – Sherlock the fox helps the crew track down Jip after he’s dog-napped by the pirates.

“The Tomb of the Phoenix Bird” (12/5/70) – The crew travels to Egypt to witness the rising of the phoenix, but end up in a trap set by the pirates.

“The Barnyard Rumble” (12/12/70) – Dolittle treats a talkative rooster’s laryngitis as a motorcycle gang shows up in town looking for trouble.

“The Baffled Buffalo” (12/19/70) – The President sends Dolittle to find a buffalo to model for a special commemorative medallion, but complications plague them along the way.

“A Hatful of Rabbit” (12/26/70) – The crew attends the magic show featuring a rabbit they treated, but are unaware that the pirates have hijacked it.

“The Bird from O.O.P.S.” (1/9/71) – Dolittle must save the rare ogle-bird egg from a Maharajah’s greedy mother who wants to use it to fatten him up for when he gets his weight in diamonds.

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