With the exception of one person, everyone I've known loves dolphins. People flock to water parks to swim with them or to watch them perform aquatic gymnastics. Expeditions of environmentalists regularly ensure their safety in hostile waters.
All can be traced to a half-hour television series, broadcast more than 40 years ago, that can be seen every day in some portion of the world. The series, of course, was Flipper , and being the executive in charge of its production is the only job I ever held that impressed my children.
Each episode was built around the water-oriented adventures of Sandy and Bud, the two young carefree sons of a sombre marine warden named Porter Ricks. For years, millions of people were enamoured of the anthropomorphic antics of our title character, a bottle-nosed female dolphin named Flipper. Everyone, that is, except the talented though hapless actor who played the father of the boys.
After obviously suffering silently through the first couple of years, somewhere in the middle of the third year of production, he began to phone me, usually after midnight.
From the sound of a loud jukebox in the background, I could tell that he was calling from a local watering place.
"Did I wake you?" he asked.
"Good," he said. "You gotta do something about the writers."
"I sent them another memo," I said.
The shows were written in California and we filmed them in Florida. My wife sat up in bed, silently formed the actor's name, and I nodded. She got up to make some warm milk and get a book.
"Why do they make me out to be a blithering idiot? An incompetent? Why do I always have to be a boob, huh, tell me that?"
"I wrote a very strong memo," I said.
"I've kept track," he wailed. "We've shot nearly a hundred episodes and in 99 per cent of them I have to ask the bloody dolphin, 'Where are the boys, Flipper?' I mean, what kind of a father have they made me out to be, huh, tell me that? Every script, my kids are always fine when I leave them to go to work in the morning. But when I come home they're never there. Where are they? The audience knows, but I don't. I never seem to know where my kids are. But the bloody dolphin knows. It always knows. 'Where are the boys, Flipper?' How many ways can I say that line?"
After a deep breath and, I suspect, a sip, he would continue.
"In some shows, I don't even get to talk to my kids. They've gone someplace when I leave for work, they're still gone when I come home and I have to ask the bloody dolphin, 'Where are the boys, Flipper?' She flips on her tail, chirps and scoots across the water and leads me to where the kids are hanging by their thumbs on a submerged, unexploded mine. Then the fish untangles them, they climb in the boat with me and I say, 'Thanks, Flipper.'"
"Mammal. It's a mammal, not a fish," I remind him.
"I knew that," he replies. "But can't they give me more than two bloody lines to say? Can't I talk to another grown-up human being in one of these shows?"
By now, I was sipping my warm milk, my wife was fully awake, reading her book, and the kids, who heard the voices and saw the lights on, had joined us on my side of the bed.
"I'm an actor, and don't you forget it," he continued. "I can handle dialogue. I've done Shakespeare. Has your dolphin ever done Shakespeare? Answer me that."
In the background, I could hear a smattering of applause from a few stalwarts at the bar.
I had never heard of dolphins performing Shakespeare, but then you could never be sure what these wily creatures did when a gaggle of them would get together in the ocean.
"Look," I said. "The season'll soon be over and this is probably the last year. Both the kids are shaving. The script person said one of them made a pass at her a few days ago."
"Why don't they wear real clothes like other kids? Why don't they go to school? Why don't they have the kind of problems they have to talk over with me, their father? Why is it that any time they do have a problem, they take it to the bloody dolphin?"
"Let me sleep on it," I said. "And you should get some sleep too. We're shooting in the morning."
"I've already learned my lines," he mumbled. "Want to hear them?" He took a deep breath and then blasted through the phone. "WHERE ARE THE BOYS, FLIPPER? THANKS, FLIPPER! CUT! PRINT!"
He slammed the phone down to another round of applause.
The next day, I sent another note to the writers, but before they could respond, I had a call from a William Morris agent.
"Hey sweetheart," he cooed. "We've just signed your dolphin as a client. Anything you can do to fatten her part?"
Stanley Colbert is a former literary agent and head of HarperCollins Canada.