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A Great Rhino? He Should Know : Bill Burrud, a Pioneer of ‘Reality TV,’ Has Hit the Documentary Trail Again

Times Staff Writer

The leathery-faced, white-haired TV veteran was giving away a good part of the spotlight to his considerably younger co-star, but if he harbored any resentment, it didn’t show.

“This is one of the greatest rhinos I’ve ever worked with,” said Bill Burrud, handing yet another apple to Lasai--Hindi for “Fat Boy"--a 7,000-pound beast that roams the ranges of San Diego County’s Wild Animal Park. “He’s just great, isn’t he?”

Burrud should know. Over the years, he has worked with a lot of rhinos--and tigers, crocodiles, Komodo dragons and scores of other beastly creatures. In the years after he filmed his first show with a rented camera in 1954, Burrud produced more than 800 episodes of such animal and adventure programs as “Animal World”, “Safari to Adventure” and “Wanderlust.”

“He is one of the pioneers of reality television,” says Terry Bales, an instructor in TV history and chairman of the telecommunications department at Rancho Santiago College. “I used to watch all those films as a kid, growing up in a small town (like) Upland. . . . All those trips that he used to take were amazing.”

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Now, after a few years of semi-dormancy, Burrud and the company he started, Bill Burrud Productions Inc., are back, riding the wave of “reality television” that increasingly has been filling the schedules of networks, independents and cable stations alike.

The company, which recently moved its offices from Hollywood to Orange County, is busy reformatting old shows and taping new ones for the Discovery Channel, an all-documentary station that has grown rapidly since it was launched in 1985 and that now reaches more than 30 million households on cable networks.

Burrud has also signed deals with the Disney Channel and Yorkshire Television International in England and is negotiating for an adventure series with A&E;, the Arts and Entertainment Network.

These days, though the show still takes viewers to the wild jungles of Borneo or the grassy plains of Africa, Burrud’s own trips are more likely to be to a place like Wild Animal Park. At 64, the Sunset Beach resident is semi-retired; he still appears as narrator and host of the documentaries (“Hi, I’m Bill Burrud. Join me for an animal odyssey, right here on Discovery. . . .”), but no longer is he the driving force behind them.

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That position, along with those of president and CEO of Bill Burrud Productions Inc., has been assumed by Burrud’s 35-year-old son, John, who does the negotiating, seeks out locations and directs the programs.

“Dad stays away from the business end,” John said. “I like pressure. I like negotiating. My father has always disliked confrontation.”

The business end has been good for Bill Burrud Productions lately. The recent deals with the Discovery Channel are worth about $2 million to the company, John said.

“There is a real resurgence in reality programming,” John noted. “Four or 5 years ago . . . the only place you’d find reality TV was PBS. Now, you find it even on the networks and independents--newsmagazine shows, armchair adventures. People want to see exotic places. . . . They travel more, and maybe they’re tired of the drivel that’s normally on TV.”

Bales of Rancho Santiago also has noticed that reality TV is displacing some of the vapid sitcoms that have stifled the airwaves over the past few years. But many of the new shows, such as NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries” and Fox Television’s “America’s Most Wanted,” have “gone into the trash variety,” Bales said. “They’re crime-stopper shows, tabloid television.”

Burrud’s shows, Bales said, don’t fall into that category, though their popularity may be due in part to the same phenomenon: a paucity of new ideas for fictional TV.

“I think they’ve run out,” Bales said. “You can see from all these reunion shows. . . . Realism presumably needs no writing. You just go out and start shooting.”

Burrud Productions moved its offices from Hollywood to a suite in Huntington Harbour last year because “we didn’t really have to have a studio in Hollywood,” John said. “Most of our locations are around the world.”

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One of his most recent locations was the Pacific island of Tarawa. The program he taped there, called “Return to Tarawa” and scheduled to air on Discovery this summer, tells of the U.S. Marine assault on the island during World War II when it was occupied by the Japanese. Actual combat footage shot by a Marine is mixed with interviews of veterans of the battle who returned to the island with the film crew.

The first of four 1-hour specials Burrud is under contract to produce for Discovery, “Tarawa” is something of a departure from the sort of thing that made him such a familiar face in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. His most successful show, “Animal World,” was prime-time on a major network from 1968 to ’71, about the same period as Marlon Perkins’ “Wild Kingdom.”

The show, which eventually went into syndication, featured usually wild but sometimes controlled animals placed in natural settings. They were not highly detailed, problem-oriented National Geographic specials, just armchair nature tours.

“Part of the appeal of Bill’s programs is they are fairly impressionistic,” says Greg Moyer, vice president for programming at Discovery. “They are organized around the observations of Burrud himself. . . . I’m sure that’s what makes them accessible. They represent one man’s view of something, never represented as the definitive look (at) the animal he chooses to observe.”

Burrud agrees with Moyer’s assessment. “I’m not a zoologist,” he said. “I’m not an expert. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting scientists, and there are so many guys in the field who are experts.”

In return for their help on his shows, Burrud sometimes brings various kinds of equipment to field researchers. “I wouldn’t mind paying them, but they’d much rather have the equipment,” he said. “We once brought a rectal thermometer to a scientist on the Komodo Islands. It was the only way he could take the temperatures of Komodo dragons.”

The Discovery Channel thought enough of Burrud’s programs to buy more than 230 half-hour episodes from the company’s inventory. Footage from some of those shows will be mixed with previously unreleased footage to create a new 1-hour series called “Bill Burrud’s Animal Odyssey.” The show will debut April 2. Each episode will feature three 20-minute segments.

Two weeks ago, the Burruds traveled to Wild Animal Park with a crew to tape new “intros,” “outros” and “bumpers” (“Next we’ll travel to the Arctic. . . . but first, these words”).

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When he wasn’t feeding apples to Lasai, Bill Burrud kneeled in a pen with hungry cheetahs (“Aren’t these beautiful cheetahs?” he asked, smiling into the camera), let a tarantula crawl on his arm, and mugged with a black bear, beavers and elephants. He also shot segments with a serval (a small African wildcat), Przewalski’s horses, dromedary camels and gorillas.

Three straight days of taping in the bright sun took its toll, but Burrud was still sharp and maintained his upbeat sense of humor. As the end of the final day approached, two women on the Discovery staff were hurriedly writing the lines for the last few spots. “Come on, girls,” Bill said. “I’ve gotta get home and cash my Social Security check. . . .”

Bill Burrud has the healthy, tanned look of a man who has spent his whole life in the right parts of Southern California. He still swims year-round in the ocean and plays handball regularly at the Hollywood YMCA. He accompanied the crew on its recent trip to Tarawa, and hopes to make more programs about and with the soldiers who fought in the Pacific war.

Burrud himself was in the Navy during that campaign, and his brother was killed in the war while flying over Japan.

A Hollywood native, he broke into show business as a 7-year-old in 1932 in a traveling production of “Music in the Air.” He went on to appear in about 30 movies for 20th Century-Fox, Columbia and MGM.

It was Burrud’s success as a child actor that first brought him to Orange County. His grandfather had built a cottage on Sunset Beach in the early 1900s, and young Bill wanted to use some of his own money from the movies to buy his own surf-side lot.

“My money was in trust, so we had to go to court to get it freed up,” he recalls. “The lot cost $1,100, and I remember the judge saying that $1,100 seemed like a lot for a piece of sand.”

Such advice notwithstanding, Bill bought the lot, and about 8 years ago he sold his house in Pacific Palisades and moved to his house in Sunset Beach. John and his family live next door.

When he returned to Los Angeles after the war, Burrud finished his studies at USC and received a degree in business administration. A few years later, he sold his first film--"Open Road"--to KTTV, and Bill Burrud Productions was on its way.

“At first I did straight travel shows,” Burrud said. “But every time we did animals, we’d get a higher rating.”

So he began producing the animal series and several specials, including an hourlong film in 1974 called “Where Did All the Animals Go?” It raised about $120,000 for an anti-poaching fund; the proceeds were used to purchase a helicopter and other equipment to fight poachers in Kenya’s Tsavo Park West.

John Burrud learned documentary film-making at his father’s side, traveling with him to Africa at 14 to film the pilot episode for “Animal World,” and from then on, spending his summer vacations from Palisades High School on location with the company.

“I loved it,” John said. “I would work as a grip, a go-fer, that kind of thing. . . . When I graduated from high school, rather than go to college, I decided that this is what I wanted to do.”

Young Burrud spent several years learning how to edit and shoot film before he produced his first feature--on sharks--in 1976. He took over as president of the company about 7 years ago. How does he like working with his famous father?

“It’s been fabulous and horrible all at the same time,” he said. “It’s great because we’ve gotten real close. But there’s a little bit of a role reversal at times. And it’s hard because this is a creative business, and sometimes there is a difference of opinion . . . but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”


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