“King of Beasts…or Prince of Pussycats?” - Tagline for Fluffy
Although Walt Disney seemed to have cornered the market on animal films by the 1960s, that didn’t stop other studios from trying to cash in on the dwindling family-movie market. MGM had scored a big hit with Flipper (1963), Ivan Tors’ story of a boy and his dolphin, and was preparing Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965), the inspiration for the popular television series Daktari. So why shouldn’t Universal get in the running with this 1965 tale of a lovable lion’s comic misadventures.
Tony Randall stars as a biochemist whose major experiment is proving that a lion could be tamed as a house pet. When his neighbors start spreading stories about his pet, Fluffy, he goes on the lam with the cat and checks into a hotel where he immediately bonds with the owner (Ernest Truex) and clashes with his daughter (Shirley Jones). When Truex takes off on a secret hunting trip, the police think Fluffy has eaten him, which sends Randall on the run again, this time handcuffed to Jones, leading to inevitable hijinks.
After making his film debut with a juicy supporting role in Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957), starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven, Randall had been promoted to stardom for the same year’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, co-starring Jayne Mansfield. His biggest career boost, however, had come with his supporting role as Rock Hudson’s romantic rival for Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959). That led Universal to reunite the team for a pair of follow-ups, Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964), and also brought him top billing for what was really a supporting role as the King of France in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960). For the rest of the 1960s, he moved easily between supporting roles and leads, mostly in comedies like The Brass Bottle (1964) and Fluffy.
The film’s title role was played by Zamba, an orphaned African lion who had been raised and trained by Ralph Helfer. Helfer was an oddity among Hollywood animal trainers in that he used more humane methods and devoted most of his life to fighting animal cruelty. Zamba was raised as a part of Helfer’s family and responded well to their affection, which made him one of the most popular trained animals in Hollywood. Zamba made his big-screen debut with an uncredited bit in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and first won billing for The Lion (1962), working on location in Africa with William Holden and Pamela Franklin. On Fluffy, Helfer doubled for Randall during scenes with the lion, but Zamba was so gentle that between takes he often napped with his head in Jones’ lap while she played the guitar for him.
Jones’ relationship with Zamba was one of the bright spots in the production for her. At the time, she was trying to build on the reputation as a dramatic actress she’d established with her Oscar®-winning role in Elmer Gantry (1960). At the same time, however, she had to take any work she could get to keep her family financially solvent because of first husband Jack Cassidy’s elaborate spending. The comic roles she played in films like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), Bedtime Story (1964) and this one were hardly ordeals, but they ultimately kept her from building a more dramatic career. Eventually she managed to pay the bills by signing on for The Partridge Family, in which she played the mother of a family rock band (inspired by The Cowsills) that included her off-screen step-son, David Cassidy. The series ran from 1970-1974, and her marriage to Cassidy ended a year after the show left the air.
Fluffy was the second of two films Randall made for Scarus, a company run by his agent, Abner J. Greshler. Those two films, this and The Brass Bottle, were Scarus’ only productions. Randall’s days as a big-screen leading man would end with Hello Down There (1969), but he would go on to even greater fame on TV as the Emmy-winning star of The Odd Couple, co-starring Jack Klugman. His proudest professional accomplishment, however, was founding the National Actors Theatre in 1991. The company produced revivals of classic plays on Broadway and at Pace University and gave Randall the chance to appear in the works of Georges Feydeau, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Nikolai Gogol. The company closed when he passed in 2004.
Producer: Gordon Kay
Director: Earl Bellamy
Screenplay: Samuel Roeca
Cinematography: Clifford Stine
Score: Irving Gertz
Cast: Tony Randall (Prof. Daniel Potter), Shirley Jones (Janice Claridge), Edward Andrews (Griswald), Howard Morris (Sweeney), Ernest Truex (Claridge), Jim Backus (Sergeant), Frank Faylen (Catfish), Dick Sargent (Tommy), Adam Roarke (Bob Brighton), Whit Bissell (Dr. Braden), Harriet E. MacGibbon (Mrs. Claridge), Parley Baer (Police Captain), Connie Gilchrist (Maid), Sammee Tong (Cook), Doodles Weaver (Yokel), Zamba (Fluffy the Lion), Judy the Chimpanzee (Dinky), Dorothy Neumann (Elderly Lady)