This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 15, 2000
The Friendly Giant
The camera panned slowly across a miniature village until it reached a medieval castle replete with turrets and drawbridge. Then, in a rich baritone that seemed honey-dipped, the Friendly Giant encouraged his viewers to "look waaayyy up" to his tower. It was an invitation into a televised world of music, books and fantasy, one that millions of young Canadian viewers happily accepted between 1958 and 1985. Robert Homme, who played the giant, died last week in his Grafton, Ont., home at the age of 81, after a three-year battle with prostate cancer. And though the show hasn't been on (apart from a few specials) for 16 years, many former viewers still cherish The Friendly Giant. "You could just go in and be in your imagination," says 28-year-old Meaghan Forster, now a Toronto child-care worker. "It was non-violent and reassuring. The Friendly Giant will remain in my heart." Homme showed an affinity for children in his private life as well. "He was an exceptionally good father," says 50-year-old Richard Homme, the eldest of his four children with wife Esther (there are eight grandchildren). "You couldn't ask for more."
The same can be said of Homme's contribution to children's television. The CBC produced more than 3,000 15-minute episodes of The Friendly Giant, which Homme (pronounced Hummy) had created himself. Each episode followed the big guy as he and his hand-puppet pals, Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster (both played by Canadian actor and writer Rod Coneybeare), explored a single topic. A show based on horses, for example, would include a story about fillies, a little horse-related banter and a cowboy song. "We try to hold a child's attention for 15 minutes on one subject, which is harder than keeping him amused a minute at a time," Homme said in 1982.
The actor was born in Stoughton, Wis., and as a child developed a love of music. He spent time in the American army (he never saw combat) during the Second World War and later earned an economics degree at the University of Wisconsin. In 1947, however, Homme decided to begin a broadcasting career at the campus radio station. With the advent of television, he found himself working on a children's bedtime show for the university's TV station. The show's set was decorated with miniature props. During a broadcast, Homme caught a glimpse of his seemingly giant hand rearranging the tiny furniture. The idea for The Friendly Giant was born, and Homme created a prototype for the university station.
In 1958, after seeing Homme's show, CBC head of children's programming Fred Rainsberry offered him a 26-episode contract. Homme moved to Toronto and cast Coneybeare in the parts of Rusty and Jerome. The show's trademark miniature set never changed during its entire run. Homme and Coneybeare improvised each instalment around story ideas developed by Homme. Music, meanwhile, played an essential part. Homme, who played the clarinet and recorder, chose the folk song Early One Morning as the show's opening and closing theme. Over the years, The Friendly Giant hosted many of Canada's top musicians, including Moe Kaufman and Peter Appleyard. Homme introduced his young audience to eclectic styles as well as performers - everything from Cole Porter to Elizabethan madrigals. "He felt it was important to expose children to different kinds of music," recalls puppeteer Nina Keogh, who made her debut on the show at age 11. "I talk to so many people who trace their love of music back to his show."
To Homme, The Friendly Giant was a quiet playground. To set the tempo, he insisted on a two-minute opening sequence that drew kids gently into his make-believe world. "It was so unusually quiet and normal," observes Coneybeare, now 70 and retired in Toronto. "Bob, as a performer, was almost mesmeric. He would look at the camera and understand he was looking into the eyes of the little kids watching him." Children were not Homme's only fans, Coneybeare recalls. "He got endless letters from mothers saying, 'Thank you so much for those quiet 15 minutes. My kids just sit there and drink it in.' "
The CBC's decision to cancel The Friendly Giant in 1984 was greeted with almost universal contempt. There were questions in the House of Commons, while angry viewers bombarded the CBC with letters. The broadcaster reprised the show for a series of half-hour specials, but no regular episode was taped after that year.
With the exception of one book and two CBC albums, Homme refused to license the show or his image. "He could have become a millionaire with Friendly Giant toys and other spinoffs," says Coneybeare. "But Bob wouldn't commercialize his bond of trust with the kids."
At the core of the show's success was the fact that to children, all adults appear to be giants. But Homme proved that grown-ups can share kids' sense of play and wonder. The Friendly Giant always offered "a little chair for one of you, an armchair for two more to curl up in, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle." At the end of each show, the sun set and the cow jumped over the moon. In the Friendly Giant's world, anything was possible.
Maclean's May 15, 2000