Friday, October 4, 2013

Wilda, Queen of the Jungle

When I was a kid,  there was a television series starring Irish McCalla. It had a great title -- Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. I doubt I ever actually watched it, and I’m sure I didn’t see the later film and TV versions. No matter, though, because I know someone who is a queen of the jungle for real.

Wilda Rokos met me for lunch, wearing a purple T-shirt embossed with a glittery pattern and a pair of crisp white slacks. She sported a gold necklace, bracelets, earrings, and an emphatic diamond ring. Her nails were lacquered pink, her makeup was impeccable, and her blonde hair was in perfect array. In other words, she was the very model of a modern SoCal matron. In fact, Wilda grew up in tony Brentwood, California, with Gregory Peck as a neighbor, Jimmy Stewart as the father of  two classmates, and tap-dancer Eleanor Powell as her Sunday School teacher. Her dad, an insurance agent whose clients included the owners of such swank local eateries as Chasin’s and Scandia, socialized in off-hours with “below the line” Hollywood types like the Westmore family of makeup artists.

Wilda’s mother was an actress and singer long employed by MGM, dubbing in singing voices for stars who were less musically talented. Because she discouraged her daughter from entering the entertainment field, Wilda enrolled in USC to study literature and art. Newly out of college, she spent six years or so working for the ferocious actors’ agent Sue Mengers at ICM. As Mengers’ assistant and “doormat,” she read scripts, negotiated deals, and kept stars like Gene Hackman out of trouble. Finally she decided, “I didn’t want to be a handmaiden any longer.” Eventually, she joined forces with her Oscar-winning husband, Jim Rokos (“The Resurrection of Bronco Billy”), to launch a programming sales company, selling high-caliber shorts for TV airings. That’s how she came to the attention of the Discovery Channel. She’d always loved animals. The channel had acquired some crude nature footage, showing animal life in Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. Wilda rescripted the documentary and supervised the editing: the result was a 4-part special called Balance of Nature.

Soon Discovery was proposing a “Most Dangerous Animal” series. It funded her trip to Venezuela and Brazil to investigate piranha habitats. During a return visit to South America, she was photographing deadly snakes up close and personal. The result was Anaconda: Queen of Serpents, a National Geographic wildlife documentary focusing on the scientific research of herpetologist Jésus Rivas. Wilda made money by retaining foreign rights. In the process, “I became queen of the snakes. Do I like snakes? No!”  Still, she appreciates the role they play in nature. Fortunately, she’s not the squeamish type. She can fearlessly handle less venomous snakes, and gamely hold an anaconda by the tail to keep it in a shot.

Her stays south of the border taught her that applying mascara in the jungle is an exercise in futility. She also learned that “animals are safer than people.” Once, when she’d chewed out a local member of her crew, he threatened to kill her. Forewarned, she slept that night with two camera assistants, one on either side of her, and an open knife in her hand. Today she worries about the fate of such indigenous creatures as the caiman and the capybara if Venezuela follows through on Hugo Chávez’s radical plan to turn private cattle ranches into rice paddies. Ideally, “I get to show nature in a very beautiful way.” But because of Venezuelan political upheaval, “I have no idea what’s happened to those animals.” 

Wilda in Irian Jaya, Indonesia


  1. Bravo! I've always had a yen to do some wildlife photography or videography - and I heartily applaud anyone who actually does it. One of the bright spots of my week is the final seconds of each week's CBS Sunday Morning program - the "Moment of Nature," a usually tranquil few seconds shot in some of the more gorgeous spots in this country and elsewhere.

    Any tales of the multi-generational Westmore family - going from the early days of Universal Studios to the various Star Trek series - and beyond - in your book of notes, Ms. G?

  2. I don't know much about the Westmores, except that some family members are still at it -- I saw a Westmore name credited with the makeup for "Gravity"! The unfortunate thing about Wilda's type of work is that it's been superceded by those junk "reality" shows on most of the networks with whom she's had past connections. Currently viewers (and network programmers) don't especially want to see genuine nature shows: they want to see blood and guts.