Canadian Indie TV Pioneer Ralph C. Ellis Dies at 91

Courtesy of Stellis Media
Ralph C. Ellis

He launched Fremantle of Canada in 1956 with American partners; his 50-year career combined indie production and distribution.

Ralph C. Ellis, a pioneering Canadian producer of nature documentaries, including Audubon Wildlife Theater and Profiles of Nature, has died. He was 91.

"I attribute his longevity to an early focus and orientation on international distribution, which became the engine pulling the production train," his son, Stephen Ellis, said Monday in a statement announcing his father's passing.

Ellis was born on July 11, 1924, in Milton, Nova Scotia. After a World War II stint in the Canadian Air Force, he started out in TV production in 1946 at the National Film Board of Canada. That stint included three years in the public filmmaker's New York office.

On returning to Canada in 1956, Ellis co-founded Fremantle of Canada to locally distribute TV programming from U.S.-based Fremantle International as well as Australian and British TV fare. In 1964, he launched his own indie shingle, K.E.G. Productions, with partners Jerry Kedey and Dan Gibson.

Ellis' early TV credits included the CBC's Adventures in Rainbow Country, and Audubon Wildlife Theater, whose 78 half-hours aired here from 1968 to 1974 and was picked up by Twentieth Century Fox for U.S. syndication. His nature docs included Wings in the Wilderness, narrated by Lorne Greene and featuring geese filmed in flight at 100 frames per second.

Ellis also launched his own distribution shop, Ralph C. Ellis Enterprises, which brought classic Granada TV series like Coronation Street, Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown to Canadian living rooms. His international co-productions included Matt & Jenny, a 1979 collaboration with PolyGram, and Profiles of Nature, which aired in more than 100 countries over 20 years to 2004.

His family business, Ellis Entertainment, inked an output deal with an upstart Discovery Channel in 1986. And he co-founded Outdoor Life Network Canada in 1996.

Ellis stepped away from running his family business in 2002, and last year he was named chairman emeritus of Stephen Ellis’ new company, Stellis Media. Ellis earned more than 100 domestic and international program awards during his long career, and in 1997 he was named to the Order of Canada.