Issue: Winter 2011-2012
Working Like a Dog in Hollywood
Dogs have stood beside us forever.
Ancient cave paintings as well as images found in Egyptian palaces, Roman mosaics, Greek sculpture--you name it--all depict dogs as loyal, majestic and in particular, useful. Since time immemorial they've been our trusted workmates; hunting with us, tending our flocks and, more recently, nobly and faithfully assisting our disabled, acting as their eyes and ears, even warning as to impending health crises such as epileptic seizures and heart attacks.
Yes, dogs have proven useful and stalwart companions, but they also happen to be stupendously entertaining, so it was only a matter of time before humankind immortalized Canis familiaris on the silver screen.
Hollywood, in fact, boasts a long and proud tradition of launching the careers of canine thespians. Three lucky dogs, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and silent film star Strongheart have even been commemorated on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, visited by some 10 million people annually.
Lassie watching over Timmy
The story of dogs in film really begins with Strongheart, whose off-screen name, Etzel Von Oeringen, sounds more like that of a Prussian war hero. This majestic German Shepherd was brought to the U.S. from his native Germany by filmmakers Jane Murfin and Laurence Trimble. Trained as a police dog, Strongheart chose a less dangerous path, becoming the first bona fide canine film celebrity. He appeared in several movies, including "North Star" (1925) where he was featured alongside a very young Clark Gable. Success had its price, however, and this Teutonic tail-wagger, not immune to the machinations of celebrity-obsessed opportunists, was wrongly accused of killing a young girl, Sofie Bedard. His good name was cleared, however, and the unfortunate child's parents were prosecuted for perjury. You may visit Strongheart's star in front of 1724 Vine Street (between Yucca Street and Hollywood Boulevard).
Today, canines in show business account for huge numbers at the box office, so when the right shaggy dog story galumphs along, producers are eager to bite. Take, for example "Marley & Me" (2008). To date, the film has earned nearly $250,000,000 worldwide, making it the most successful dog movie of all time and proving that Rover really can fetch box office gold.
Everyone is looking for the next "It" dog; a Toto, a Benji, a Spuds MacKenzie. Behind the scenes, agents like Michelle Zahn of the Le Paws Agency make their living signing and booking dogs for film, TV and commercials. An "all-canine" agency, Zahn's group sets itself apart, working exclusively with "regular people" and their pets, rather than those who train and keep animals for a living. Zahn absolutely loves what she does but, Rodney Dangerfield-like, laments the fact that dogs don't get enough respect. "The prop department pretty much books the dog… as a prop. A dog doesn't get residuals. These animals are so smart and so trained and spend so much time working on their craft, just like a human actor. There really should be no difference."
Poochly performers (and their owners) do take their craft very seriously - some film animal training programs costing in excess of $5,000 - but some are simply "to the manner born."
"When she's home, she's really just like a little spoiled girl," says canine stage mother Patti Negri of her longhaired Dachshund, model/actress Dora Negri-Crutchfield. "But any time she would see a camera, she would sit, she would act, she would do whatever she had to do. I didn't teach her that." A veteran of numerous productions and commercials, Dora is one of the few dogs with her own IMDB page. She's also a featured athlete at Los Alamitos Race Course where she regularly runs at the track's rollicking "Wiener Nationals", a sort of Kentucky Derby for Dachshunds.
"She's a ham," says Negri. "She takes after her mother!"
Dora and Patti Negri
Not just any dog is destined to shine on the big screen, however, and don't think there's no such thing as a doggie screen test!
Cris Rankin of A-1 Animal Talent puts it this way: "The dogs we represent have to be able to do all of the basic obedience commands - off leash and away from home. We put dogs through a process and they sometimes fall apart. Their owners get bent out of shape saying, 'Well, you dropped something next to my dog!' We say 'Yeah, on a set things fall and there are thirty people around and there are noises and things clanking and clinking and a lot of times dogs will freak out.'"
As with any business, there are some heavy hitters in the canine acting world. Cheryl Shawver heads up Animal Actors of Hollywood. The agency has supplied the film industry with professionally trained dogs for over 40 years. Their Mushu and Chin Chin, now sadly in doggie heaven, played the hilarious "Frank", the alien pug in "Men In Black" (1997). More recently, their beefy Pitbull Scooby starred as the menacing beast chasing Josh Brolin over what seemed like miles of West Texas prairie in the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men" (2007). It's not always fun and games on the set and sometimes directors and producers have a difficult time communicating what they want from an animal performance. Not so of the Coens.
A trainer's delight, Shawver said of her experience on "No Country": "They are high on the list of our favorite people to work with. They know what they want and how they would like to shoot it, and are good about letting us know exactly what will be required. So when the time came, everyone was prepared for what was needed."
One thing is for sure: there appears to be no end to bow wow "Wow!" As recently as the writing of this article, yet another precocious pup is perched upon the precipice of doggie stardom. "Uggie", the adorable terrier who stole every scene in Michel Hazanavicius's spellbinding "The Artist", has taken show business by storm both here and in Europe. Winning Cannes' unofficial canine award, the Palm Dog, Uggie also received a new collar and a bottle of gin for his efforts. We wish him well and only hope that he does not make a habit of drinking, as we wouldn't want to see his life go to the…
…well, you know.
Adorable Uggie at the AFI Film Fest