From Strays to Stars
As regal as they might seem, the four-legged stars of Hollywood are not always purebreds with papers. In fact, some of the best-loved animal stars in American television and movie history—think Benji the dog and Morris the cat—were strays saved from the streets or shelters. From the early days of TV and cinema, critters who had a rocky start in life have made it big and captured the hearts of millions of viewers.
A NEW LEASH ON LIFE
The American Humane Association, whose Film & Television Unit has been looking out for the safety of animal actors on the set since 1940, estimates that about 80% of animal stars were rescued. Dr. Karen Halligan, director of veterinary services for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles, says that shelters provide a wide selection of lovable, unique animals. “Some of the best animals I have ever seen have come from shelters. They really are just one of a kind,” she says.
Lorraine Putnam of Birds & Animals Unlimited, a California company that supplies actors and trainers for movies and commercials, says the trainers from her company look for high-energy dogs and cats that are always getting into trouble—and then they work with the animals to redirect their energy.
“A lot of them have so much character and personality,” Putnam says of rescue animals. “They have been through so much more than the ones who have led sheltered lives.”
FROM STREETS TO SILVER SCREEN
All of these strays had special star qualities that—along with being in the right place at the right time—made them famous.
Benji: In the early 1960s, a shaggy little cocker spaniel–poodle–schnauzer mix sat in a California shelter waiting to find a home. His lonely life turned around when animal trainer Frank Inn took him home and named him Higgins. This scrappy former stray starred in the television series Petticoat Junction, but his big break came at age 14—after he had already retired once. He won the lead role in the 1974 movie Benji, about a stray dog who saves two kidnapped children. The movie captured the hearts of kids and adults alike and won rave reviews from critics. The New York Daily News praised the dog’s acting abilities, calling Benji the “Laurence Olivier of the dog world.”
Recently, when writer and director Joe Camp, who created Benji, decided to stage a comeback for the beloved dog, he insisted on finding a shelter mutt to play the lead role, partly because he estimates that one million dogs were adopted thanks to the original Benji. With television crews in tow to help publicize the plight of homeless animals, Camp searched shelters across the country. At a shelter in Mississippi, he finally found the perfect pooch to star in 2004’s Benji: Off the Leash! During the promotion of the movie, Benji participated in benefits all over the country to help raise money and further promote the cause of other lovable shelter animals.
Morris the Cat: Before being discovered in 1968, Morris the cat sat unwanted in a Chicago area animal shelter. “His days were literally numbered,” according to the official Morris Web site. But one day the plump orange tabby got lucky. Shelter officials, who saw his potential, contacted animal trainer and ad agency employee Bob Martwick, who stopped by to have a look. Martwick fell in love and adopted Morris. Soon afterward, Morris landed the acting gig that made him a household name—a role as a pet food spokescat in a television commercial. With the help of a human actor’s voice, Morris haughtily rejected other brands of cat food before accepting one particular brand. Viewers were smitten, and Morris became the most famous cat in America.
Old Yeller: When animal trainer Frank Weatherwax went to a shelter in Van Nuys, California, he saw a clumsy yellow puppy with floppy ears and big feet. Because the dog seemed smart, Weatherwax paid $3 to adopt him. Weatherwax and his family named the yellow dog Spike and started training him. With his owner’s help, Spike won the role of Old Yeller in the 1957 film about two young brothers and their friendship with a stoic dog with warm brown eyes. The movie has a sad ending for Old Yeller but a happy ending for Spike, who lived a comfortable life with the Weatherwax family.
Eddie: Moose, a rambunctious Jack Russell terrier, is better known to television viewers as Eddie on the sitcom Frasier. Moose had been given up at a Florida shelter because his unruly, energetic behavior (typical of his breed) was too much for his previous owners to handle. Happily, a Hollywood animal trainer adopted him and taught him to direct his energy into his role as sidekick to TV’s favorite psychiatrist, Dr. Frasier Crane, and his lovably cranky dad, Martin. Trainers from Birds & Animals Unlimited, who worked with Moose, reported that he was so spunky he would often get ahead of the human cast and crew. “He was very energetic,” Putnam says.
Lucky: The adorable shaggy mutt Sam played the role of Lucky in the 1998 movie Dr. Dolittle (a remake of the 1967 film) starring Eddie Murphy as a doctor with an uncanny ability to talk to animals. Sam was rescued from a Los Angeles shelter by a trainer and for the movie learned to move his jaw as if he were speaking!
LAP OF LUXURY
Once an animal becomes a star, “it’s a dog’s life,” says Putnam. While animal stars may not sleep on satin sheets or drink sparkling water from crystal goblets, they do get the one amenity that is most important to a critter: lots of attention. Not only do animal stars rub shoulders with the likes of Kevin Bacon, Helen Hunt, and Jessica Biel, they get lots of love from their trainers, who spend hours working with them each day, as well as fan mail from children and adults across America.
According to animal trainer Rob Bloch, who owns Critters of the Cinema in California, “People can get really attached to the animals they see in movies or on television.” Bloch adopted Friday, a homeless terrier mix he credits with launching his company. The adorable dog had a regular role on General Hospital for several years, and soap opera viewers fell in love with the four-legged “leading man.”
“He got lots of fan mail,” Bloch recalls. “Sometimes people would write as themselves, and sometimes they would write as their dogs. He even got letters from a Lhasa apso who wanted to be his girlfriend!”
People can be inspired to adopt when they fall for famous former strays. Getting prospective pet owners to consider adoption is definitely a good thing, according to Dr. Halligan, because about five million animals are euthanized each year in the United States simply because they cannot find homes. “When you adopt an animal, you really are saving a life. And shelter animals tend to develop a very strong bond with their owners. It is almost like they know they are being saved, and so they tend to be very loyal,” says Dr. Halligan.
Another advantage to adopting, Dr. Halligan notes, is that some shelter animals—including the 3,000 placed by the SPCA in the Los Angeles area each year—are spayed or neutered, put through temperament testing, and receive a veterinary checkup, vaccinations, and flea control. Shelter staff then notify prospective adopters of any health issues or personality quirks. “That way, you really know what you are getting,” Dr. Halligan says.
Putnam says that rescued animal stars can definitely steal the show and that people often call or email to ask about an animal they have seen on screen. But an animal does not need to land an acting gig on TV or in the movies to qualify as a star. Shelters everywhere are full of amazing animals just waiting to play a special role in the right family—the part of a spoiled, beloved pet.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A ROLE TO THE RESCUE
Most viewers probably do not know the following facts about the rescued animal actors in their favorite movies and shows:
- The lovably scrappy mutt Max in the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which starred Jim Carrey, was played by not one but six rescued dogs. The shelter mutts all had their hair cut and dyed so they would look alike, and each one learned a few different tricks for the role.
- Bully, one of four regal-looking Neapolitan mastiffs who shared the role of Fang in the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was found neglected and living in a junkyard by a trainer who rescued and later adopted him.
- In the movie Mars Attacks!, Poppy the Chihuahua played herself. Poppy belongs to actress Lisa Marie, who rescued her from the streets of Tokyo. In the movie, Poppy and her owner, a TV reporter played by Sarah Jessica Parker, get abducted by aliens and subjected to strange experiments. But Poppy was not harmed: An artificial reproduction of the four-legged actress filled in as a stunt double.
- Not a fly-by-night star, a spirited mutt rescued from an animal shelter played the role of Sandy in the Broadway musical Annie for 7 years. The dog was discovered by now-famed animal trainer William Berloni, who credits the mutt he adopted with launching his career.
MR. WINKLE ON THE WEB
It is not just television and movies that make animals famous; some plucky pets are finding fame via the Internet. Take Mr. Winkle, an amazing little puffball of a pooch who looks like a plush toy and, according to CNN, has become a “cult celebrity” as the subject of four books and his own calendar. He also makes appearances at bookstores and on talk shows.
A few years ago, professional photographer Lara Jo Regan found the pooch limping along near some railroad tracks in a deserted section of Bakersfield, California. When she rescued him, he looked awful—raggedy with rotten teeth and infected ears. With veterinary care and lots of love, Mr. Winkle has been transformed and Regan has dubbed him “The Cutest Dog in the Universe.”
On his Web site, www.mrwinkle.com, photos feature Mr. Winkle amid a pile of stuffed animals with a caption asking which one is the real dog. And Mr. Winkle is indeed a real dog, Regan assures visitors to the Web site. “Most experts agree he is a member of the canine clan, mixed with something mysterious like a teddy bear or a Japanese cartoon character.”