A reader’s question: What’s it like writing for animals?
A lot easier than directing them. On FRASIER the key to writing for Eddie was not asking too much of him. Moose (Eddie’s real name) had an extraordinary trainer in Mathilde de Cagny. As long as the stunt was quick and doable, Mathilde could get Moose to do it (always through treats and loving care). If there was some question while we were writing we would just ask Mathilde. More often than not she’d say Moose could do it. The dog was a gamer! With actors we had to ask their managers.
Other writers were more of a problem. One day in the writers room I pitched some bit with Eddie and a sock and one of the writers (who constantly drove everyone nuts) asked, “What is Eddie thinking now?” What is he fucking THINKING??! How do you answer someone like that without being brought up on charges?
Moose passed away at 15, which is like 108 dog years. I'm only sorry he never got to be on INSIDE THE ACTOR'S STUDIO with James Lipton.
Directing animals is another story.
I directed an episode of JUST SHOOT ME called “Sewer”. The B-story had Nina (Wendie Malick) bringing in an orangutan. I forget why but I’m sure it was for a good reason. He was a little harder to train and was in a good part of the show.
On filming night I said to the actors, if he does anything unexpected just go with it and stay in character. We can always re-shoot the scene. Likewise, I told the four camera operators, if you’re on the orangutan and he does something wacky stay on him. Don’t go to your next shot.
Sure enough with cameras rolling and the audience in place, Wendie steps out of the elevator hand in hand with her furry friend, approaches David Spade’s counter, and has a brief exchange with him. The orangutan, who comes up to Wendie’s knees, lifts her dress a few inches, and peers right up between her legs. God love her, Wendie stayed completely in character and reacted with utter nonchalance. The audience went completely nuts. It was a five minute laugh.
After the show had been filmed and the audience released I went back to do some pick-ups. The orangutan’s trainer tapped me on the shoulder and gently told me it was past his bedtime. I said it would only be about another fifteen minutes. He repeated: “Uh, it’s past his bedtime.” I then asked what happens if he stays up after his bedtime?
“He bites everybody he sees.”
“Okay everybody, that’s a wrap!”
I’ve heard stories of actors who were reluctant to work with animals for fear of being upstaged, but I’ve never personally encountered one. However, I think there was a cat who once refused to work with Dustin Hoffman.