Sunday, December 09, 2007

Animal actors

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.


Richard Cooper said...

I'm sorry to hear of Moose's passing. He caused a surge in rescue adoptions for his breed due to his unrepressed cuteness.

As for Just Shoot Me, it is one of my favorite guilty pleasures now that it's in eternal reruns. I missed it when it was originally on the air.

Chicken pot, chicken pot, chicken pot pie!

Brock said...

Mathilde de Cagny brought in Moose’s replacement when I saw a filming of Out Of Practice back in 05. I thought that was sort of funny cause they filmed on the same set, so I hoped the dog would remember it.

MrCarlson said...

I seem to remember John Mahoney telling the story that the original dog (moose) was kind of indifferent to the rest of the cast but by season 8 they brought in one of its Sons, Enzo, I think was his name, and he was much nicer and friendly to work with.

Anonymous said...

Ken - Thank you for mentioning the role of the animal trainers and their role in the production.

Too, thank you for commenting on the methods used by the trainers. There are some who try to portray animal trainers in a negative light but I have never seen an animal actor treated with anything but the utmost respect.

Is it possible for an animal to upstage an actor? Yep!


CM said...

This post is hilarious. My favorite is the orangutan story -- my son is the same way about bedtime.

Anonymous said...

I can imagine Wendy being a dream to direct because she's whacky and hilarious, and consomate professional who will give you a whole mile of extras. Every time I hear her do a voiceover, I imagine her saying it as the ever over the top and inappropriate Nina. She will forever be Nina to me. And I love me some Nina!!!


Anonymous said...

Don’t get me started on animals. We’re a family of animal rights-insistent Vegans -- all but me and one of the kids. Everybody leaves the house for a couple of hours and it’s friggin’ carnage. I am not making this up, Thanksgiving I actually received an acknowledgement letter from an organization called United Poultry Concerns, thanking me for my generous contribution toward the care, advancement, and liberation of domestic fowl.” I’m tellin’ ya, made that tofurkey taste even sweeter.

The greatest animal performance on record would have to be the dog Benji, in the feature film Benji the Hunted. After an accident, Benji spends the entire picture single-handedly rescuing four orphaned cougar kittens in the Oregon wilderness. A full 89 minutes of celluloid with less than a dozen lines of human dialogue. Nobody had ever even attempted anything like that since Stallone.

There’s something about the intelligence and trainability of Jack Russell terriers like Eddie that make them popular on TV and in films (radio, I’m guessing not so much). But it’s usually best for a dog to only master a certain repertoire of behaviors. The Wishbone series that shot here in Dallas for many years actually used three Wishbones -- one for acting, one for stunts, and, I think one to sleep with the director. Don’t ask, it’s none of your business, none of mine, and now I’m sorry I even brought it up.

Because his father owned the studio, the only job my friend Arthur Loew could get at MGM that didn’t reek of nepotism was as Lassie’s groom (Lassie, Lassie Come Home, Lassie Go Home, Lassie Get Off the Couch, Lassie Let Go of My Leg – you know, all the classics). Actually groom was a pretty important position, because, as most know, Lassie was always played by a male collie. You hear different reasons given, either males were more trainable, or better for continuity, because they didn’t shed as much in the summer.

Either way, to obfuscate the gender issue, it was one of Arthur’s responsibilities to fit “Lassie” for each call with a hairy merkin. Allegedly, when not in use, the merkin was kept hanging on a wall in hair and makeup – right next to Rudee Vallee’s toupe.

I used to visit the Loews on their ranch outside of Tucson. By that time Arthur had, you guessed it, Jack Russell terriers. Cute, but not much good if you ever fell down a well or anything. Sadly, Lassie later lost the role of Dil in The Crying Game to Jaye Davidson.

Ben said...

If animal actors are your thing, you really need to check out Unleashed.

Trailer is here.

Yeah, I'm plugging my own show...what of it?

Anonymous said...

Ben said...
If animal actors are your thing, you really need to check out Unleashed. Trailer is here.

Clever. just delightful – and, as the above may suggest, this is coming from one who skews toward the anthropomorphobic. Why isn’t this on the air? Thanks for introducing me to another site that I have now bookmarked to take up even more of my time once a week. You meet the most interesting people here at Chez Ken.

Cap'n Bob said...

Does anyone remember a kid's show with an all-chimp cast? The lead chimp played a private eye and wore a trench coat and fedora. Must have been a director's dream.

maven said...

Cap'n Bob: That was "Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp" co-created by my father, Stan Burns. I remember going to the set and really getting the feeling that the chimp "actors" were just as real as the characters they were portraying. They were great to work with, never complained about a line or motivation!

Rob said...

My neighbor had a Jack Russell Terrier that was only slightly less annoying than his owner. The fact that someone could train one is amazing.

Out of Practice..... That's a show I thought never got a fair shake.

Anonymous said...

You know, I always had the impression from cast interviews that there was something fairly unpleasant about working on the "Eddie" scenes. Whether it was harder work or Moose or his trainer or something else, I had no idea.

But since you don't balk about dishing the dirt on Mary Tyler Moore I can't imagine you're supressing any good stuff here. I guess the cast was just being playful?

By Ken Levine said...

Honestly, truly, the cast had no trouble working with Moose. If anything, they all watched after him.

VP81955 said...

Always enjoyable to read about Moose, the greatest canine actor since the legendary Asta (the "Thin Man" films, "The Awful Truth," "Bringing Up Baby," "Topper Takes A Trip").

The Wendie Malick story was hilarious; in a perverse way, it's reassuring to note that more than one species enjoys ogling Wendie's legs! (And from all the nice things I've read about her, I'm not at all surprised she handled the incident so well.)

Cap'n Bob said...

In the spirit of proper credit, Asta was played by a pooch named Skippy.

And thanks for the info, Maven.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This blog should hold me for a while. I was begining to miss fresh well written television shows.

I would love to be out on the picket line, but as a researcher I have no union card. Soon I will be out of work for 3 months, but I have no intention of applying for any jobs that involve writing!

Tom Quigley said...

It would have been hilarious if Wendie could have looked at the orangutan and come up with a line like "Have you been talking to my last three boyfriends?"...

Anonymous said...

Hi. I came across your website through Dan Stockdale's ( when I was searching for "exotic animal trainer." One of my life goals is to become an animal trainer for movies but I dont know where to go to get the hands-on experience with that.

Im 26 years old, I just graduated from college May 2007, & I have my Biology & minor in Theatre. I started out majoring in Psychology but switched. I'm an animal lover, I love the outdoors, I love traveling, & I love the technical aspects of theatre. I want to become an animal trainer for movies, that way id have animals & a techie side in my life. Im still trying to get on my feet & I dont know where to go to get into that type of career. Can you help me or do you know anyone I could talk to??