Canine Stars: From Rover to Cosmo

Cosmo (Arthur)
One of the most beloved stars of Mike Mills’ poignant drama Beginners is Cosmo, the Jack Russell terrier who plays Arthur, the dog Oliver (Ewan McGregor) inherits from his father Hal (Christopher Plummer). For Mills, Arthur is Oliver’s “co-passenger” through the film. As a living connection to his deceased father, Arthur becomes for Oliver a friend, a confidant, and a sentient example of how we can love something we can never really understand. Rescued by trainer Mathilde de Cagny (who also trained the famed Moose/Eddie from the TV sitcom “Fraiser”), Cosmo made his screen debut as Friday in the comedy Hotel for Dogs, and then showed up again in Paul Blart: Mall Cop. At 9 years old, Cosmo may be a professional, but he continues to move those with whom he works. “I loved working with Cosmo,” McGregor acknowledges. “It’s tough, though, because you develop a bond with this wee dog, and then you have to say goodbye.”  To be sure, the history of dogs trained to perform in films, television and other entertainments has not always been either noble or humane. Yet many of these star canines (some of whom we spotlight in the following slideshow) continue to embody for filmgoers those qualities that make dogs both honorable in their own right and an essential part of the human experience.
Blair (Rover)

Perhaps the first great canine star was an accidental celebrity with the stage name of Rover. In 1905, pioneer British filmmaker Cecil Hepworth gathered his family and his dog Blair together to shoot a 7-minute film adventure about a baby kidnapped and the brave dog that rescues the infant from a thieving beggar.  The film proved so popular, that they had to go back and reshoot it several times because the film’s negative kept wearing out. Its complicated production also marked several turning points in the history of cinema. Its use of many edits and shots to tell the story and infuse a sense of action changed filmmakers’ understanding of film language. And although Hepworth mostly cast his own family, his hiring of several cast members marked the start of paid actors in film. And finally his use of a dog created both the first canine star and parade of animal-partnered chase stories. The dog Blair would go on to appear in several more films, and his name Rover, unusual at the time, became universally popular for dogs.  Blair even received an obituary when he died.

Etzel von Oeringen (Strongheart)

Like so many foreign actors, the German Shepherd Etzel von Oeringen was pushed to take the more film friendly title of Strongheart when he started making films. Trained in Germany as a police dog and having worked for the German Red Cross during World War I, Strongheart was discovered by filmmaker and animal trainer Larry Trimble and his wife screenwriter Jane Murfin who were in Europe looking for a new canine star. While von Oeringen was trained for action scenes, Trimble took the time to coach the shepherd on more tender moments of human/dog connection. In 1921, a year later, Strongheart appeared in his first film The Silent Call.  The sports writer Hetwood Broun wrote only half-joking at the time, “The Silent Call presents the most beautiful of all male stars now appearing in the films. In intelligence, also, his rank seems high. The picture is built around Strongheart.” The star dog went on to appear in five more films, even getting a romantic lead, Lady Jule (who proved his mate off-set as well). In 1929, at the age of 13, Strongheart was burned by a light on set, an injury that turned fatal. But even dead, he was not gone. His caretaker, J. Allen Boone kept his spirit alive with a series of books, Kinship with All Life (1954) and Letters to Strongheart (1939), that latter which included this sentiment in a missive to the departed dog: “Let others believe you are dead if they desire; that is their privilege. But I want no part of it; for as far as I am concerned, you are just as vitally alive, and just as much the “old pal” now as ever.” He is also found on the grocery shelf; Simmon Pet Food created a dog food line called Strongheart that is still being sold. He also is one of the few dogs with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Rin Tin Tin (Various Roles)

Born in 1918, Rin Tin Tin was discovered as pup by Corporal Lee Duncan in a World War I battle-ravaged kennel in Lorraine, France. Duncan saved both a male and female from the abandoned litter, naming the pair after the French children puppets––Rintintin and Nenette––given to soldiers for good luck. After the war, Duncan returned with his pups to Los Angeles where he worked in a hardware store. (Nenette sadly did not survive the trip.) A chance filming of RIn Tin Tin doing tricks at a dog show in 1922 led to Duncan pushing to get his canine into the movies. Unable to get studios interested, Duncan eventually slipped Rin Tin Tin in as a wolf in The Man From Hell’s River in 1922. The pooch proved such a hit that Warner Brothers signed Rin Tin Tin up for Where the North Begins (based on a story by Lee Duncan), and 23 more films. Rin Tin Tin was box office gold, so much so that Jack Warner titled him “the Mortgage Lifter.” (His supposed fame in saving Warner Brothers from bankruptcy was later spoofed in the 1976 comedy Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.) At his height, Rin Tin Tin was getting nearly 10,000 fan letters a month, and earning nearly $6,000. The studio provided their star with his own chef and driver, and had a kennel of 18 look-alikes available if Rinty needed a rest. In 1930, he got his own radio gig as “The Wonder Dog.” At the age of 14, Rin Tin Tin died, supposedly in the arms of Jean Harlow who lived across the street. Heartbroken Duncan returned his beloved pet to France to be buried in the famed Parisian pet cemetery Cimetière des Chiens.

Skippy (Asta)

Born in 1931, Skippy was raised to be a Hollywood star. He started his training at three months, and over time he worked with some Hollywood’s top dog handlers, including Frank Inn, Frank Weatherwax (whose brother Rudd trained Lassie), and Henry and Gale Henry East. At one-year old, Skippy was landing extra parts in various films. At age four, he was cast for the part of Asta in The Thin Man, a role that would define his career.  Interestingly the Dashiell Hammett novel on which the movie is based called for a Schnauzer, but the film director wanted a more theatrical creature. When he meet Skippy, he cast him immediately. While Skippy defined the role of Asta, he only appeared in the debut feature and its sequel After The Thin Man (during which he changed his screen name to Asta). While lookalikes showed up in the five other Thin Man movies, Skippy still appeared in a number of other famous films, including The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby and Topper Takes a Trip. The popularity of Asta fueled a market for wire-haired terrier, but Skippy the dog was only about the work. Neither of The Thin Man co-stars William Powell, nor Myrna Loy, developed any relationship with the canine star. Quite the opposite. Loy revealed the dog bit her, so, as she confesses, “our relationship was hardly idyllic.”

Pal (Lassie)

Poor Pal had no idea when his owner Howard Peck in 1941 brought the handsome Rough Collie to the celebrated animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax to cure him of his barking and motorcycle chasing what lay in store for him. Weatherwax eventually took Pal off Peck’s hand, and at one point even sold the dog himself. But when he learned that the MGM was getting set to produce a film based on Eric Knight’s beloved novel Lassie Go Home, Weatherwax bought the dog back. Originally the star part of Lassie (quite rightly) went to a female Collie. But in the middle of production, Pal was brought in to do a complicated water stunt the female dog couldn’t do. He performed it so well that supposedly MGM’s head Louis B. Mayer quipped, “"Pal had entered the water, but Lassie had come out." Pal went on to make seven films in all, and then later starred in the first Lassie TV series. When MGM decided to retire Lassie, Weatherwax negotiated a deal that in lieu of $40,000 back wages he would retain rights to the name. In so doing, Weatherwax also made certain that subsequent Lassies would be Pal’s descendents. They were also all males, a fact that Groucho Marx highlighted in his famous joke, "Ever since the public found out that Lassie was really a male, they've been thinking the worst about Hollywood." But even more than being a film star, Pal had a huge effect on the way Americans viewed pets. For one, during the 40s, the number of purebred Collies in the United States increased by more than six-times, going from about 3,000 to 18,400 by the start of the 50s. In addition, the inclusion of the dog as part of the family, to live inside and eat with everyone else, some view as another legacy of Lassie (and of Pal).

Pal (Petey)

Born in 1925, Pal, who later became better known as Pete the Dog, went on to star in a number of silent comedies before becoming the victim of a dark Hollywood mystery. Raised by Harry Lucenay, Pal was a Hollywood dog from the start, getting a cameo in Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman when he was just six months old. That same year he showed up as Tige in the Buster Brown’s Educating Buster. Pal, who was born with a nearly complete ring around his eye––permanent dye was applied to complete the circle––made a striking addition to classic comedy series. Pal went on to show up in more than 40 Buster Brown shorts before being picked by producer Hal Roach to play the dog in his “Our Gang” comedy series for the short “Olympic Games.” Pal/Petey was immediately signed to a three-year contract with six-month options with a starting salary at $125 per week. He went on to make 13 more “Our Gang” films before tragedy struck. Pal was murdered on set when he ate meat into which someone had added ground glass. No suspects were identified, and no one was brought to justice, even though the young actors in the series were heartbroken by the dog’s sudden demise. The “Our Gang” series continued with Pal’s son Pete the Dog (with a ring drawn on his eye to copy his father’s look).

Terry (Toto)

While the female Cairn Terrier named Terry will be best remembered as Toto in The Wizard in the Oz, she was actually a well-seasoned actor before taking up with Dorothy. Born in 1933, Terry was adopted by Carl Spitz after he original owners gave up on her. At one year old, she was already stealing scenes as Shirley Temple’s pup Rags in Bright Eyes and Spencer Tracy’s dog in Fritz Lang’s thriller Fury. But it was the role of Toto in The Wizard of Oz at the age of 4 that put Terry on the map. To get into part, she lived with Judy Garland for several weeks, and almost lost her part when a set accident cruised her foot. During the film, she earned $125/week, much more than nearly any other extra. She continued to work, changing her name to Toto, making 13 films before she retired in 1942, staying home as a family pet. In 2001, Willard Carroll who found Carl Spitz scrapbook put together an “memoir” entitled I, Toto: The Autobiography of Terry, the Dog Who Was Toto.

Spike (Old Yeller)

Spike, who would immortalize the part of Old Yeller, was truly a rags-to-riches story. A big, goofy black-mouthed cur was spotted by a friend of animal trainer Frank Weatherwax at the Van Nuys Animal Shelter. Feeling that the dog had a look he could work with, Weatherwax paid three dollars to rescue Spike.  Shortly afterwards Frank’s wife Connie read the story Old Yeller by Fred Gibson in the Saturday Evening Post, which made her think of the big goofy yellow dog they had just adopted. Legend goes, the very next day, Frank read that Disney was going to adapt the story to screen. While Disney trusted Weatherwax, they weren’t too sure about Spike, whose general friendliness they feared might get in the way of him having to play vicious. But Spike was hired, learned his tricks, and became the emblem of the love share by a boy and his dog.

Buddy/Air Bud

In 1991, trainer Kevin DiCicco found a year-old stray Golden Retrieve up by his cabin in Yosemite. The dog was hungry and dirty, and, as DiCicco later found out, had been scattered hit by a shotgun. In the process of getting the dog in shape, DiCicco discovered the pooch’s love of ball games. After six months of training and an estimated 4,000 tosses, Buddy evolved into a crack basketball player. Buddy first showed off his talent on the Stupid Pet Tricks segment of the the Late Show with Dave Letterman. His popularity led to a number of commercials and spot in the TV sitcom "Full House", before making his mark in a feature-length film written around his unique talent. The 1997 Disney comedy Air Bud proved a box-office bonanza, but its success came at a price. Shortly after wrapping, Buddy was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer which cost him his right hind leg.  Then only months after that Buddy died.

Moose (Eddie)

The Jack Russell named Moose would won the hearts of TV viewers as the lovable scamp Eddie on the sitcom "Fraiser". Born in 1990 in Florida, Moose was the youngest of his litter. As a pup he proved incorrigible when it came to digging holes, barking and creating general mayhem. At 2 ½ years old, he was shipped off by his owners to trainer Mathilde de Cagny (the woman who also trained Cosmo in Beginners). De Cagny said of the pooch, ““Moose had a great disposition for training.  He loved it right away... it calmed him down a little.  It’s as if all of a sudden he had a purpose in his life.  You can see in his eyes that he’s very sharp.  He’s also very curious and is always moving around.” Under her guidance, Moose blossomed, becoming the star people remember. During Fraiser’s popularity, letters to Eddie rivaled those of his co-stars. Even the show stars Kelsey Grammer acknowledged Moose’s importance by saying ““Most important, Moose, this is for you,” when accepting the show’s 1994 Emmy. He stayed on “Fraiser” for 10 years, retiring finally in 2003. In 2006, Moose died at the age of 16.

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