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Most famous animal actors are either dogs, horses or primates. While there are hundreds of horse actors, mules and donkeys are not as common in the show business. Dinah the Mule is an early exception. Dinah the Mule notably starred in the "OurGang"/"Little Rascals" TV series and in "Way Out West" alongside Laurel and Hardy, in 1937.
Asta, star of The Thin Man movies, was a wire-haired terrier named Skippy. After appearing in the first movie, he adopted the name of his character and was thereafter known as Asta. That first movie, based on the detective comedy novel by Dashiel Hammett, was released in 1934 and starred William Powell and Myrna Loy. Powell and Loy were not allowed to befriend Asta, as his trainer believed this would interrupt his concentration. Perhaps as a result, Asta bit Myrna Loy during filming! A bright and inquisitive character, Asta's demeanor prompted one critic to wonder, why characters Nick and Nora Charles needed a child when they had "such a pleasant dog."
Asta was trained by his owners, Henry East and Gale Henry East and by Frank Weatherwax. Due to his appeal, the popularity of terriers soared. In his heyday, Asta earned $200 per week, while his trainers earned just $60. Asta went on to star in The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and in Topper Takes a Trip in 1939. Asta's progeny continued to play his part in The Thin Man series, with Asta, Jr. starring in the final installment, Song of the Thin Man. The original role of Asta, as written by Dashiell Hammett, was for a Schnauzer, not a terrier.
Babe, the 1995 Australian film, is based on the children's novel by Dick King-Smith, called Babe, The Gallant Pig. The title character is a pig, raised on a farm, that longs to be a sheepdog. The voice of Babe is provided by Christine Cavanaugh, a very popular voice-over actress who has also provided voices for "The Rugrats," "King of the Hill," and many other shows.
Babe's character was filmed using a combination of real Yorkshire pigs and an animatronic model. Because baby pigs grow so quickly, 48 pigs were required for filming! A make-up artist added a toupee and eyelashes to each and computer magic made the pigs' snouts appear to "speak." The movie employed 56 animal trainers to work with the nearly 1,000 animals on set. The head animal trainer, Karl Lewis Miller, appears in the movie as the man who buys three of Fly's puppies.
Benji, star of movies and a television series, was originally named Higgins and was adopted from a Burbank, California animal shelter. Higgins was and trained by his owner, Frank Inn, an animal trainer. Higgins first starred in Benji in 1974, by which point he was 15 years old, rather old for a dog!
The character of Benji is a loveable mutt with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, generally helping someone out of a tight spot. Higgins, who suffered from arthritis and respiratory problems, retired soon after his first movie. Although an intelligent and hardworking dog, Higgins could become problematic and cranky. The role of Benji has been played by various of Higgins' descendants.
Benji is a mixed breed. There might be some Tibetan Terrier, and perhaps a bit of spaniel. But no one knows for sure because the new Benji was adopted from an animal shelter after being picked up on the streets of Pass Christian, Mississippi.
Based on the 1877 book written by Anna Sewall, Black Beauty tells the story of the life of a horse. Ms. Sewall intended, in part, to call attention to the plight of service animals at the turn of the century. Made into a movie in 1946, Black Beauty's star was an American Register Saddle-Bred Stallion named Highland Dale. Born in 1943 in Missouri, Highland Dale acted throughout the 40s, 50s, and 50s, appearing both in movies and on television. When he was just 18-months-old, Highland Dale began his training with Ralph McCutcheon. Among his many tricks were playing dead, untying knots, and laughing or whinnying on command. For his work, Highland Dale earned $5000 per week and was insured for more than $250,000.
Because of his work in the television show "Fury," Highland Dale was often called Fury. In addition, McCutcheon nicknamed him Beaut and always referred to him by that name. McCutcheon's Beaut was an energetic, intelligent horse that especially liked to roll in the mud just after taking a bath, so that he would need to be bathed again. The horse lived at stables in Van Nuys, California, but had access to McCutcheon's swimming pool! Beauty developed breathing problems in later life and died of natural causes in 1972.
Beasley, the Dogue de Bordeaux, who played Hooch in Turner and Hooch was a one-hit wonder. Born in 1978, his role as Hooch was his only movie role. In the movie, Hooch's owner is murdered and he is adopted by Scott Turner (played by Tom Hanks), the detective investigating the murder.
Turner is a neat-freak and his adoption of Hooch, a beer-swilling dog, turns his life and his apartment upside-down. With Hooch's help, however, Turner is able to solve the murder, receive a promotion on the force, and marry the vet who cares for Hooch.
Much better than your average cop-and-dog movie, Turner and Hooch is really a love story about a control freak (Tom Hanks) who gradually resigns to the messy chaos of a sweet hulk of a pooch named Hooch. During the 2006 Academy Awards, Tom Hanks appeared in a comedic skit in which he, among other things, thanked Hooch!
Lassie is the iconic animal sidekick and helper. First appearing in a short story, written by Eric Knight, in The Saturday Evening Post in 1938, the Lassie phenomenon continues to this day. That Post article turned into a book, Lassie Come Home and then a radio program, many movies, and a long-running television show.
The first Lassie was played by Pal. Pal was owned by Frank and Rudd Weatherwax, animal trainers. MGM Studios had cast another Collie to play Lassie in their movie, Lassie Come Home. Legend has it that at the start of filming, the Sacramento River flooded in northern California. Producers decided to use a stunt double, Pal, to get some footage of a dog in the water. Pal performed so far above expectations that the role was recast. As MGM head Louis B. Mayer is reported to have said, "Pal went into the water and Lassie came out." Lassie was born on June 4, 1940 and died in 1958. Pal's progeny have filled in for their famous father in subsequent movies and television specials.
In the 1957 movie Old Yeller, adapted from the book by Fred Gibson, Travis Coates is a young boy left with his mom and younger brother on their ranch while his dad works on a cattle drive during the 1860s. Travis soon finds a mongrel dog, whom he names Old Yeller. At first the family is reluctant to take on another animal, but in various scrapes with raccoons, snakes, and bears, Old Yeller proves his loyalty and his worth.
Old Yeller was played by a Yellow Labrador mix named Spike. Spike was rescued from an animal shelter in Van Nuys, California and trained by Frank and Rudd Weatherwax. One of Disney's finest! This film has stood the test of time incredibly well and, in fact, is probably only more powerful now than when it was first released. Superbly scripted, sensitively directed, and loaded with power packed performances! Simplistic and sincere, honest and real. Old Yeller plays like a breath of fresh air, making most movies of today look like cinematic smog.
National Velvet, written by Enid Bagnold and published in 1935, tells the story of a young English girl named Velvet Brown who attempts to race her horse, The Pie, to victory in the Grand National Steeplechase. Velvet's horse, won in a local raffle, is nicknamed The Pie because his is a piebald. First made into a movie in 1945, National Velvet starred Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney.
The Pie was played by King Charles, a grandson of the great racing champion Man O'War, whose owner had trained him as a show-jumper. Taylor so loved the horse that arrangements were made, after filming, for her to keep the horse. King Charles was trained by Karl Lewis Miller. National Velvet also became a television series (1960-1962) for NBC. The sequel to National Velvet, International Velvet starred Tatum O'Neal and was released in 1978.
The Wizard Of Oz was written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900. One of the book's starring characters is a little dog named Toto, the pet of a Kansas farm girl named Dorothy. Toto's breed is never specified in the book, but the illustrator, W.W.Denslow, drew a dog that looks a lot like a Cairn Terrier. When casting began for the famous movie production, the casting department had the most trouble casting the part of Toto, because of the confusion about his breed.
Toto was played by a dog named Terry, who was in fact a female dog although she is referred to as "he" throughout the movie. Terry was acquired by animal trainer Carl Spitz, more than three years before filming began. Terry was a very shy dog, but soon warmed up and became comfortable working in front of the camera.
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