Animal Actors

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Animal Actors


"Actors are cattle," Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) is reported to have said. Yet cattle can also be actors. For Howard Hawks's Red River (1948), second-unit director Arthur Rosson (1886–1960) had been having a nightmare working with a huge herd for sequences that show them moving from Texas to Abilene under the direction of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. So painful was this experience for Rosson and director Howard Hawks that Hawks finally remarked, "Go out and try to tell fifteen hundred cows what to do!" (McCarthy, 423).

Animal performances have constituted some of the most provocative moments in the history of film from its earliest days and even before: from the precinematic projections of running horses by Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) in 1878 to the scrambling dog in the Lumières' Workers Leaving a Factory (1895), National Velvet nosing past the finish line, the fluffy white cat gazing malevolently from Ernst Stavro Blofeld's lap at his next victim in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the shark mechanically snacking on Quint in Jaws (1975), Hitchcock's seagulls aloofly hovering while the town of Bodega Bay far below is consumed by flames (The Birds, 1963), a friendly fawn peeking in at young Joey Starrett's window in Shane (1953), a deer brought back from the dead by the title character in Starman (1984), Norma Desmond celebrating the funeral of her pet monkey in Sunset Boulevard (1950), or Elliott liberating a platoon of frogs from imminent decortication and thus winning the girl of his dreams in E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). Fans of horror and science fiction will never forget Ripley's orange cat in the finale of Alien (1979) or the uncannily smart German shepherd in The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). In Arizona Dream (1993), a snow-white sled dog saves a man from freezing on the ice, then hauls him safely home.

Screen animals can be a human's best friend. In The Birds, for example, Hitchcock marches into a pet shop with his two beloved Scottish terriers. In Turner and Hooch (1989), Tom Hanks is a detective whose working partner is a huge mutt. In Men in Black II (2002), a pug vocally animated by Danny DeVito accompanies Will Smith with a much too wry commentary on sex life. Clayton Moore (1914–1999) is never far from his noble white stallion Silver in The Lone Ranger (1956), and Bill Murray is psychically bonded to his goldfish Bob in What about Bob? (1991).

But animals can also be particularly chilling villains. Sherlock Holmes is daunted by the hound of the Baskervilles, an iridescent and wraithlike Great Dane (1939). In Strangers on a Train, (1951), Guy Haines sneaks up to Bruno's father's bedroom, only to find a growling mastiff staring him in the face. In The Boys from Brazil (1978), Dr. Josef Mengele is mauled to death by a pack of Dobermans. A stallion turns mad and vicious before killing himself in the sea in The Ring (2002).


The use of animals as onscreen performers presents a range of technical, legal, choreographic, medical, and strategic difficulties. Special medical insurance may be required for animal just as for human performers. Because animals are relatively incompetent linguistically, choreography and cinematic trickery must take the place of direction. In the film-within-a-film in Truffaut's Day for Night (1973), for example, there is a scenic reference to the director's earlier The Soft Skin (1964)—itself a play upon Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934)—that uses a kitten to demonstrate this difficulty. The scene calls for a pair of lovers to wake up one morning, open the door of their motel room, and find a kitten begging for a bottle of milk that has been left on their stoop; when they pour a little into a saucer, she drinks. But the feline actor has other things in mind and keeps heading offscreen; in the close shot that focuses upon her as she sniffs at the saucer of milk, the hand of the assistant director is visible, pushing the animal back into the frame. Many takes are needed before everyone is happy: while in "real life" nothing would seem to be simpler or more natural, in filmmaking this moment is a supremely difficult technical achievement.

Filming with animals is demanding in the extreme, and often arcane. Disney's Old Yeller (1957) required a coyote and raccoon wrangler; Daddy Day Care (2003) called for cockroach handlers. Duplicate or even triplicate performers must frequently be on hand; in Seabiscuit (2003), ten bay horses played the lead role. Animals must be rested between takes, because they tire under the intense heat of the lights and are likely to react adversely to prop noise. Sometimes animals are very close to props themselves: from a design point of view, their natural coloration forms part of the aesthetic challenge of a shot. A telltale example of this kind of problem was presented to Woody Allen when he was filming the lobster-steaming sequence of Annie Hall (1977). Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are supposed to lose control of the lobsters they are about to cook, so that the animals fall to the kitchen floor and a "chase sequence" ensues. Unexpectedly, the lobsters scuttling around the kitchen in the rented location disappeared against the brick red floor tiles because the crustaceans had been painted red (authentic greenish uncooked lobsters being unappealing to the eye), so a plywood floor had to be dropped and speedily whitewashed. Against this "kitchen floor," the cosmetically improved animals showed up beautifully on camera.

While screen action involving animal performances is constructed to look believable and is often intended to represent excitement and danger, care must be taken to ensure the safety, nourishment, and protection of animals working in the film industry. Originally in line with section 12 of the Production Code Administration's guidelines in 1930 ("There shall be no use of any contrivance or apparatus for tripping or otherwise treating animals in any unacceptably harsh manner"), and more recently under a 1980 agreement with the Screen Actors Guild, the responsibility for overseeing animal care in filming motion pictures and television shows rests with the Film and Television Unit of the American Humane Association. This office assists in the production of about 1,000 films a year involving animals. Here scripts are vetted in collaboration with filmmakers to plan the safest ways to shoot animal scenes—a goal entirely different from that used, for example, in the explicit beheading of an ox in Apocalypse Now (1979). Sets and animal costumes must be safe for animal contact; animal action must be meticulously planned to keep within the bounds of what training can effect and to protect animals from harm. In Anger Management (2003), for example, a fashion line is designed for husky cats and modeled by Meatball, a tabby. Under the "adorable" cat outfits (including a hip-hop hooded sweatshirt) lay a fiberfill "fat suit" that required the scenes to be photographed under air conditioning so that the cat would not become overheated.

Many techniques of scene simulation are used, including blue or green screen background projection, mechanically operated simulated animals or animal parts or "animaltronics" (an industry pet name for using animatronics––building a robot to look like an animal)––a process involving hydraulic systems, manipulated camera speeds, editing, padded environments, and specially designed costumes. In Dr. Doolittle 2 (2001), for instance, a suicidal tiger paces on a window ledge and is "talked down" by the animal psychiatrist (Eddie Murphy). The tiger was filmed pacing against a green screen, and this image was then combined optically with a shot taken at a designed window ledge. Using computerized two-dimensional imaging techniques, frames showing an animal moving its mouth naturally can be individually coordinated with a prerecorded sound track to give the impression, in close-up, that the animal is mouthing words. Other examples can be found in Animal Farm (1999) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998). Three-dimensional animation makes it possible to superimpose computer-generated mouths onto images of animal faces. Stuffed stand-ins ("stuffies") are used frequently. In There's Something about Mary (1998), a dog gnaws at a man's trousers, is kicked away, then gets picked up and thrown out a window. A real dog went for the trousers, but a stuffed dog was kicked away and tossed. In The Birds, one of the most celebrated animal films in the history of the medium, Ray Berwick was responsible for training and handling dozens of gulls, sparrows, crows, and other avians. In a birthday party scene, gulls fly at children eating cake. The birds' beaks had been wired shut, and one creature managed to fly off. Berwick insisted that shooting be closed down for the afternoon while he went off to rescue it, since in that condition the bird would have died from hunger.

The tricks that trainers, cinematographers, directors, and handlers use in order to produce realistic but bizarre animal performances onscreen are uncountable. In Daddy Day Care, a tarantula crawling over a character's head was created by using a real tarantula and a Styrofoam human head—such a creature was as easy to obtain in Hollywood as a cute puppy: the animal manager and supplier Jim Brockett keeps cockroaches, tarantulas, alligators, vipers, and other lethal and nonlethal insects and reptiles at Brockett Film Fauna in Ventura County. For Open Range (2003), horse "agitation" during the climactic gunfight was produced by trainers throwing dirt near the animals' hooves. In Seabiscuit, horses never ran more than three furlongs at a time in the meticulously choreographed simulated races. American Wedding (2003) made use of trained tree squirrels (as did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005), a pair of identical Pomeranians (who shared one role), and a dog who was cajoled into leaping onto a character's pants by a hidden pocketful of creamed chicken.


Characters exist only within the boundaries of a fictional world, while actors animate them from underneath, within, or behind. But animal characters are not always played by animal actors; in other words, an animal performance can be achieved without animals. Humans can animate animals, as did the "Half-boy," Johnny Eck (1911–1991), who played a bird creature and the "Gooney-bird" in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan Escapes (1936), and Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941), and Joe Martin, who played a chimp or an ape in Making Monkey Business (1917), Monkey Stuff, Jazz Monkey (1919), Prohibition Monkey (1920), and Down in Jungle Town (1924). Other examples of human-generated animal performance include the apes in the "Dawn of Man" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the woodland gorillas in Instinct (1999), and the apes who nurture John Clayton (Christopher Lambert) in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).

A screen animal can be composed through graphic art (see the title sequence of The Pink Panther [1963]), computer animation (the shocking dissected horse in The Cell [2000], the invisible gorilla in Hollow Man [2000], the spunky little rodent hero of Stuart Little [vocalized by Michael J. Fox, 1999], the giant cockroach in Men in Black [1997]), or some form of animatronic mechanical artifice (the protagonist in King Kong [1933 and 1976], the shark in Jaws, affectionately called "Brucie" during production, the goofy kangaroo [animatronics by Jocelyn Thomas, vocalization by Adam Garcia] in Kangaroo Jack [2003], the giant squid—live footage intercut with rubber puppet arms—in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea [1954]).

Animal actors may play animal characters of a different breed or species. In Red River, for example, historical accuracy would have called for the herds to be played by longhorn cattle. But very few longhorns were available to Howard Hawks, and so he placed them close to the camera—a procedure requiring considerable production time. Most of the cattle were actually Herefords, who, in deep perspective (where details would not be visible to the audience) played longhorns. In Legend (1985), a horse portrays a unicorn.

Just as with human performance, so with animal participants, narrative action does not require that characters look realistic even when they are played by real animals. Thus, the long chain of cinematic animal monstrosities and monsters: played by made-up, costumed, and/or photographically enhanced actors, animal or otherwise, or animated through increasingly sophisticated and expensive techniques. The flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (1939), for example, are people dressed up as monkeys dressed up with wings, then hoisted through the air on invisible wires. The various alien animals in the Star Wars saga (1977 onward) are manufactured using latex prostheses and specially designed costumes or are computer animated. Puppetry and matte photography are used for the flying dog sequence of The Neverending Story (1984). In Mars Attacks! (1996), a Chihuahua is grafted onto a human brunette using digital animation.

What is essential in scenes played between humans and animals is the sense of copresence and mutual awareness. But an animal's "awareness" onscreen may be established narratively. Consider the attack of the giant spider in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). A man shrinks to the size of a pea and retreats to his basement, where he encounters a household spider. Photographed from his perspective, the spider is a giant. In order to achieve this effect, the director Jack Arnold simply matted together shots of the actor Grant Williams on a set made of enormous props with shots of a normal spider taken through a telephoto lens. The spider onscreen seems properly bellicose and unyielding, a true enemy of human flesh, yet the actor who plays this spider is a spider unaware of its own performance. The millions of ants that mount Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle (1954) do not need to know they are acting in order to perform brilliantly.

Sometimes the entertainment value for the audience is provided precisely by the lack of clarity as to whether or not an onscreen animal is "in the know." A beautiful example is given in Lost in La Mancha (2002) by a horse who has been patiently trained by an off-camera handler to work with an actor in a scene of the film-within-afilm. Standing in for the actor, the handler coaches the horse to creep up from behind and nuzzle him forward along a path, a kind of "guiding spirit." The horse learns his routine brilliantly. But when the actor Johnny Deppshows up and the director calls for action, the now apparently starstruck horse refuses to move. A similarly "transcendent" consciousness, played for pathos, not laughs, characterizes the wailing puppy in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936). Far off, through a window, we see the dog's master being strangled on a mountaintop, while a mile away, near the camera, the dog is crying.

While the performances by human actors are sometimes obtained involuntarily, the screen performances of animals are, in some sense, always produced this way. Ultimately, what the animal does in front of the camera is behave rather than perform. It is through editing, shot selection, and narrative technique that the animal's behavior is transformed into a screen performance. When narrative techniques of constructing cinema are notably absent, the participating viewer's imaginary construction of animal behavior as screen performance is especially salient: if the milkman's dog, for instance, in The Dog and His Various Merits (Pathé Frères, 1908) gazes occasionally at the camera with no discernible tendency to play to it, the viewer can still construct him as a screen actor. Equally oblivious to the camera, yet deeply engaging, are the ostrich, mules, horses, camel, elephants, and goats who parade through the Lumières' Promenade of Ostriches, Paris Botanical Gardens (1896) and the swimming horses in Dragoons Crossing the Saône (1896).

Early cinema was full of animals who were either transformed into actors by the viewer's gaze or carefully trained to behave before the lens. Some animals "acted" in early cinema by performing their own deaths. In a famous early Edison film, Electrocution of an Elephant (1903), Topsy is put to death for the delectation of viewers (who are not informed by the film that earlier she had killed three humans, one for feeding her a cigarette). In Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922), seals are routinely slaughtered by Inuit. Other early films featured explicit animal performers. Early Edison catalogs advertise Pie, Tramp and the Bull Dog (1901) ("Tramp enters, sees bull dog in kennel. Retreats, re-enters on stilts. Starts eating pie from a shelf. Bull dog jumps from window, throws tramp and shakes him up"), Laura Comstock's Bag Punching Dog (1901), and A Donkey Party (1903). An interesting early dramatist of animal life onscreen was Nell Shipman, notably in Back to God's Country (1919), where a wild dog named Wapi is rescued from beating by the filmmaker acting as protagonist.


Since the development of the star system, cinema has presented four types of screen actors, animal or human: screen icons, performers who are so universally recognized and loved that their identities entirely transcend the star system as well as individual films or genres of films and who come to stand for film itself; stars, relatively few in number and broadly known beyond any one film for the particular personalities they continually display in principal protagonists' roles; character or bit players, often eccentric and bearing especially discernible physical characteristics, who play secondary roles of significant import for the plot; and extras, who are typically massed in crowds or in nondescript background parts without character names and typically without individual consequence for the plot.

There have been four principal animal icons since the birth of film—vastly circulated and deeply memorable screen creatures even when they were not authentic animals in real life: Leo the Lion (the roaring trademark of MGM since 1928); King Kong (the animated model star of the film of the same name, 1933); Mickey Mouse, first seen in Steamboat Willie (1928), who reaches his apotheosis when he congratulates Leopold Stokowski for his competence in conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Fantasia (1940); Toto, the canny Norwich terrier in The Wizard of Oz, who, by pulling away the curtain from a frantic little man, reveals not only the artifice of the Emerald City but also the artifice of cinema. The mere invocation of the names of these screen animals induces a full range of imaginary connections to image, behavior, character, and the viewer's recollection. Leo the Lion stands out among studio logos, gazing as he does beyond the screen into spectatorial space.

The great animal stars certainly include Rin Tin Tin (1918–1932), a German shepherd pup found by an American soldier during World War I in Lorraine and named after a French children's puppet. Rin Tin Tin was brought to America and began work at the nearly bankrupt Warner Bros. studio on The Man from Hell's River (1922). His agile and athletic performance was so wildly popular with audiences—he received thousands of fan letters every week—that he is often credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy. Also unusually celebrated was Trigger (1932–1965), the golden palomino ridden by Roy Rogers in all of his thirty-three films and lengthy television series (1951–1957). The onscreen relationship between Rogers and this horse was so affectionate that it formed much of the basis for the oft-told joke that a cowboy "loves his horse more than his woman"—although in Rogers's case, his spouse, Dale Evans, was almost never far from his side, secure on her own mount, Buttermilk.

Other animal stars include Lassie, the collie heroine of Lassie Come Home (1943, trained by Rudd Weatherwax), a beloved family dog who is sold to relieve poverty; the much re-created stallion protagonist of Black Beauty (1910, 1921, 1933, 1946, 1971, 1994), who in the 1994 remake (under the horsemaster Vic Armstrong and the trainer Rex Peterson) speaks English with Alan Cumming's voice; The Black Stallion, played by a horse named Cass-Ole in the 1979 film, who gamely manages to survive a shipwreck and being marooned on a desert island. Other memorable stars of the animal world are the lovable killer whale from Free Willy (1993), assisted in his performance by the effects supervisor Walt Conti; the sad and noble Skye terrier hero, trained by John Darlys, in Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961), so loyal to his old master that he persists in sleeping upon the dead man's grave; Francis the Talking Mule, who from 1950 through 1955 goes to college, the races, and West Point, covers the Big Town, and joins the WACs, speaking believably wherever he goes, thanks to Dave Fleischer's timing corrections; Bonzo the athletic chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), bravely learning the difference between right and wrong from Ronald Reagan; Kevin DiCicco's Buddy, the golden retriever basketball prodigy who stars in Air Bud (1997); the English sheepdog who, supervised by William R. Koehler, stumbles and bounds through The Shaggy Dog (1959); the various nonfleshly, anthropomorphized, puppeted, or painted creatures in the pantheons of Jim Henson, Walt Disney, and Warner Bros. cartoons: Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse, Donald and Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, The Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Lady, and The Tramp.

Character or bit parts played by animals are legion and include Cheetah the chimp (played by Cheetah the chimp) in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932); Asta the wirehaired terrier (played by Asta the wire-haired terrier), famous for repeated appearances in the various Thin Man films (1934–1947) and also for playing George in Bringing Up Baby (1938), nemesis of the leopard (trained by Olga Celeste) who is Cary Grant's nemesis; the shrieking cockatiel in Citizen Kane (1941); the lethal panther (trained by Mel Koontz) in Cat People (1942); Pyewacket, Kim Novak's Siamese cat familiar in BellBook and Candle (1958); the snarky black raven confederate of Julius Kelp in The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963); the two caged lovebirds around whom Hitchcock's The Birds swirl and flutter; the rats Ben and Socrates (trained by Moe and Nora Di Sesso) in Willard (1971); the homesick humpback whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986); the domesticated rabbit that gets cooked in Fatal Attraction (1987); the killer poodle in Hulk (2003). In the musical Summer Stock (1950), a mixed-breed chorus of singing dogs backs up Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers in "Heavenly Music." In AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), a penguin does a walk-on, first as a potentially lurking, alien presence and then as its actual benign self.

Bart the Bear (1977–2000) was a genuine screen personality. He staunchly antagonized Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge (1997) and appeared as "the bear" in ten other films: Windwalker (1980), The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), The Great Outdoors (1988), L'Ours (1988), White Fang (1991), The Giant of Thunder Mountain (1991), On Deadly Ground (1994), Legends of the Fall (1994), Walking Thunder (1997), and Meet the Deedles (1998). A better comedian than Bart is the horse who gets knocked cold by a punch in the teeth in Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974). In L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934), a pregnant cat drops a litter early in the film, and as the story sails on, the kittens attach themselves to virtually all the characters and every object that can be pounced or cuddled upon. In Le Grand bleu (The Big Blue, Luc Besson, 1988), a dolphin plays a deeply affecting and ethereal magical role, luring a heroic competitive diver to an undersea afterlife.

In the concluding sequence of Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952), a particularly affecting and variegated supporting performance is given by a fox terrier. Signior Umberto Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), the aging protagonist, has moved out of his lodgings with his dog, Flaik, under his arm. Lonely and facing death, Umberto rides the streetcar to an isolated district where he tries to convince a man and his wife to take the dog. Flaik is afraid of them, so Umberto moves on to a park at the edge of the city. Here, a little girl wants to take the dog but is forbidden to by her nursemaid. Umberto sneaks away, hiding just outside the park, but soon the dog comes trundling out, sniffs around, and finds his master. There seems no choice but suicide for them both. Umberto brings Flaik to a railway crossing and holds him in his arms as a train swiftly approaches. The dog whines in abject terror. Suddenly he flies off as the train whistles past. "Flaik!" cries the old man. By now, the dog is standing several yards away, and when Umberto walks up to him, Flaik retreats into the park. The camera views him now from ground level, a tiny waif among massive trees, terrified of the man who wanted to kill him. It takes several moments, with Umberto begging pathetically and urgently, before the dog finally relents and the two disappear together among the trees, friends again. Umberto holds up a pine cone and the loyal Flaik leaps in musical rhythm to snatch it.

Animal extras have populated many films, most typically as herds of cattle or buffalo (as in Dances with Wolves [1990]) or as horse teams who pull the Stagecoach (1939) or bear the weight of sheriff's posses, robbers (The Great Train Robbery [1904]), or whooping Indians (The Searchers [1956]). The stunt man Yakima Canutt's facility in working with equine extras to produce spectacular tumbles in fast chases is legendary. In Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), sheep come down with a mysterious belly-bloating condition. Elephants bear important human characters in ceremonial processions in both Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), the latter boasting a bevy of circus animals including, in bit roles, a terrier attached to Buttons (James Stewart) and an elephant so trusted by Angel (Gloria Grahame) that she places her face beneath its foot.

Unquestionably the most realistic performance given by an animal onscreen belongs to Mike the Dog as the neurotic border collie Matisse in the hilarious Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Paul Mazursky, 1986). Pampered, all-comprehending, drooping with self-hatred, but always happy to be on show—and far beyond the help of his expensive canine psychiatrist—this animal is the ultimate denizen of Hollywood.

SEE ALSO Nature Films


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Murray Pomerance