Alysia Gray Painter
Alysia Gray Painter author of Howl and McSweeney's More Mirth of a Nation contributor, and The Bark's Southern California correspondentówas nominated for an Emmy.
The legendary comedian stands up for animals
April 12 2013
When we think of Lily Tomlin, what comes to mind first isn’t her star turns in films like ShortCuts and 9to5 or on television’s The West Wing—or even Ernestine, the snorty, sassy, snood-sporting operator she played with such aplomb. Rather, we think of Edith Ann and her loyal dog Buster. A precocious tot, squirmy but serious Edith Ann often discussed the adventures she shared with Buster, from ice skating and bath time to making him a sandwich that included mustard, pickles, oatmeal, cheese, pretzels, tuna fish, peanut butter, salami, raisins and one black olive. He didn’t care for it, so Edith Ann decided to order pizza: “Buster likes pepperoni with double cheese and so do I. And that’s the truth!”
Underlying this comedy routine is another truth: Tomlin’s love of dogs, which comes through even when she speaks in the charming, halting voice of a five and- a-half-year-old girl explaining how she made a sandwich so unappetizing that it even went bust with Buster.
Tomlin—who, upon seeing a stray running by the roadside, has been known to pull her car over and attempt to lure the frightened pup off the busy street by means of a fast-food sandwich— has lived with animals all her life. Recently, she headlined “Stand Up for the Animals,” a comedy-and-causes benefit at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood devoted to bringing attention to the work of Voice for the Animals.
We hopped on the phone to chat with her about her work to improve the lot of Los Angeles Zoo’s Billy the elephant and other animal-related topics, and she also shared a few stories of the dogs she has known. As it turns out, Lily has lived with and loved beasties of all stripes throughout her life. She speaks movingly of Chi Chi, the dog she had as a teen; a Corgi-mix named Princess she doted on for years; and her current critters, cats Murphy (who came into her life when she joined the cast of Murphy Brown, natch) and Roddy McDowell, so named because, Tomlin says,“he’s elegant…and sensitive.”
She has vivid and emotional memories of her pets, including the death of one of her beloved dogs. “I knew she wasn’t well. I went out in the yard with her, and we lay on the grass for a long time, looking into each other’s eyes. She died later that evening.” We both paused to consider the moment, and then she continued.“ They’re our creatures, they’re just everything.”
Although Tomlin has lived with a number of dogs, she hasn’t worked with all that many, except for a comical elevator scene from Big Business, in which a dog she’s walking gets on an elevator and the doors shut. I asked about the connection between Hollywood and hounds beyond the larger topic of animal actors, and if there were any lessons humans working in showbiz could take from dogs in general.
She spoke about the authenticity of pups—“They have an innocence and a goodness because they’re not ambitious …”—and what performers can learn from that. Summing it up perfectly, Tomlin observed that “dogs want to love their people, and actors need to love their audience. Dogs have all the empathetic qualities that a good actor should have.” Dogs seem to inspire just about every calling, it seems.
Including conflict resolution. Remembering a time when she had a lot of animals in the house—including a goat named Bucky that she would take on outings with her dogs (“You’d have to walk behind him with a little lobby dustpan and a broom, sweeping up his pellets.”)— Tomlin recalled how one of her dogs would take on the role of mediator. “We had two cats in the house; the cats loved to torment Diva [a Doberman] because she was so easily cowed. One day, the cats were at the bottom of the stairs and Diva was at the top: They were at an impasse. Tessie [a Terrier], who was a little bossy thing, ran through Diva’s legs and stood there, barking at the cats and Diva too, as if to break it up.”
While tales of Bucky and Diva were not told during the “Stand Up for the Animals” night, Edith Ann did make an appearance, to much applause. Later, I learned more about Voice for the Animals from executive director Melya Kaplan.
Kaplan’s approach to animal assistance could be described as multi-dimensional. Among her organization’s projects are Billy the elephant’s well being, an animal assistance hotline, a senior-animal rescue program, and efforts to help the huge population of dogs and cats living on the streets in Greece. She’s also assisting families facing foreclosure with keeping their pets. And she isn’t shy about sending praise to one of her most front-and-center advocates. “Lily is absolutely phenomenal,” says Kaplan. “She’s been the celebrity who took the lead, just saying it like it is.”
Hearing about Tomlin’s work with this group, and her animated tales of Tessie and Diva and Chi Chi, it’s not surprising that she’s a friend of the furry. Now, whenever we catch a clip of Edith Ann bragging about Buster, we’ll think of all the real Busters Lily’s loved along the way, and her willingness to extend that love to dogs and cats (and elephants) today.
When the Dog Yawns, Sleep Follows
Getting catty over cats — jealous even — is not our intention. But it seems like every really juicy superstition, every prickles-on-the-back-ofthe- neck story, every bit of old-fashioned, been-around-forever folklore is in the cat’s corner, leaving dogs out in the cold, pawing at the back door, dolorously.
Exhibit A: A black cat crossing your path at midnight stirs up all kinds of heck. Forget animal superstitions; this is probably one of the best known of all superstitions, ever. And we’ve been a mite jealous about the whole thing. Not just the mystery and allure and glamour of inspiring such an oft-told tale, but that it is hard to even think up a dog-based superstition when put to it.
Being fond of folklore, and being fond of pups, we went nosing about for some told-and-not-so-true fables inspired by canines. Many millenniaold stories are based on wolves, wolf packs and all manner of moan-at-themoon lycanthropes, of course; few are as potent and as widely repeated as the ol’ black cat chestnut. But we were more curious about myths surrounding dogs living as pets or companions, not those animals found running over moors, howling romantically (and creepily).
We came across an eyebrow-cocker in the 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions, which reads, “It is unlucky to meet a barking dog early in the morning.” Really, though, does that make just about every dog owner on the planet unlucky? Hardly a day goes by when, before noon, the furry ones at our feet aren’t yipping to go out, giving the mailman what for, or simply telling one another to step away from the chew toy, pronto.
That said, the same encyclopedia predicts that “a strange dog following you is a sign of good luck.” True. We would add that it is a sign that you’ll be on the phone for most of the afternoon, looking for the dog’s family, and you’ll be photocopying fliers, and you may well be adopting that strange dog if no one ultimately claims him. That’s the modern retelling of the superstition.
Superstitions from Europe, translated by D.L. Ashliman, features a number of delightful folkloric nuggets, especially this: “Girls should pay attention to where the dogs bark on Saint Andrew’s Eve. Her groom will come from this area.” Mutts as mystical matchmakers? We like this.
The Dog Hause, a website with a bevy of beastie-based yarns, touts a superstition we adore, mostly because we’re mad for Matt Groening. According to the creator of The Simpsons, “A dog with seven toes can see ghosts.” You believe this, right? We do. In fact, we’ll call this one nearly verifiable truth. Call in the paranormal researchers. Art Bell, even.
Gaze between a dog’s ears while the pup is staring at seemingly nothing, says the same site, and you’ll see a ghost. We might add that if the dog has seven toes, you’ll be in for a major supernatural startle.
And while we’re always fond of a spirited spirit tale, we like the timeliness of this superstition, which we eyed at HistoryofDogs.com: “If you scratch a dog before you go job hunting, you’ll get a good job.” Positive words. Of course, we’re curious how thorough a scratch is required — are we talking a quick ear-stroker, or a full-on, get-thegrowler- on-his-back scratch-a-thon of the belly? Two different things, as every dog lover knows, though the justpressed interview suit might need to take care before heading out to the big meeting.
(The asterisk on that one, of course, is that if your interviewer is a big dog person, then a little Pug hair on your lapel may inspire instant rapport.)
Over at Writing.com, we came across a bit of folklore for fans of the Dalmatian, that celebrity of spotty snouties: “It’s good luck to meet a dog, particularly a Dalmatian.”
And dog + eating grass = rain, a superstition we’ve come across somewhat frequently, also receives play in the same list. Maybe the grass is dewier, fresher and tastier before a rain? Again, a question for the experts.
The more we perused, the more we got to pondering: Superstitions are always developing, changing, evolving; the tales we know now will be different 500 years hence. And the negative bent of some old superstitions — the barking-at-the-beginning-of-the-day bit — wrong-way-rubs us. So why not develop some of our own sayings, even if we mean to enjoy and retell them just within the confines of our own home?
Here’s a few we’re toying with: “When the Golden Retriever lingers at the door, a walk you shall take within the hour.” Tell us this isn’t nearly 100 percent accurate!
Or, “Stand not over the kitchen sink, but over the Brussels Griffon, as you consume your buttered toast; the morning sun shall later reflect a clean, un-becrumbed floor, and a dog that is licky-of-lip, and well-satisfied.” Also true. Might we add, we’ve seen the sun’s first rays reflect off the buttery lip of a Griffon, and there are few sights more heart-gladdening in the world. This is lucky indeed.
And, while we’re on a roll, let us consider the two words before us: dog superstitions. Doesn’t this also mean superstitions held by dogs? Our own pups hold (we think) a couple of credos: “If lady stands near treat bin, within minute, treat.” Or: “When water in tile room runs, soon fur shall be wet.”
All dog-loving humans should possess at least a half-dozen household superstitions of their own, to lend color, joy and fun to their houndfilled households. And likewise, every dog should be the taddest bit superstitious. After all, one needs something to ponder in the long hours stretched out in the sun or snoozing on the couch. One’s thoughts can’t be about “next walk, next treat, next walk, next treat” all the time. A hint of mystery, a little superstition, does the heart good.
Giving voice to Hollywood’s dogs
“Can we try that again?”
“Okay, one more take.”
Hollywood has been home to countless hounds who’ve acted in film and television. And while the sounds those pups emit have sometimes been their own unadulterated, 100 percent doggie growls and whimpers, often what we’re hearing when we watch a cartoon canine (and the occasional live-action mutt) is, well, very much human in origin.
Of course, since the invention of celluloid, human actors have often provided impressive sound effects for numerous fish, insects and various animals and other creatures. Flies buzz, salmon burble, squirrels chitter, kitties purr convincingly, often due in large part to an accomplished bipedal, Screen Actors Guild card–carrying actor at the microphone. But many artists who voice dogs aren’t merely playing the wisecracking, pants-wearing woofer who likes to drink beer and play baseball (in short, the played-for-laughs, extremely humanized hound). In addition to numerous animated animals, humans are ably voicing honest-to-goodness, real-life, silver-screen dogs, the kind of pups we live with.
“It seems like half my life, I have been barking…and some of that has been professionally,” says Frank Welker, an industry icon who has voiced a bevy of big-name bowwows, from Scooby Doo and Dynomutt to Goddard on The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. “When I go to the doctor’s office for a physical and the doctor asks me to cough, I bark! It’s just a natural response.”
Feeling Like a Dog
It isn’t simply a matter of asking an actor to bark or growl with abandon, however. As real dogs can express fear or excitement or joy, the humans impersonating —or “in-dog-onating” perhaps—a pooch have to be able to convey the feeling the onscreen animal is experiencing at the moment. “When you’re making animal sounds, you still have to emote an emotion even if you’re not using words. Often the sounds will imitate the way a word sounds—the same amount of syllables,” says voice director Donna Grillo. “You know you’re going to have fun when you’re recording animal sounds.”
And while it is certainly a specialty in both the fields of animation and live action—being able to bark, with emotion, on cue—there’s more work for bipeds who can snorfle like a four-pawed pup than one might expect.“There’s usually a dog in the family and there need to be sounds for it,” says Grillo,who has directed her share of grunts and wheezes and sniffs while working in cartoons. “If it’s a comedy, I look for funny sounds. If it’s a serious or action-type show, I go for realistic.” Maybe the breaking-into-thebiz part is a bit harder than arriving at a traditional casting call with a headshot in hand, but, if you’re a film fan with a gift for growls, it might be a career course that will surprise the folks back home: Really? You bark for a living? Really?
But aspiring snarlers should know ahead of time that the recording process is quite rigorous and consists of much more than just yipping and zipping. You have to truly become the dog. “In Disney’s film Homeward Bound, I did all the actual dog [and cat] sound effects while celebrity actors did the spoken voices,” says Welker. “This was so much fun. They put the film up on a screen in a darkened studio and I would just roll with it and fill in the sounds as I felt them—it’s a process I love, called looping. Mostly it was breathing to make the audience buy into the strange reality of real live dogs speaking. It really works to help to make the transitions. The director was great and liked what I was doing. He said it was so realistic that the sound editors were not sure when the real dogs stopped and I started. That is the highest compliment I can get: being [mistaken for] a dog!”
Welker also favors a more realistic approach rather than a highly stylized, overly artificial performance.“Sometimes the project requires a dog who has a lot of personality that isn’t obvious on the screen. That is one of the more difficult things to do, trying to stretch it but keep it believable. I remember when I did the horror film Cujo—you had one of the most lovable creatures on the planet, a Saint Bernard. And it was supposed to be a rabid killing machine. I looked at this dog’s sweet face and thought No way ... but with good makeup (foaming jowls) and some of my most vicious growling and barking (I’m getting a sore throat now just thinking about it) and a mix of real dog sounds and some very good camera work, they did indeed create a classic horror flick. I leave it to the audience to judge if it worked, but I will tell you that I won’t watch it just before bedtime.”
Truly becoming the dog is key to the performance. The human self has to be stashed for the moment and the canine character fully assumed. “I picture myself as a dog, literally get into a stance, but stay on two feet, and prance around in front of the microphone as the dog, and then bark as if I were talking with that dog’s point of view,” says actor Barb Heller.When asked to play a Poodle,Heller modified her woof. “I had to come up with a higher pitched, feminine and spoiled bark. If I were doing a Terrier, I might have been a bit smaller and gruffer,with a bit of a squeak.”
For Heller to summon a particular “hound”sound, attitude is essential.“Figuring out what pitch and what type of ‘attitude’ s/he has” is part of the challenge of creating realistic dog f/x, according to Heller. “For all animals, this is the most challenging part in speaking as them.We only have their animal sounds and sighs or breathing patterns to work with.”
And while actors look to the fictional Fido they’re voicing to inform their performance, it’s no surprise that a real-life buddy is often the inspiration. Before one audition,Heller observed a pal’s pooch.“My friend Erin has a super cute Toy Poodle, and although he was smaller and more masculine than the older female Poodle I was playing, he had the right stuck-up, no-nonsense style. I started with his walk and high-pitched bark and went from there.”
Frank Welker lived with his furry muse for well over a decade. “I had a wonderful German Shepherd I loved dearly,” remembers Welker. “She lived with and tolerated me for 14 years, and I still dream and think of her often. She was a great friend and companion. I know she taught me a lot more dog than I taught her English—but then, there were days when I swore I heard her say, perfectly clear, ‘Uh, you’re not really going to wear that shirt with those pants, are you?’”
Dog's Life: Humane
American Humane dogs the industry on behalf of animals
Aside from consuming unbuttered popcorn and starspotting, LA movie audiences have another timehonored tradition: When the credits roll, rather than dash to the parking lot to beat the traffic, many Angelenos stay in their seats. It’s not that they’re still soaking up the film’s subtext or wiping away a few last tears in the dark (well, maybe sometimes). Rather, they’re looking for familiar names—the best boy, the key grip, the caterer—and smatterings of applause arise when a friend’s name scrolls by. But while the names in the credits change from film to film, one important credit remains steadfastly the same: No Animals Were Harmed.
We’ve all read that line many times, but what does it mean, and who are the people protecting those sassy pups and noble eagles? Ensuring that animals cast in a movie, music video, television show or commercial are safe is just one of the crucial missions of the American Humane Association, which has stood up for the wellbeing and dignity of children and animals for more than a century. And when it comes to Hollywood, the organization has been truly vital. In fact, American Humane is the only organization authorized to award the trademarked “No Animals Were Harmed”seal.
More than 1,000 productions a year use the services of American Humane’s Film & Television Unit, which began monitoring movies in 1940. Jone Bouman, the unit’s director of communications, describes its responsibilities: “We are part of the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] agreement.We not only take care of the animal, which is our main priority, but by extension, we protect the people who work with that animal. I can’t tell you how many times an actor will say ‘I can ride a horse!’ They can’t ride a horse— they’ve been on a horse twice in their life. The next thing you know, a director is expecting them to go into a stampede with 40 loose animals.American Humane is there to step in and say, ‘That’s probably not gonna happen.’ So we protect the cast and the crew who work with the animals. Cast and crew are not expected to be animal specialists—we are. That’s our job.”
So that Schnauzer who hops on the roller coaster and is later seen dangling precariously from the tracks? Or the hamster who parachutes into a car through the sunroof? Breathe easy. Though scripts often call for real creatures to do comically outlandish things, the animal star is in good hands, thanks to American Humane’s on-set oversight. Sometimes, though not often, animatronics or computer-generated imagery is employed—say, in a scene where a young child has to ride a large horse. But Bouman feels that real animals “give a richness, as the animal engages more,” making mechanical or computer-generated animal doubles a second choice.
Before the group stepped in, animals who appeared in movies—though they often had caretakers on the set—were not uniformly protected. Attitudes varied from production to production; if a horse had to be seen falling over a cliff, it wasn’t unusual for a real horse to fall over a real cliff, with predictably disastrous results.
Thankfully, with animal-safety reps standing by, the days of sending a living creature over the side of a mountain in the name of entertainment have ended; instead, care and caution are the watchwords. “Our people have incredible, unique banks of knowledge,” says Bouman. “When you have a director who has a vision, we’re not there to say ‘We’re going to squash your vision… sorry!’We’re there to say, ‘Okay, let’s help you get that shot, but we’re going to help you get that shot in a safe way.’”
On many sets, few players are as well attended as the floppy-eared puppy or the swarm of wasps or the stallion who has to rear up when a rattler slithers out from under a bush (the snake is being supervised and protected, too).While a human actor may have his assistant nearby, and the director has her script supervisor at the ready, an animal— from an elephant to an gerbil—will usually have a veritable team of people looking after his welfare: his trainer, who taught him to do the stunts; his owner, who lives with and cares for him (sometimes the trainer and owner will be the same person); and his safety representative from American Humane. Typically, there is also a veterinarian on the set— definitely in major productions—or an on-call doctor “close enough to get to the set very quickly,” remarks Bouman.
The American Humane safety representatives are a rare breed, people who greet their callings with seriousness, skill and devotion to all things furred and feathered. Not only must they undergo specialized training that prepares them to understand the needs and behaviors of canines and ferrets and parrots and apes and cows and beyond (many representatives have veterinary medicine, zoo or shelter work in their background), but they must also have the personal grit and fortitude to make what might be an unpopular or difficult determination for the sake of an animal’s well-being. Because, while caricatures of directors and film people tend to be off-base— there are no megaphone-waving megalomaniacs in the industry (or very few)—when the light is fading and hundreds of people are waiting to get a shot, the intensity on a set can be, well, intense. But if it looks like a screeching truck might come too close to a cat, or if a dog leaping through a window might injure herself, the representative must make the critical call.
That said, injuries do occur on occasion. “We live in the real world—accidents happen, even with the best of intentions,” observes Bouman. But she describes such incidents as “very rare” and says that, after investigation, even if it proves to be a true accident, a different end credit must be given—in short,“No Animals Were Harmed” will not roll at the end of the film.However, if the abuse or neglect is not accidental, that’s a different hive of bees altogether. American Humane has no qualms about immediately stepping in, removing the animal and shutting down the scene.
Sets visited by American Humane reps can be on a Tinseltown studio lot or on some faraway isle. “We go all over the world,” Bouman says, noting that there are 11 full-time representatives in Los Angeles and a few dozen part-timers stationed around the country and the globe. “In the U.S., when you shoot under the Screen Actors Guild agreement, our services are free, which is great, because any production that wants us there doesn’t have to worry about getting us into the budget. However, when you film overseas, as many large productions are wont to do, we have to charge a small fee.” It should be noted that American Humane oversight is mandatory in the Screen Actors Guild contract; a production under that contract must inform American Humane when an animal is going to be used in a scene. While on occasion, American Humane cannot be present— for instance, if more films are being shot than they have representatives to cover on a particular day or week—the organization considers where their team is needed most (for example, a film using elephants and bears versus a television show in which the dog’s only job is to sleep on a couch).
Finding money for an animal-safety rep is not an ordeal for most films; rather, it is one of the most important things the producers do when they are shooting outside the U.S. and know an animal actor will be in their film.“Most productions are very aware of the benefits of having an American Humane rep on set,” observes Bouman.“Not only are their animals going to be taken care of under the strictest guidelines—I mean, our guidelines are serious—but we are also extremely collaborative.”
At the end of the day, an animal in a film is not just part of the scenery or background; he or she is an employee, hired to do a job, and protections must be extended. Cheering on the feisty mutt as he dashes in front of the train is much more fun when you know that he returned to his snug little bed after filming wrapped.Whether he develops a big head from so much on-set attention and adoration is another matter entirely.
A real-life, couch-sleeping counterpart
Few larger-than-life types in history can claim to have inspired a character in a movie or television show. Of course, there’s Citizen Kane and Charles Foster Kane, a fictional tycoon based on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst; the character of Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown was said to have been loosely inspired by famous Los Angeles water boss William Mulholland. And then there’s Puggo of Cartoon Network’s Squirrel Boy; Puggo is a portly, one-eyed, turban-wearing dog who sports a cape that flaps even as he remains unflappable in the face of a crisis. Making occasional appearances on Squirrel Boy as the star of a TV show that the two main characters—Andy (a boy) and Rodney (a squirrel)—never miss, Puggo is mysterious, aloof, in control and wise. Deeply wise.
And what of Puggo’s real-life counterpart? Is he some heroic figure now lost to time? Perhaps a noble canine from legend? Nope. He barks, naps and piddles today. His name is Jerome, and he is currently yapping his curly tail off at some unseen foe out the front window, unaware that a character he inspired can now be seen on television screens across the land, and that he should behave with a tad more decorum.
How the dog on your couch can inspire a dog on the screen can happen in many different ways, and fur-and-bone Jerome’s journey to color-and-line Puggo happened like this: My husband, Chris, the story editor for Squirrel Boy, mentioned that we had a one-eyed pug at an early meeting during the show’s development. (Jerome’s ocular oddity has a simple explanation—he was born that way.) It should be added here that Chris is quite attached to Jerome, and Jerome to Chris, and they both think the world of each other. I should also add that it is not unusual to spend a good deal of time discussing your pets at office meetings when you work on a cartoon featuring an animal protagonist. In fact, it’s practically a requisite of the job. No one groans and silently prays, Don’t start with the dog stories again, please; often they grab a pencil and start drawing.
Chris told Everett Peck, the creator of the show, and Raymie Muzquiz, the show’s supervising director, about our peculiar little guy, and soon Everett and Raymie were sketching squat, roly-poly puglets with just one eye. Of course, the art of Squirrel Boy is delightfully askew, so the illustrated pug’s eye appeared in the center of his face (think of a cuddlier Cyclops); Puggo also sported a jaunty cape and a tall turban, two sartorial choices our real pug has never made. Not that I’ve ever asked Jerome if he wanted to wear a cape and turban, but after those bunny ears a few Easters ago, it’s best that we never speak of dress-up opportunities again.
So how has Jerome reacted to being the inspiration for a cartoon canine? Quite coolly. Less than a week after the show’s premiere, he had his teeth and nose done like any self-respecting Tinseltown climber. Of course, it was a basic canine dental cleaning, and he had surgery on his stenotic nares to help air intake (a surgery recommended by our vet that helps brachycephalic—or, if you prefer, smooshy-faced—dogs breathe better), but I thought the timing was suspicious.
Mostly, I want to make sure this doesn’t all go to his wrinkly head. When we sit down to watch Squirrel Boy and Jerome curls up in his usual spot, I’m quietly observing. We can see the “Hollywood” sign from our living room, and I’m well aware that our pug can keep one eye on his television alter ego and one eye on the iconic symbol that has jump-started a million dreams of superstardom. Well, I guess he can’t keep one eye on both, really, but all I’m saying is that if he gets an agent or personal astrologer anytime soon, we’ll have to talk.
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