'Wishbone' in Wild West: Git Along, Little Doggy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taco Bell's Dinky the Chihuahua may be the hottest dog on television. "Frasier's" adorable Eddie may be the most popular TV series pooch. But paws down, the most versatile canine actor on the small screen today has to be Soccer, the star of PBS' award-winning series "Wishbone."

Since "Wishbone" premiered in the fall of 1995, the 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier has played such famous literary characters as Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Frankenstein, Huck Finn, Romeo and Mr. D'Arcy of "Pride and Prejudice."

The series has such a following that, a few years ago, 7,000 fans showed up for his personal appearance at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. "Wishbone" has spawned its own fan club, a line of stuffed animals, books, T-shirts and other collectibles.

Now Soccer is starring in his first feature-length adventure, "Wishbone's Dog Days of the West," premiering tonight on Showtime. The plucky hero imagines himself to be the Wild West hero "Long Bill" Longley of Chaparosa, Texas.

Inspired by short stories from O. Henry's "Heart of the West," the rip-roaring tale of the dog finds "Long Bill" and his pal Tom Merwin (Brent Anderson) fighting off a federal bank examiner and town troublemaker Calliope Catesby (Mark Walter). Soccer gets to play the harmonica, is involved in a shootout on the streets of Chaparosa, herds cattle and even rides a horse.

Just as in the series, Larry Brantley supplies the voice of Wishbone.

Executive producer/creator Rick Duffield says he was tickled by the prospect of having the book-loving hound starring in a western.

"Just the idea of him walking down a dusty street with tumbleweeds twice his size rolling by, with his six-shooter at his side, sent me into fits of laughter," he says. "I thought it would be fun for him to explore the Wild West. In a way, it's every little boy's dream, so why not every little dog's?"

"Dog Days" was filmed in Santa Fe, N.M., at Eve's Ranch, which was used in the 1971 film "The Cheyenne Social Club," and at the set from the 1985 saga "Silverado."

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Trainer Jackie Kaptan, who has owned Soccer since he was 2 months old, says doing the western was a challenge. One of the new tricks she taught the dog was how to tip his hat to a lady while walking down the street.

"I took one behavior--'hide your eyes'--and converted it to a hat tip," Kaptan explains. "Even though Soccer has been a dog I've worked with and trained for nine years, you are never through trying to create something new or get across to the audience something new."

Soccer also had to learn to ride a horse. "My concerns are always for the dog," says Kaptan. "I don't want him to fall off the horse and hurt himself. I found a local wrangler there and found a really gentle horse and it worked really well. We had a couple of weeks to prep it and teach him to ride. I brought my own saddle and converted it to the dog. I made sure the ground was soft just in case he did fall."

Soccer, who loves tennis balls, squeak toys and is so mechanically inclined he can flush a toilet, has three doubles. To ease his work load, Kaptan has one dog stand in for lighting setups and another to cover on some action stunts. Yet another dog, this one a dead ringer for Soccer, poses for all still photographs.

When Soccer is on the series' set outside Dallas, he has his own room so he can sleep between scenes. "They had air conditioning tubed to my van, so it was always cool in the van," Kaptan says. "On the set, he has his own air conditioner. It's a big joke on the set that when Soccer became Wishbone he was a great dog and now he's just spoiled."

Costumer designer Stephen M. Chudej, who won an Emmy two years ago for "Wishbone," had to design seven outfits for the pooch for "Dog Days."

"Each costume is one piece," he says. "We have it layered in such a way that it fastens on a seam along the back center. When it's time to dress him, Jackie holds him up so that his four legs are hanging down. We pull the costume on from underneath and Velcro it down the center. It's easy on and easy off."

Duffield is waiting to hear if PBS will pick up "Wishbone" for a third season, but in the meantime has finished another "Wishbone" movie set in Camelot.

"If somebody would buy into the idea of doing more of these [movies], it would be great," Duffield says. "We really get a chance to tell more of the story and bring these characters from literary classics more fully to life."

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* "Wishbone's Dog Days of the West" airs tonight at 6 on Showtime. Repeats of the first season of "Wishbone" air weekdays at 3:30 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28; the new season of "Wishbone" will return Sundays at 6 p.m. after the March PBS pledge drive.

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