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A Boy and His Dog--Bond Goes On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though he plays the title role in “My Dog Skip,” Enzo, a 20-pound Jack Russell terrier with a penchant for belly rubs, isn’t particularly into star turns.

On a recent Sunday morning at the Century Plaza Hotel, Enzo is all sweetness and obedience as he poses for photographs in his hotel suite. And later, he obligingly autographs--with his paw--posters of the sentimental period drama, which opens in theaters Wednesday.

“He is smart,” says his trainer, Mathilde Decagney, as she watches him scratch his back on the carpeting. “He is eager to learn.”

And Enzo ranks among the likes of Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Old Yeller when it comes to great dog performances. In the movie, not only does Enzo have to snarl, be overly protective and pretend he’s in a coma, he also plays baseball, football and drives a car.

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“My Dog Skip” is based on the acclaimed 1995 book by the late Willie Morris about his relationship with his beloved fox terrier, Skip. As an 8-year-old growing up in the quiet Mississippi town of Yazoo City during the ‘40s, Morris was a gawky, shy, bright boy who had a hard time making friends and was constantly being harassed by bullies. But his life changed when his mother gave him Skip for his ninth birthday. Soon, Morris was learning not only responsibility, the good-natured, outgoing Skip brought the boy out of his shell. Though Skip died while Morris was away at college, the writer said he thought about his best friend every day of his life.

A four-hankie weeper, “My Dog Skip” stars Frankie Muniz (“Malcolm in the Middle”) as Willie Morris; Diane Lane as his vibrant mother; and Kevin Bacon as his stern but loving father.

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Director Jay Russell actually cast Enzo before any of his two-legged actors. Enzo has been the backup dog on “Frasier,” the NBC sitcom in which his father, Moose, plays Eddie. Moose also appears in “Skip” as the elderly pet. Three puppies play the very young Skip.

“I was looking around for a movie dog which was a fox terrier,” says Russell, a former documentary filmmaker. “I couldn’t find any. So I wanted to keep it at least in the same sort of terrier family. We learned about the Jack Russells [Decagney] had. I thought that was close enough.”

Though Enzo is a fully trained dog, Decagney had two months to get him ready for the special challenges of the script.

“Before we left L.A. for Mississippi,” Russell says, “we got together and went through the script. Both of us highlighted things in the script, like where Skip has to play football and Skip has to play baseball. We would highlight those and then discuss what sort of things we wanted to try to do and how we might execute them.”

Russell gave his canine star and his trainer a big challenge. “I told her I wanted to get as much [of the action] as possible in wide shots,” Russell says.

“If you watch a lot of animal movies, a lot of the actions the animals do are in little pieces,” he says. “It’s very cutty and separated and that’s how the tricks are put together.”

But the director wanted to try something more naturalistic and flowing. “To me, when you see those little sequences put together with only editing, I think, psychologically, it feels like a movie. You say, ‘Oh, that’s a trick dog doing the trick.’ But when you see it in wide, I think, psychologically you begin to believe this is the dog. It is Skip.

“I thought at the end of the movie, if we were really believing the dog was Skip then we were going to have the emotional payoff at the end.”

Russell had been good friends with Morris, who died of heart failure in August. Morris had been a Rhodes scholar and a former editor of Harper’s magazine. The two met when Russell interviewed him for a PBS documentary on famous highways in America.

“He was a great big character who has left a big hole in the world,” he says. “We corresponded and stayed in touch.”

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Back in 1995, Russell was in New York and read a review of “My Dog Skip” and decided to read it on the flight home to Los Angeles.

“People on the plane must have thought I was nuts,” he says with a chuckle. “I was just weeping on the plane. As soon as I got home, the first thing I did was call Willie. I said, ‘I love the book and are the rights available?’ ”

Russell was drawn to the book because young Morris reminded him of himself growing up in Arkansas in the 1960s. “I had a childhood dog who lived to be 17,” Russell says. “He was a mutt, but of the terrier family. His name was Gentle. He was a very gentle dog. When he died, I was away at college. There were a lot of similarities in the stories,” he adds, as he pets Enzo, who is enjoying all the attention.

The director says he had a hard time finding a young actor to play Willie. “We went through 300 to 400 kids,” he says. “We were within weeks of starting to get close to shooting. I got a tape one day of 20 kids and there was this one kid, his face stopped me. I watched his reading and we flew him out. He was our Willie. Frankie is well beyond his years in his eyes, I think, and his feelings. He’s a special kid.”

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Muniz, 14, became fast friends with the real Morris. “My mom and I would go to his house a lot and have dinner,” he recalls. “Willie would tell us all of these stories. Four days before he passed away, he invited us to New York to go to dinner. We were together all the time. We loved each other.”

It took a bit longer for the young actor to befriend Enzo.

“I think I really did bond with him,” says Muniz, who has a “fat cat” but is planning on getting a rat terrier this year.

“Two weeks before we started filming, we went down to Mississippi and I worked with Mathilde and the dog. I was one of the only people who got to pet him because they really wanted the dog to bond with me. The first month, we weren’t totally bonded, but then he started to get to know me and he would run up to me. In the beginning, he wouldn’t. He’d do what Mathilde told him to do.”

Decagney says it is a challenge for the actors to work with animals because the trainer is behind the camera either giving hand signals or verbal cues. “It can be disturbing,” she says. “I try to make it as discreet as possible. Frankie and Enzo bonded really well.”

Russell says he broke every show business rule with this film. “It was kids, dogs, a period piece and a low budget all at once,” he says. “I paid every due with this one movie. I can do something easy after this.”

Individually, he adds, working with animals and children is a challenge in its own right. “But putting them together . . . I would have to remind myself a lot of the time when we were on pace if the kids weren’t up to it or it was too hot for the dog, that this is a child; this is a dog. I learned a lot in this process.”

Morris, says Russell, got to see the finished film one week before he died. “He loved the movie,” Russell recalls quietly. “He saw it in New York and he called me when he got back to the hotel. He said he cried the entire cab ride from the screening to the hotel.

“I don’t care what anyone else thinks about the movie,” Russell adds. “The fact that Willie loved it is important to me.”


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