Fetching work in Hollywood

IN L.A., the myth that everyone is waiting to be discovered just won't die, fueled perhaps by the remote possibility that a casting director will one day walk into a Pinkberry and tap the guy behind the counter to portray, with moving realism, the guy behind a Pinkberry counter.

I'm immune to this kind of thinking -- unless it involves the dog.

In January 2008, I was playing ball with my German shepherd in a Studio City park, where we were approached by a woman from a talent agency who suggested Heidi had star quality and should come in for an evaluation.

You hear about parents being approached about their kids, but . . . a dog? Nonetheless, my mind was already racing, stage-mom style: Should I lie about her age? She's 6, but she can play 4 . . . she's big, but she can play small . . .

I pocketed the woman's card, never dreaming that trying to get Heidi's paw in the door of Hollywood would lead to meetings with movie and TV dogs, barking lessons, typecasting, an introduction to cosmetic fur coloring, a battle of wills with a professional rat and a close encounter with a very unprofessional skunk.

Heidi was found by a family friend in a storm drain in Houston with her litter of six puppies in the spring of 2003. She was not quite a year old. By the time she was rescued, three of the pups had died. She and the remaining babies were little more than fur, bones and fleas and needed blood transfusions. Our friend knew that we wanted to adopt an adult female dog and called us; in June of that year, my husband and I traveled to Texas to pick up our new pet.

Five years later, I found myself driving Heidi to the Hollywood Paws Animal Career Academy.

During her audition, Heidi obediently sat, stayed, hit her "mark" and caught her red ball. We were then hustled off to the meet with an agency rep who told us we had scored 4 out of 5. I didn't know I was being rated, too, for "dog interaction."

What would it take to get us both to perfect 5's?

Here's what: The representative recommended I enroll Heidi in a combo of Levels I and II of the three-level acting program. Cost: $3,995. I didn't even ask the price of Level III.

(For the record: Hollywood Paws was sued in 2006 by more than a dozen pet owners who said the agency failed to deliver on auditions and promised Hollywood connections, but a Superior Court judge dismissed all charges of fraud or negligent misrepresentation. A quote from the Statement of Decision: "Many of the plaintiffs wanted their pets to be stars . . . but Hollywood is filled with heartbreak.")

I told the rep I'd have to think about it.

Next, at the suggestion of the obedience trainer who worked with Heidi just after we brought her to L.A., I began researching the insider's club of Hollywood's professional animal companies. Surely they could handicap the likelihood of Heidi's ascent into animal stardom?

After watching a German shepherd named Rowdy play a pivotal role as a dog wrongly accused of murder in an episode of "NCIS," I called the producers and discovered Rowdy's trainer, Shawn Weber. During a set visit, Weber was not encouraging. Most show business animals are not pets, he said; they are owned and trained by the animal companies. He referred to Heidi as a "private party animal."

Her chances of getting work?

"About as realistic as me being Tom Cruise."

Weber added that, if she beat the odds, Heidi would face a problem that plagues many human actors: typecasting. German shepherds are seen as police dogs, guard dogs or attack dogs. The role of the house pet is more typically played by a sweet-faced Labrador or a golden retriever.

UNDETERRED, my next call was to Animal Actors 4 Hire, a company once run by Moe DiSesso, who for nine years was the animal trainer for "Seinfeld," and an animal provider for movies including "Willard," "Independence Day" and "Annie."

I spoke with his widow, Sue, also an experienced trainer, who seemed to know her stuff, including the staggering odds against Heidi making it in the industry. She reluctantly agreed to meet me for coffee.

DiSesso's first observation about Heidi? "She's going to have to get a speak on her." Translation? "She's got to learn to bark on cue." (It was another confirmation that if Heidi ever landed a movie or TV role, she was more likely to be chasing bad guys than frolicking with toddlers.)

Another potential problem: Like many large dogs, Heidi suffers from joint problems. DiSesso worried that she would not be able to do the repetitive action sequences often required of German shepherds. Heidi's options might be limited to non-active parts, including TV commercials or print work. On the plus side: Heidi had started to receive regular acupuncture treatments even before her attempts to enter show business.

As DiSesso talked, one thing became clear: If Heidi was going to make it, she was going to need a union trainer with connections.

I'm not sure who looked more pleading, me or the dog, but by the last sip of our lattes, DiSesso had agreed to take on Heidi as a client. "We'll see if we can get her some work," she said, adding these warning words: "But it takes about a year to studio-train a dog."

It requires an open mind as well. During our training sessions, I had several encounters with the unexpected and the unheard of:

* DiSesso showed up one day with a "snarl device," which bares the fangs when placed in the mouth to make a good dog look b-a-a-a-d. She explained that, for many dogs, the only way to get a snarl is to provoke the animal to the point of aggression, and no one wants an aggressive dog on the set.

Once the snarl device has been used and the shot is in the can, the producer of the movie or TV show can dub in the appropriate sounds.

* After explaining that a lead animal may require doubles or triples on a set, DiSesso introduced us to Rose Ordile, one of Hollywood's premier animal colorists. Ordile has turned white horses into zebras, white cats into calico creatures and changed the spots on border collies, all with nontoxic color.

* A stage or screen dog must learn to ignore distraction. On another day DiSesso showed up with Sweetie, a 6-month-old gray rat, so we could train Heidi not to chase her like a living chew toy. At first, she placed the rodent's cage out of reach, on my dinner table. ("Rats are very clean," the trainer insisted.)

When it came time for the two animals to meet, DiSesso gave me a choice: hold the dog or hold the rat. I chose the dog, holding Heidi tightly on a short leash, prepared to give the lead and chain a sharp snap -- the correction -- if she lunged at the rodent. Under DiSesso's firm guidance, Heidi did not go anywhere near the rat. On the other hand, her penchant for chasing squirrels may be an unbreakable addiction.

Despite the surprise encounters, the training process proved a bit tedious. Could a little Hollywood glamour liven things up?

I attempted to arrange a rendezvous between Heidi and Rusco, the Chihuahua who played Papi in "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," and was turned down. Later, Heidi did get a date with another celebri-dog: Jonah, one of the 22 yellow Labs used to portray the lead animal character from "Marley & Me."

"Marley" trainer Mark Forbes brought Jonah to Johnny Carson Park in Burbank to meet with Heidi and share training tips.

He reiterated that it is rare to see a privately owned dog appear in a movie. Though many of the dogs used for "Marley" were "green" (that is, had no prior training, not even obedience lessons), they were, like Jonah, owned by professional animal companies. The reason? Forbes said it can take three to four months of training to get a dog ready for a movie. During that time, the animal lives with a trainer and most people, me included, don't want to surrender their pets for that long.

But despite the odds, I couldn't quite give up on the notion of Heidi getting some sort of break into showbiz.

I put in a call to a man who knows more about onstage canines than just about anyone, William Berloni of William Berloni's Theatrical Animals and the author of "Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars." Berloni's company also serves TV and movies, but he is perhaps best known as the trainer who rescued a shy mutt from a shelter and trained him to become the first Sandy in the Broadway musical "Annie."

Berloni still trains dogs for "Annie" productions, and he invited Heidi to do a walk-on role in a touring production in January at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. It wasn't a starring role, but it was a start.

As the date neared, Berloni called to arrange a meet-and-greet between Heidi and Mikey, the dog playing Sandy, just to make sure the dogs could get along backstage.

The night before their meeting, Heidi had a date with the groomer and emerged, as usual, fluffy, fragrant and hysterical. Perhaps it was the excitement of the bath that led her to dash out of the house ahead of me when I went out for the mail. I turned to find her standing under a tree, wagging her tail, with a very large skunk dangling from her mouth.

This would not have happened with a child star.

After a lengthy emergency scrubbing, Heidi was presentable enough to meet Mikey the next day. Although they never became pals, they tolerated each other well enough to keep Heidi from being fired from the next night's gig.

ON the morning of her debut, I received a call from a representative of the show saying that I would be expected to walk across the stage with Heidi during the Act I musical number "N.Y.C." I was to portray a high society dame, but my most important role was to keep her calm.

Backstage, Heidi fulfilled the stereotype of her Teutonic heritage and growled at the animal inspector who came by to ensure the dogs were being properly treated. In fact, before the curtain rose, she pretty much growled at everyone, including Madison Kerth, who played Annie. But despite the noise and distractions, and the stagehands and the "orphans," Heidi did exactly what she needed to do onstage. It was a 30-second victory.

She was even recognized in the elevator after the show, perhaps because she was the only German shepherd in the vicinity.

Are there other roles in the future for Heidi? On the advice of Berloni, we're looking into the possibility of getting her in front of a camera by looking for work as a team, hiring out as a "screen extra with pet." Of course, I'm immune to the lure of Hollywood -- but anything for the dog.

--

diane.haithman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°