So, okay a pet isn't going to make an unemployed actor a star. (If he's employed he's not going to have time for this.) Still, a large number of actors, along with housewives and retirees are trying to get their pets into show biz. Ego gratification--not unlike that of the stage mama--and plain old-fashioned fun are the operative words.
Alyssa Polacsek, an editorial assistant at Back Stage and an aspiring actress, saw a Back Stage casting notice for a "small not-so-cute dog," to appear in a New York University student film. And it immediately struck her as a delightful opportunity for both herself and her dog Bubba. "This was a chance to see him on tape. I've always felt a sitcom should be written around Bubba." she says only half-kiddingly. "He's got quite a sense of humor, a larger-than-life personality and does a great Marlon Brando sendup. Following two-and-half weeks of overnight shooting, no pay but great food, I was exhausted. But at the same time it was wonderful to see Bubba run in front of a camera ready to do more even after it was all over. He wasn't ready to wrap. It made it worthwhile for me to watch him having so much fun." She adds seriously, "Of course, I saw this as a possible way to make my own pro pet. Pet owners may make a few hundred dollars, conceivably a thousand or two a year." Jenson, who has been in the business with her dog Mike for four years, may earn up to $10,000. But she is by no means representative.
Behaving Like an Animal
Mercifully, she did not. Instead, she has the good fortune to be referred to renowned animal behaviorist Bash Dibra. He is one of the best-known dog trainers on the East Coast, author of two bestselling books, "Dog Training By Bash," and "Teach Your Dog to Behave," (both are Signet books) and a video, "Simple Solutions to the Most Common Dog Behavior Problems." Besides running his well-attended dog obedience classes held in Riverdale, which transformed Jenson's dog Mike, he has become a private guru to such stars as Mariah Carey, Kim Basinger, Matthew Broderick and Henry Kissinger no less. He also runs a six-week Star animal workshop that screens, assesses and then trains would-be dog actors for the professional performing world. At the end of the course, each animal receives a diploma and videotape of its newly acquired thespian techniques. The workshop may then serve as a booking agent for its graduates.
"My own concern, at least initially, was to take care of Mike's separation anxiety, and train him not to devastate my apartment every time I went out," Jenson notes. "It was only later, after I realized how well Mike was doing in Bash's obedience class, that I began to think of the possibility of his being an animal actor. When he completed his obedience training, he auditioned for Bash's star workshop. It was really quite hilarious, over 100 dogs auditioning, each one doing tricks in front of the camera in a Midtown studio. Only about five or six, including Mike, were accepted into the program."
She stresses, "An animal really has to be very well-trained to get into it. The star workshop offers advanced training, and even after a dog is in it, owner and dog have to practice what they've learned every single day."
As Jenson tells it, Mike made it to the head of the workshop quickly. "In one of the exercises, each of the dogs had to hold a leash in his mouth as the camera focused on him. Across the room, you could hear 'clink, clink, clink,' as each dog dropped his leash onto the floor. Mike was the only one who kept it in his mouth!" Jenson chortles at the recollection. Following graduation, Mike was entered into Dibra's Star Animal Workshop registry, a system that gives each graduate--its owner to be precise--access to those professionals in advertising, promotion and film, who regularly use animal actors. And, of course, for a dog like Mike, Star Animal Workshop became an active booking agent. Indeed, Mike has frequently accompanied Dibra on his TV morning talk show rounds.
Still, Jenson insists she has made most of the contacts herself, (Dibra does not get a cut if he does land Mike a gig) and she and Mike have become quite well-known within the parameters if this strange, albeit sweet, little universe. Like human actors, dog actors are frequently "interviewed" before they're auditioned. and the audition process, where the dog struts his stuff, is in fact serious business, although not unexpectedly, there are comic moments. "At one audition, there were a number of us sitting in a waiting room with our dogs who were barking away. A photographer came out and pleaded with our dogs to please not disturb the other dog who was auditioning in front of the camera."
And the shoots are not devoid of comedy either. "There is always fabulous food brought in for the crew," says Jenson. "At one commercial shoot they were serving Swedish meatballs. Suddenly, the director noticed that Mike was no longer on the sofa where he was supposed to be, and the director was not happy about it. Like everyone else on the set, Mike went for the Swedish meatballs. He was sitting pretty (show-biz dog term), but busy eating. Just like everyone else!"
Jenson makes the point that Mike gets a 1099 tax form each year, "just like everyone else," she concludes. And it's often a toss-up as to whose career she's more anxious to promote, her or Mike's.
Bashkim (Bash) Dibra