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Acting Bug : When Hollywood Scripts Call for Creepy Crawlies, This Entomologist Can Pick Up a Cast of Thousands

February 14, 1988|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Steve Kutcher never met a bug he didn't like.

As a child, Kutcher discovered he could stave off cheek-pinching relatives by pulling a spider from his pocket. The 44-year-old Pasadena man has been a bug nut ever since. Insects are Kutcher's profession and his passion: Bugs are his life.

While the world at large runs for the Raid, Kutcher sees splendor in the housefly, glory in the roach. "I'll play with bugs for free," the entomologist said, shaking a container of termites like a maraca.

Kutcher, who got a master's degree at California State University, Long Beach, in insect behavior, also plays with bugs for money.

"My real loves are conservation and education," said Kutcher, who teaches biology part time at West Los Angeles and Glendale Community colleges and often takes his pet polypeds and pro-bug message into local schools. But to keep his collection of 3,000 live insects in stale bread and cabbage, Kutcher also provides insects and entomological services to the entertainment industry.

Custom Service

Kutcher would rather talk about his dream of a local insect zoo or about the insect fair to be held March 6 in Arcadia. But he indulges a visitor's curiosity about his work as a Hollywood bug wrangler, the term sometimes used in his movie credits. Just as other professionals provide film makers with horses and other animal actors, Kutcher finds the angry swarm of bees or the photogenic praying mantis called for in a particular script.

"I caught the fly on Arnold Schwarzenegger's head in 'The Terminator' in my front yard," Kutcher said proudly. He also provided--and rendered harmless--the wasps that terrorized Farrah Fawcett in the film "Extremities." He has filled orders for 40,000 carpenter ants, 18,000 ladybugs and countless tarantulas, including one whose brief but memorable film career consisted of crawling across the torso of a nearly nude actress.

Among the talents Kutcher brings to bug wrangling is knowing where the livestock hide out. With help from his friends, he once caught 1,100 butterflies in just over three hours (they were subsequently released at a wedding). More recently, he has been gathering arachnids to play small but important parts in "Spiderman," a film that will begin shooting later this month.

Rustling in aquariums in his living room are hundreds of ground beetles that figured in one of the more revolting special effects in John Carpenter's movie "Prince of Darkness." "Since then, they've been in 'Fright Night, Part II,' which hasn't been released yet," Kutcher said.

His wife, Laurie, not only tolerates a houseful of bugs, but she keeps them fed. (The Kutchers had two wedding cakes, both shaped like 5-foot-long caterpillars.)

Positively Athletic

Kutcher said he likes the problem-solving aspect of filming with insects, which often requires practical applications of his knowledge of insect behavior. Although he declines to reveal how he accomplished the stunt, he once succeeded in getting a cockroach to run for a foot and then flip over on its back for a commercial. Not just another stupid pet trick, when you realize that cockroaches can't be trained like puppies. Kutcher has also perfected a method for harvesting spider webs without tearing the delicate structures.

The high point of his Hollywood career to date didn't strictly involve insects. It used wrangling leeches, a kind of worm, for Steven Spielberg's film "The Goonies."

But insects definitely provided his low point. "I had to release a thousand flies in a bathroom for the movie 'Multiple Listing,' " he recalled. "That wasn't so bad. But I had to collect them all afterward because it was someone's house."

Kutcher is uncomfortably aware that his film work often feeds the entomophobia, or fear and loathing of insects, that he fights so hard against outside the studio. But he soothes his conscience by using his entertainment income to underwrite serious work with and for insects, including traveling to entomological conferences and speaking to students. He also makes it a point not to see the horror movies in which his tiny proteges appear.

Befriending the Demons

Kutcher takes enormous pleasure in seeing children lose their fear of insects as they participate in such classroom activities as shaking "hands" with his tarantula Dolores. (The tarantula knows that even small children are far too large to be prey and therefore doesn't bite, Kutcher said.) He estimates that Dolores has assuaged the anxieties of 8,000 schoolchildren in recent years. Dolores' predecessor gave her all for education, he said. "I had one for nine years, but she ran off a little girl's hand and hit the floor."

Kutcher revels in making children aware that there is a vast world of insects all around them, doing fascinating things that go largely unobserved. He shows them ground beetles that play possum and tells them how to make excellent bug cages out of plastic soda bottles.

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