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Strains On A Trainer

Sorry, Pal, You're No Puppeteer

November 17, 1996|Kathleen O'Steen | Kathleen O'Steen is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Hollywood's animal trainers are having a beef with Hollywood these days. It turns out that their stars--the Beethovens, Babes, Normans (remember "City Slickers"?) and Willys of the world--make far, far, far less than the Stallones, Schwarzeneggers and Travoltas.

In fact, they aren't even eligible for residuals.

"If I bring my African lion on a set and have him perform in a crucial scene, I won't see any residuals from that work if the film makes a profit," trainer Charlie Sammut says. "But if a puppeteer works a puppet lion, then he is eligible for residuals. What risk is he taking? None. I don't think that's right."

Sammut is spearheading an effort to convince the Screen Actors Guild, the union that represents actors, to fight for residuals and other SAG benefits for animal trainers when it negotiates a new contract with the studios. But even if the union agrees to the idea--which it hasn't yet--wangling more residual fees out of producers and the studios means grabbing the proverbial tiger by the tail.

"I think producers know well in advance of making a picture that uses animals that often the success of that film is based on the animal's performance," says trainer Karl Miller, who provided most of the farm animals for Babe. "And henceforward they should realize that we would like to be placed in a category of respect for our services."

Among those currently covered by SAG are performers, professional singers, stunt performers, airplane and helicopter pilots and puppeteers. Most trainers are members of SAG, but they do not receive SAG benefits unless they appear on camera. Instead, they receive an hourly wage as members of the Teamsters union, plus the one-time fee for the animal.

While the price for animals has risen over the years, it hasn't compared to star salaries.

For instance, Sammut gets $850 for a one-day shoot with Joseph, his adult African lion; wild-animal trainers make a minimum of about $32 an hour under the Teamsters contract. When Sammut started in the business 11 years ago, lions commanded $500 a day.

"Joseph is one of three full-contact African lions working in the U.S.," Sammut says proudly, noting that his animal is currently the MGM lion and the live model of the Lion King. ("Full contact" means the lion is docile enough that a child can sit next to him, Sammut explains.)

Yet what started the flap was not Sylvester Stallone's $60-million payday for three pictures, but rather the fact that puppeteers who manipulate fake animals (for times when the stunt can't be done by an animal) are covered by SAG and are thus eligible for residuals.

"When I learned that puppeteers walk away with residuals, that was it. And when a puppeteer is done, his overhead is over. If I neglected my overhead in any way after the show," Sammut says, pointing out that Joseph eats 8 to 10 pounds of meat a day, "it would be detrimental to my company and my animals. . . . Animals are often responsible for these blockbuster movies, but they get paid less than the props."

Historically, animals have been considered as little more than props in Hollywood, many trainers say. "But from what I've seen over the last 15 years, animals' participation in films has become much more important," Miller says. "And if the animal didn't do a good job, the movie failed."

Recently a group of trainers met with SAG President Richard Masur to present their case. What they're seeking is eligibility for SAG benefits for their work when one of their animals is featured prominently in films; coverage would not extend to trainers of animals seen in the background.

What they got from him, they say, is a verbal agreement to present their case before the union's board of governors. A SAG spokeswoman has said that the union receives numerous requests from various factions within the industry to include them in its coverage and that each case is looked at individually.

Sammut and others maintain that, if they were to receive residuals, most of the funds would go back into the maintenance of their animals. For his part, he says that after his animals are too old to work, they go into retirement on his compound.

"Part of the requirements for puppeteers to get SAG benefits is that the character has to produce an emotional response from the audience, like Kermit the Frog," Sammut says. "Well, if a live animal doesn't fit that bill, then what does?"

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