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JUST DON'T STEP ON HIS LINES : This 1,800-Pound Bear Is No 800-Pound Gorilla

September 28, 1997|Judy Brennan | Judy Brennan is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Just how big would a star have to be to merit an actual thank-you, rather than just a simple listing, in a movie's credits? Try 1,800 pounds.

That's where Bart the Bear weighs in (before hibernation) and, sure enough, at the end of "The Edge," this appreciation appears on-screen: "Twentieth Century Fox and the producers wish to thank Bart the Bear and his trainer Doug Seus for their contribution to this film."

The film's director, Lee Tamahori, calls Bart "the John Wayne of bears." In fact, this 20-year-old fur ball has been in so many movies that Seus estimates he takes in more money in residuals than many of his human co-stars. "In fact, I do believe he is the only animal [actor] that gets residuals," the trainer adds.

Among Bart's 20-plus movie credits: "Legends of the Fall" (1994), "White Fang" (1991), "The Bear" (1989) and "Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986). In the 1988 John Candy-Dan Aykroyd comedy "The Great Outdoors," that was Bart flashing his backside, only to have it singed by a lamp rigged to a rifle. (The critter was wearing a prosthetic covering at the time, Seus explains.) Upcoming is the Disney comedy "Meet the Deedles," in which he drives a Jeep and lip-syncs as a baritone soul singer.

Not surprisingly, Bart has become perhaps the highest-paid animal actor in the business, pulling in $10,000 a day.

And for a pro like Bart, that's more than a fair price, Tamahori says. "Bart's a million-dollar bear . . . a card-carrying actor of the Screen Actors Guild, a real pro.

"He's such a major part of this picture," the director continues. "The reason we thanked him at the end instead of putting his name in the credits at the beginning is because we didn't want to tip off [the audience] what a critical part of the film he was. If he wasn't around, I don't know what we would have done."

As for the animatronic option, Tamahori was adamant about making the movie with a real animal. Besides, Seus notes, "we actually end up saving production companies money because they don't have to use animatronics on top of Bart. He can do it all." But Bart has his bad days, like any actor.

"He pays attention to Doug and pretty much ignored the rest of us," Tamahori says. "He only turned on Doug a little bit, if something when a little awry, not much. He is an animal and anything off can bewilder him. Basically, he reacts to Pavlovian responses, primarily to food. But when we wanted him to shake a log or do anything, he did."

Seus says that control has a lot to do with adjusting the work to the animal's mood. "If you're doing a night shot and there is tension in the air, you figure out a way to lighten the psychological load for the animal. You work with set design. Say you have a full moon with rain coming in, you adjust the set so he doesn't get wet but make it look as if he does. It's all about rapport with the animal and he has to maintain his dignity."

Bart is the offspring of two captive, orphaned, wild grizzly bears, one of which came from Kodiak Island in Alaska. Bart grew up in a zoo on the East Coast and eventually Seus and his wife, Lynne, came to own and care for him. "I've always loved bears, wild things. You know when you're waking up in bear country, the environment is in good health as it should be," Seus says.

"Bart is my buddy. I play with him every day. There's a swimming hole in the natural flowing spring on the ranch [in Utah] and that's where we swim every day. He's extremely confident and intelligent, as intelligent as the great apes," Seus says, a comparisonBart apparently is OK with. "He's just a good guy. He gives so much back to his wild brothers, that's why I don't mind him working and making this kind of dough."

Like many Hollywood stars, Bart has his cause: Vital Ground, a nonprofit, nonpolitical foundation that raises money to shore up land for bears and other wild animals so they can live in their natural habitat.

According to the Missoula, Mont., conservationist group, over the past 100 years nearly 98% of the bears' natural home has been lost and much of the natural habitat in 48 states lies beyond federally protected lands on private grounds. Among the group's board members are Jeff Bridges and Anthony Hopkins, Bart's co-star in "The Edge" and "Legends of the Fall."

"Bart bought the first piece of ground, 260 acres. Last year, he bought another 6,000 acres in the Rocky Mountains," Seus says. "He may be the highest-paid bear but he doesn't take his job lightly. He gives back in every way."

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