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No Bows, No Wows for Pooches Pursuing Fame

Pet owners say Hollywood Paws failed to deliver acting jobs for their animals. The agency's owner says they got training.

October 03, 2006|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Aside from the occasional trip to the dog park, Goliath the Rottweiler spent most of his time lying around with his gingerbread man-shaped chew toy. Even so, his "cool" and "mellowness" convinced owner Rachel Armstrong he belonged in music videos -- and so she happily paid nearly $2,000 to Hollywood Paws LLC to get him ready for stardom.

But she said all she got to show for it was a snub from "The Tyra Banks Show."

Now Armstrong, along with the owners of Milo, a basenji; Poopsie, a Lhasa apso; Rusty, a pit bull; and a dozen other pet owners have filed a lawsuit alleging Hollywood Paws collected tens of thousands of dollars but failed to deliver auditions, Hollywood connections and prints of doggie head shots.

"I lost a lot of money," Armstrong said.

Behind the suit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court earlier this month, are the broken dreams of people who thought their pets were on the verge of life-changing stardom only to find their savings depleted and their pooches no closer to getting off the casting couch.

Since Hollywood studios first set up shop, parents have gone to extreme lengths to get their kids into pictures.

Cynthia Mulvihill, the pet owners' lawyer, said most of her clients don't have children or their children have grown, and the animals are family.

"Who wouldn't want to be told, 'Hey your member of the family is beautiful and should be in the movies'?" she said.

Hollywood Paws owner Larry Lionetti, a Bay Area resident, said he is dealing with "pet owners similar to a stage parent."

His school promises dog training, and it delivers, he said. And while animals from Hollywood Paws have won spots in several productions, including "Beauty and the Geek," "Air Buddies" and commercials for Toyota and H&R Block, he makes no promises that every pet will become a star.

"Everybody knows down in your town that there are actors and actresses waiting on tables until a part comes along," he said. "Who in L.A. doesn't know this?"

Lionetti founded Hollywood Paws in downtown Los Angeles two years ago with his wife and daughter. The company's website describes Hollywood Paws as "the first and largest talent agency in the world to focus exclusively on representing and promoting animal actors and studio trainers to the entertainment industry."

"Ever seen a dog in a movie and wondered if your pooch could become a pet star?" the site asks. "Well, you won't know if you're living with an actor dog until you consult the experts."

Larry Lacourciere said his wife came across the site and called to inquire about enrolling their labradoodle (poodle-Labrador retriever mix), Wallace.

"He was only about six months old, and he could already do half a dozen things," Lacourciere said.

He added that his wife wanted to see Wallace on TV. "Like you want to see your kid on TV," he said. "The same thing."

At first, Lacourciere said, Wallace enjoyed his classes, learning to wipe his paw across his face and to look for marks on a stage and walk toward them. He also learned to "mumble" on command.

But then, at the end of last year, Wallace's instructor left, and the school began urging him to enroll in classes that were beneath the dog's advanced thespian talents, Lacourciere said.

What's more, he said, the company did not seem to have many real Hollywood connections.

Armstrong, the owner of Goliath, said that even when Hollywood Paws did set him up on an audition, it didn't work out quite the way she had hoped.

Goliath was hired to growl on cue during an episode of "The Tyra Banks Show" on confronting fears, but his scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.

And after she asked if Goliath could have his photo taken with the model-turned-talk show host, Armstrong said she was upbraided by Lionetti for being unprofessional.

Armstrong said she was told: "When we go out on set, you can't act like a groupie."

For Goliath, at least, the story has a happy ending. Through a former trainer at Hollywood Paws, Goliath is earning $100 a day to appear in a low-budget movie.

Hollywood Paws also has run afoul of Teamsters Local 399, which represents Hollywood animal trainers.

Lawyer Robert Cantore wrote a cease-and-desist letter after he caught Hollywood Paws using the local's logo on its website without permission. He said the company is "playing off people's dreams of either getting their dog into the motion-picture industry or making hundreds of thousands of dollars in the industry" as a trainer.

"Either dream is virtually unattainable," Cantore said.

"Work is not up to the school. It is up to producers and directors," Lionetti responded. "I gave good training. We have wonderful results."


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