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Fetching work in Hollywood

April 08, 2009|Diane Haithman
  • Diane Haithman with her German shepherd, Heidi.
Diane Haithman with her German shepherd, Heidi. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

IN L.A., the myth that everyone is waiting to be discovered just won't die, fueled perhaps by the remote possibility that a casting director will one day walk into a Pinkberry and tap the guy behind the counter to portray, with moving realism, the guy behind a Pinkberry counter.

I'm immune to this kind of thinking -- unless it involves the dog.

In January 2008, I was playing ball with my German shepherd in a Studio City park, where we were approached by a woman from a talent agency who suggested Heidi had star quality and should come in for an evaluation.

You hear about parents being approached about their kids, but . . . a dog? Nonetheless, my mind was already racing, stage-mom style: Should I lie about her age? She's 6, but she can play 4 . . . she's big, but she can play small . . .

I pocketed the woman's card, never dreaming that trying to get Heidi's paw in the door of Hollywood would lead to meetings with movie and TV dogs, barking lessons, typecasting, an introduction to cosmetic fur coloring, a battle of wills with a professional rat and a close encounter with a very unprofessional skunk.

Heidi was found by a family friend in a storm drain in Houston with her litter of six puppies in the spring of 2003. She was not quite a year old. By the time she was rescued, three of the pups had died. She and the remaining babies were little more than fur, bones and fleas and needed blood transfusions. Our friend knew that we wanted to adopt an adult female dog and called us; in June of that year, my husband and I traveled to Texas to pick up our new pet.

Five years later, I found myself driving Heidi to the Hollywood Paws Animal Career Academy.

During her audition, Heidi obediently sat, stayed, hit her "mark" and caught her red ball. We were then hustled off to the meet with an agency rep who told us we had scored 4 out of 5. I didn't know I was being rated, too, for "dog interaction."

What would it take to get us both to perfect 5's?

Here's what: The representative recommended I enroll Heidi in a combo of Levels I and II of the three-level acting program. Cost: $3,995. I didn't even ask the price of Level III.

(For the record: Hollywood Paws was sued in 2006 by more than a dozen pet owners who said the agency failed to deliver on auditions and promised Hollywood connections, but a Superior Court judge dismissed all charges of fraud or negligent misrepresentation. A quote from the Statement of Decision: "Many of the plaintiffs wanted their pets to be stars . . . but Hollywood is filled with heartbreak.")

I told the rep I'd have to think about it.

Next, at the suggestion of the obedience trainer who worked with Heidi just after we brought her to L.A., I began researching the insider's club of Hollywood's professional animal companies. Surely they could handicap the likelihood of Heidi's ascent into animal stardom?

After watching a German shepherd named Rowdy play a pivotal role as a dog wrongly accused of murder in an episode of "NCIS," I called the producers and discovered Rowdy's trainer, Shawn Weber. During a set visit, Weber was not encouraging. Most show business animals are not pets, he said; they are owned and trained by the animal companies. He referred to Heidi as a "private party animal."

Her chances of getting work?

"About as realistic as me being Tom Cruise."

Weber added that, if she beat the odds, Heidi would face a problem that plagues many human actors: typecasting. German shepherds are seen as police dogs, guard dogs or attack dogs. The role of the house pet is more typically played by a sweet-faced Labrador or a golden retriever.

UNDETERRED, my next call was to Animal Actors 4 Hire, a company once run by Moe DiSesso, who for nine years was the animal trainer for "Seinfeld," and an animal provider for movies including "Willard," "Independence Day" and "Annie."

I spoke with his widow, Sue, also an experienced trainer, who seemed to know her stuff, including the staggering odds against Heidi making it in the industry. She reluctantly agreed to meet me for coffee.

DiSesso's first observation about Heidi? "She's going to have to get a speak on her." Translation? "She's got to learn to bark on cue." (It was another confirmation that if Heidi ever landed a movie or TV role, she was more likely to be chasing bad guys than frolicking with toddlers.)

Another potential problem: Like many large dogs, Heidi suffers from joint problems. DiSesso worried that she would not be able to do the repetitive action sequences often required of German shepherds. Heidi's options might be limited to non-active parts, including TV commercials or print work. On the plus side: Heidi had started to receive regular acupuncture treatments even before her attempts to enter show business.

As DiSesso talked, one thing became clear: If Heidi was going to make it, she was going to need a union trainer with connections.

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