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Fetching work in Hollywood

April 08, 2009|Diane Haithman

I'm not sure who looked more pleading, me or the dog, but by the last sip of our lattes, DiSesso had agreed to take on Heidi as a client. "We'll see if we can get her some work," she said, adding these warning words: "But it takes about a year to studio-train a dog."

It requires an open mind as well. During our training sessions, I had several encounters with the unexpected and the unheard of:

* DiSesso showed up one day with a "snarl device," which bares the fangs when placed in the mouth to make a good dog look b-a-a-a-d. She explained that, for many dogs, the only way to get a snarl is to provoke the animal to the point of aggression, and no one wants an aggressive dog on the set.

Once the snarl device has been used and the shot is in the can, the producer of the movie or TV show can dub in the appropriate sounds.

* After explaining that a lead animal may require doubles or triples on a set, DiSesso introduced us to Rose Ordile, one of Hollywood's premier animal colorists. Ordile has turned white horses into zebras, white cats into calico creatures and changed the spots on border collies, all with nontoxic color.

* A stage or screen dog must learn to ignore distraction. On another day DiSesso showed up with Sweetie, a 6-month-old gray rat, so we could train Heidi not to chase her like a living chew toy. At first, she placed the rodent's cage out of reach, on my dinner table. ("Rats are very clean," the trainer insisted.)

When it came time for the two animals to meet, DiSesso gave me a choice: hold the dog or hold the rat. I chose the dog, holding Heidi tightly on a short leash, prepared to give the lead and chain a sharp snap -- the correction -- if she lunged at the rodent. Under DiSesso's firm guidance, Heidi did not go anywhere near the rat. On the other hand, her penchant for chasing squirrels may be an unbreakable addiction.

Despite the surprise encounters, the training process proved a bit tedious. Could a little Hollywood glamour liven things up?

I attempted to arrange a rendezvous between Heidi and Rusco, the Chihuahua who played Papi in "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," and was turned down. Later, Heidi did get a date with another celebri-dog: Jonah, one of the 22 yellow Labs used to portray the lead animal character from "Marley & Me."

"Marley" trainer Mark Forbes brought Jonah to Johnny Carson Park in Burbank to meet with Heidi and share training tips.

He reiterated that it is rare to see a privately owned dog appear in a movie. Though many of the dogs used for "Marley" were "green" (that is, had no prior training, not even obedience lessons), they were, like Jonah, owned by professional animal companies. The reason? Forbes said it can take three to four months of training to get a dog ready for a movie. During that time, the animal lives with a trainer and most people, me included, don't want to surrender their pets for that long.

But despite the odds, I couldn't quite give up on the notion of Heidi getting some sort of break into showbiz.

I put in a call to a man who knows more about onstage canines than just about anyone, William Berloni of William Berloni's Theatrical Animals and the author of "Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars." Berloni's company also serves TV and movies, but he is perhaps best known as the trainer who rescued a shy mutt from a shelter and trained him to become the first Sandy in the Broadway musical "Annie."

Berloni still trains dogs for "Annie" productions, and he invited Heidi to do a walk-on role in a touring production in January at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. It wasn't a starring role, but it was a start.

As the date neared, Berloni called to arrange a meet-and-greet between Heidi and Mikey, the dog playing Sandy, just to make sure the dogs could get along backstage.

The night before their meeting, Heidi had a date with the groomer and emerged, as usual, fluffy, fragrant and hysterical. Perhaps it was the excitement of the bath that led her to dash out of the house ahead of me when I went out for the mail. I turned to find her standing under a tree, wagging her tail, with a very large skunk dangling from her mouth.

This would not have happened with a child star.

After a lengthy emergency scrubbing, Heidi was presentable enough to meet Mikey the next day. Although they never became pals, they tolerated each other well enough to keep Heidi from being fired from the next night's gig.

ON the morning of her debut, I received a call from a representative of the show saying that I would be expected to walk across the stage with Heidi during the Act I musical number "N.Y.C." I was to portray a high society dame, but my most important role was to keep her calm.

Backstage, Heidi fulfilled the stereotype of her Teutonic heritage and growled at the animal inspector who came by to ensure the dogs were being properly treated. In fact, before the curtain rose, she pretty much growled at everyone, including Madison Kerth, who played Annie. But despite the noise and distractions, and the stagehands and the "orphans," Heidi did exactly what she needed to do onstage. It was a 30-second victory.

She was even recognized in the elevator after the show, perhaps because she was the only German shepherd in the vicinity.

Are there other roles in the future for Heidi? On the advice of Berloni, we're looking into the possibility of getting her in front of a camera by looking for work as a team, hiring out as a "screen extra with pet." Of course, I'm immune to the lure of Hollywood -- but anything for the dog.

--

diane.haithman@latimes.com

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