The incredible talents of animal actors

This is Sheila Burnford’s account of seven days at the Disney set outside Hollywood, where she discovered

October 19 1963

The incredible talents of animal actors

This is Sheila Burnford’s account of seven days at the Disney set outside Hollywood, where she discovered

October 19 1963

The incredible talents of animal actors

This is Sheila Burnford’s account of seven days at the Disney set outside Hollywood, where she discovered

In i960 Sheila Burn ford wrote a best-selling novel, The Incredible Journey, about these family pets

FICTION WRITERS often safeguard themselves with the prefaced statement that all their characters are fictitious. I disregarded this precaution when I wrote The Incredible Journey, a book in which the three heroes resembled to the last hair their real-life counterparts; and their characters were portrayed by a relentless, intimate knowledge. For the three were my own animals: Bill, the bull terrier, Raimie, the Labrador, and Simon, the Siamese cat.

The last two are still very much part of my life, but they remain blissfully unoffended about my shameless exposure of their characters. 1 dare say if 1 took them to the movie that Disney Studios made from this story, and which is to be released soon, they would sleep throughout the performance as soundly as they did when I showed them some home movies 1 took of their screen counterparts when the film was being made. Their dis-

interest was the subtlest revenge of all on me, for it was one of the highlights of my life — watching my story come alive with animal actors portraying the three who had shared the life of my family for so long.

1 had always thought it would be impossible to make a movie of my story because a cat must play a star role along with the dogs. The whole theme and meaning would be lost if the animals could not be presented as a trio, for the story was built around their mutual support and companionship on a long journey. 1 knew the dogs would present no problem; from the Rin Tin Tin of my childhood to Lassie. Old Yeller and Big Red of today they have proved themselves. But cats, tolerating the human race only that they may tame it more easily towards their own ends, admirable, lovely, independent cats, cool and appraising, are totally unco-operative about doing anything other than

in their own good, self-promoting, feline time.

True, Siamese cats are usually more dog-like in their attitude towards their owners, and can often be persuaded to appear responsive if one is not too exacting. But I had given the Siamese of this story an exacting role: not only must he be of considerable character and able to perform unusual tasks, such as fishing and opening doors, but he was also cast in the role of provider to the terrier. My own Simon would have had little difficulty in fulfilling this part in real life, for the trophies of his nightly work in his younger days, spread out on the kitchen floor of the cottage for my early morning delight, would have supported a St. Bernard: rabbits, snakes, weasels, bats, mice and sometimes, regrettably, birds. On top of all this, 1 had tried to bring out in the book the strange, deep affinity that existed between this cat and the bull terrier.

This year, Walt Disney completed the movie Incredible Journey with these animal stars

All in all, it would have to be quite a cat, and I was not surprised that several film studios turned the story down because of this. Privately l thought Mr. Disney had bought himself a real headache when I heard that he was to attempt the apparently impossible. 1 visualized his script-writers deciding to eliminate the cat role altogether. After all, so long as the all-embracing words “based on the book by . . .“ appear in the right size among the credits of a movie, anything can happen to the original story, and frequently does. Perhaps they would use a stuffed cat, I thought, or superimpose things some magical movie way; perhaps, indeed, it would end up as an animated cartoon. I tried to imagine my animal heroes singing some nice catchy, anthropomorphic song in a trio as they journeyed along, and felt decidedly apprehensive.

A few months later, at a secluded ranch lying under a fold of hills on continued on page 54

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the west coast, I sat by one of the Disney cameras as it recorded a Siamese cat fishing in a creek, and landing its flapping catch with a lightningswift professional paw — not once, but as often as the director wished. There was no trick photography, no taxidermy, only “Tao” himself refuting the idea that cats cannot be directed to perform.

The director was Jack C'ouffer, and it was really because of him that I was there, not in any official capacity, just as an insatiably curious sidewalk superintendent. I could not stay away after I had met Jack the previous fall when he had come up to Port Arthur, Ont., to take endless slides of the lakehead countryside so that the eventual west coast location could be matched as closely as possible (unfortunately our season is not long enough for the necessary months of film making). Jack had been director and cameraman of many Disney animal productions, and his experiences, some of which have recently been told in his book Song of Wild Laughter. fascinated me. It did not matter that it was my story that he and his partner, Lloyd Beebe, were making — it could be The Tale of Peter Rabbit or The Life Saga of a Groundhog — I could not die happy until I had seen for myself the animal handlers and cameramen working together, something that was routine to Jack but sounded like sheer magic to me.

The upshot of this meeting was that in late spring I spent one of the happiest weeks in my life with the Couffers and Beebes, and the three animal handlers (one for each breed): Hal Driscoll, Bill Koehler and Al Niemela.

Al Niemela handled the cat role, and if I refer to him and his charges constantly it is because my admiration is unbounded. It was he who confuted the sceptics and disproved the pessimists—including myself—who thought it could not be done. I shall never be able to think of AÍ without automatically adding his ever-present props: a Siamese cat draped like a

stole over his shoulder, purring like a teakettle; the strange leathcr-andcanvas belt of his own devising with five or six compartments containing ground meat, sardines, tuna fish or some other delicacy peculiar to his feline star’s mood of the moment; and the tinkly bell which was his Pavlovian signal to his actors. But most of all I hear Al’s voice, crooning, cajoling, persuading, exhorting his feline talent, one and all of which loved him wholeheartedly.

His pride and joy, the star in the cat firmament, was a young Siamese called Sin. Sin had an almost electric personality. Every inch of his eager

little body was supercharged and vibrant, and he could learn to do almost anything from unlatching doors to jumping down to a protruding girder on a three-hundred-foot trestle bridge. He had been persuaded, 1 should say, rather than taught, by the natural exploitation of his reflex actions, by the repetition of a sequence, always ending in the reward of food and a demonstration of Al's affection. But the real secret of Sin's success lay in Al's own personality, for he is one of those rare men with a genuine rapport with all animals, and I was to see examples of this time and time again.

Sin's range of talents was vast, but obviously could not embrace every specialty called for in the story, and sometimes an understudy deputized for him. AÍ ran his own studio for cat method actors at the ranch, and from it he picked the understudies: Jumpcat, who could leap fabulous distances (1 watched him sail across a four-foot gap in a beaver dam like a flying squirrel): Twocat (or was it Threecat?) who loved to fish: and Notch (or Nonotch? 1 found it hard to tell them apart) who hated bears.

Sin and one or two other cats had the equivalent of star dressing rooms to themselves, but the hoi polloi lived in an outdoor enclosure furnished to their taste with sleeping boxes, sunning ledges, stumps, and real catwalks all around the wire near the top. There were about fifteen of them living contentedly together, and they were the most astonishing sight to come upon suddenly: fat cats, thin cats, young, old. large and small, all blue-eyed with dark, long-stockinged legs and dark face masks. They slept, played, considered, sharpened their claws, climbed the netting or paced the catwalks, and the place w'as loud with the incredible range of inflection and tones of happy Siamese voices. These were the original aspirants to stardom that AÍ had gathered about him when searching for talent. From their ranks Sin and his understudies had risen. Most of them had been strays found in animal shelters in Hollywood (Siamese strays would be a rarity elsewhere, but it's probably typical of the film capital's opulence that they’re quite common there).

Now' that the talent had been weeded out from their midst, they were all cither in that state known to the profession as “resting between engagements” or, and I think more likely, they were still drawing actors' pay in the form of rations simply because AÍ could not bear to part with any of them. It was an unforgettable experience to be there when he appeared—it looked like a rush of uninhibited, stage-struck teenagers. Cats woke up and sprang to life, stopped whatever they were doing and rushed for a front place at the wire mesh, climbed on one another’s shoulders, hung like monkeys from the wire; purring, clamoring for his attention, beseeching paws stretched through the wire: a battery of fifteen pairs of slightly crossed blue eyes riveted on him, and a chorus of discordant oriental voices raised in welcome and supplication.

I liked to think that when eventually these actors were released from their contracts the strays would find they had gone up in the world, as

befitting their status of retired Disney actors, and all would find pampered retirement in private homes—a fairy talc ending that always beguiled me when 1 stood entranced before their quarters.

The different methods required for directing the various animals in the picture were an education in themselves. As I have said, it is useless being dictatorial with cats—they must be wooed, cajoled and persuaded. But bull terriers, those steel - muscled

stocky extroverts with their humor and cunning, require an outgoing firmness: and the sensitive Labradors, more responsive and gentler, require yet another approach. If I make less mention of the beautiful young Labrador, Wrink, who played the part of the leader, it is because lie was so perfectly handled by Hal Driscoll that his naturally dignified gentle character took over and merged into the part so that it was impossible to detect where training began or ended. I

found myself believing in him wholeheartedly—and that is the most sincere tribute I can pay to his handling. The other two stand out more, the cat because of his uniqueness; the bull terrier because, alone of the three, he definitely had to change personality and act.

I must explain w hat I mean by that. Bill, my own bull terrier, had been nearly fifteen when he died, and I wrote him into the story as an old dog. I had been deeply attached to

this dog. more than I can say w ithout undue sentiment, so 1 had prepared myself fcr disappointment w hen I met his counterpart that first day at the ranch. How' could anyone, even Disney, find a terrier old and villainously charming enough to take the part of my paragon? And when I first saw' the terrier actor my heart sank at the ineptitude of the casting. For here was a young dog, bouncy and shiny as a new hard rubber ball, rejoicing in the rippling - muscled prime of youth.

The only resemblance I could see to the dog of my book was the color, the goat ears, and the little wicked appraising eyes.

I remember thinking, “Haven't they even read the book, these idiots in Hollywood? Don't they know this should be a desperately weary OLD dog?" But then I did not know Bill Koehler, or The Koehler Method of Do}> Training. That is the name of a fine book he has written; for Bill Koehler not only handles animals for Disney, but is an acknowledged expert in training dogs for field and obedience trials—and he has always been a bull terrier fancier and breeder.

Koehler must have seen the doubt in my eyes, for he demonstrated his strapping youngster's talents then and there, where the road curved toward us over a bridge across a creek. He and Hal Driscoll walked up the road and Hal marked a line in the gravel halfway across the bridge. Their dogs ran beside them, excited and happy about any action. AI Niemela joined them with the inevitable Sin draped over a shoulder, and stayed behind out of sight with the dogs while the others returned and stood by me at the far end of the bridge. They called their dogs and almost immediately the Labrador appeared round the curve, followed a few feet behind by the hull terrier, Muffey. Both trotted along very briskly and, to my jaundiced eye, completely out of character.

“Now watch,” said Bill. “This is where the camera would pick them up." Both called out instructions to their dogs: “Slow, there, slow down. Wrink,” said Hal. “Steady. Muff, stea-dy,” called Bill, raising his arm slowly. As I watched, the Labrador looked behind at his companion and altered his pace to a slow lope: at the same moment, the jaunty young bull terrier behind was suddenly transformed into a weary old dog with heavy head and slow dragging paws. The Labrador came to a halt at the line, then wearily, drearily, sagging in every line, the terrier drew up alongside and stood there, gazing with despondent bull-terrier embarrassment at a pebble.

I could hardly believe my eyes. This was not just a dog performing a trick, it was a dog presenting, and sustaining, a role totally different from his own normal character: this was a bull-terrier actor in the truest sense of the word.

Then down the road, running in his strange elfish way. came the little gamin figure of Sin to complete the trio; a quick inquisitive look over the bridge to sec what might be going on underneath, then he was weaving in and out of the dogs' legs, purring mightily. In the most natural, interested way that later became a con-

sistent delight to watch when he led his little procession around the countryside, the Labrador put his head down to the cat’s and waved his tail in acknowledgment. The terrier, still in character, too tired to care, blinked half-closed slitted eyes in an expressionless face.

It was the most consummate performance I have ever seen. So perfect. in fact, that I was caught off guard for a moment at the totally unexpected resurrection of memories, and found myself sniffling my approval. Many times 1 had seen the real trio returning to me in just that order—the Labrador delivering the half-blind terrier home after a round of the neighborhood garbage cans and hydrants, and the terrier's Siamese shadow never far away, always appearing on the scene a few' seconds later as though summoned by some magic of communication. But this was the first and last time 1 found myself making any real life comparisons. After that I became completely absorbed in the characters of the actors themselves and the edge of wonder was never dulled for a moment.

One day the cameras were set up on a curve of the little creek that wound through the meadows, its grassy banks covered with buttercups and celandines. On the bank opposite a sandy shelf ran down to the water s edge: here Twocat w'as to perform in his fishing role. I was told. (Sin had shown no interest in fishing, and as AI never expected him to perform unless the desire w'ere there. Tw'ocat would stand in for him. having shown an unbounded enthusiasm for angling.)

Two, Two the fishing eat

I sat by one of the cameras, hoping for some shots w'ith my own sixteenmillimeter camera. The other camera pointed across the creek a few yards away at a different angle. Behind us were hig sheets of aluminum on tripods to reflect more light on the ledge. (I had no idea how much patience was required w'ith outdoor filming to get consistent light readings: a sequence might be half finished, then cumulus clouds would roll up over the mountains to alter the light, and all action w'ould stop until they passed over. Jack and Lloyd will always be characteristically in my memory with one eye screwed sorrowfully up at the sky and the other bent hopefully on a light meter.)

Presently AI appeared over the meadow with Twocat leaping and running beside him. long legged, like a small chimpanzee, tail straight up. yowling w'ith excitement. AI picked up Twocat. pressed him lovingly to his blue denim bosom and popped him into a traveling box. A long length of cord led from a spring on the door of the box. and the other end w'as given to me along with my instructions: when everything w'as set AI would disappear into cover on the far hank, say “pull,” ring his bell, the cameras would turn and the performance begin.

I dutifully jerked the string, and almost immediately came Twocat along the bank of the creek, light and dark and graceful, picking his way through the buttercups. He stopped

and looked intently down into the water, and I heard Al’s persuasive voice crooning, “That’s a good little Twocat—fish. Two, Fish—Two get his nice fish ...”

Twocat yelled back agreeably, jumped down on to the sandy spit and leaned far out over the water. He was only a few yards away and I could see his eyes, vividly blue and bright with excitement, dart over the water probing the depths, the reflex

nerves already twitching in his shoulders. A paw curved into a scoop, poised over the water, and his whole body vibrated like a tuning fork for a split second. Then—splash!—so fast that 1 barely saw the paw enter the water, and Twocat had his fish wriggling on the bank. He pounced on it. carried it up the bank and crouched over his dinner with ecstatic growls. But he was not allowed to finish it yet: the cameras stopped, AÍ appear-

ed. beaming with pride, and a small lug of war followed. Twocat danced around in vociferous fury as he lost the larger part of his fish. But the same sequence had to be shot two or three times, and his appetite could not be surfeited until the work was finished.

He had been trained, AI told me, by having a fish swimming in a bowl offered to him instead of his dinner one day—a most intriguing proposi-

tion for a cat. He soon had it out of the bowl. A few days of fishing for his dinner in gradually deeper pails of water convinced him that he was on to a very good thing. The next step was to transfer the pail to the creek, and in no time Two was landing his dinner on the bank like an old hand. The knowledge of how Twocat had been trained for his performance did not disenchant me, but only deepened my wonder and admiration for the endless patience and ingenuity that go into the making of a film about animals.

The opening of a door was another example of this. Our own Siamese had mastered the secrets of most doors early in his life, and so it was quite natural for me to portray him in the book as unlatching a stable

door to let the dogs out. One evening AÍ showed me how he had trained Sin to enact this scene. He fixed a similar latch to the door of a wooden box which he nailed to a tree above a fence post; inside the box was a sardine and in very short time greedy Sin learned to manipulate the latch with his paw for the reward inside. Once he had mastered this it was but a short step to the actual stable door.

1 watched AI rehearsing him for this: the sardine safely locked up, out came Sin from his Number-One-Star quarters, weaving around our legs until he was picked up and crooned to in the doting, baby-talk voice that came so strangely from Al’s burly figure when he was addressing his beloved Sin: “Sin, baby, want a nice sar-

dine? There, then, Al’s got a lovely sardine for baby Sin ...” Sin, the chattiest of cats, pushed his hard little wedge of a head against Al's chin, shrieking his approval. Al put him down, waved his hand at the box, and in a normal but very brisk and enthusiastic voice said, “Then AWAY you go!” Sin bounded over the grass like some exotic little retriever on a field trial, leaped to the fence post and from there to the top of the box. A long monkey-like paw reached down to lift the latch, the door swung open, and the paw reached in and scooped out its reward.

The ranch that had been leased for the filming was a never-ending source of delight to me, from the creek with its homemade beaver dam to the great barn where indoor filming could take

place if necessary. Even the dogs' kennel held more than just dogs: next to Jack's own beautiful Malemute Chinook (s‘ar of Nikki, Wild Dog of the North) was a young, fully-grown wolf rejoicing in the name of Baby Shadow. AI and his wife had reared it from a few weeks old. It shared their household and was as affectionate as a dog. In fact, when it gamboled up the hillside with Chinook in the evenings, wrestling, mock fighting, playing tag in and out of the trees, it was difficult to believe that they were not just two dogs.

Shadow would have a part to play in the movie; so would the hounds that Lloyd Beebe kept for hunting mountain lions; and so too would the tiny dappled fawn that his wife was hand-rearing. Then there were the

hired animal actors dotted all over the ranch property, so that wherever one went there was something interesting to find, some strange bit-part actcr enjoying his dinner, some supporting member of the cast snoozing the hours away until his cue to go on stags. There was a sleepy porcupine near the cats, and a few' feet away from it an impatient - looking quail paced up and down its run. Two tame squirrels in a room inside the barn did acrobatics all over their home, inside or out. or up and down anyone who was sitting there. Two Medgling crows arrived while 1 was there and had already developed personalities by the time I left.

There was a fat. placid bit-part rabbit actor tucked away in another corner of the ranch. Its role was to be

chased, caught and killed by the “hungry” young Labrador. I watched this breathless hunt and dramatic end take place on the top of the hill as the cameras whirred. I even took some movies of it myself so 1 can reveal a secret: five minutes after running through the sequence and being caught and killed for the fourth or fifth time, the fat placid rabbit was back in his hutch, chewing a lettuce leaf, his erstwhile pursuer stretched out benignly nearby.

Then there was a half-wild farm cat. her vivid unusual markings and those of her saucer-eyed heterogenous litter in strange contrast to the suavely elegant Siamese who lived nearby. And up on the hill there was a magnificent lynx, whose cold, aloof eyes would not even deign to acknowledge

my presence at his temporary den. Near the lynx was another run with a wolverine in it, the first I had ever seen at close quarters. He lurked most of the time in an oil drum den. emerging only with a frighteningly swift rush on powerful, disproportionately thick short legs if anyone approached too near, with a snarl not unlike that of a boar about to attack, and white flecks of slaver always running from his steel-trap jaws. His paws were huge and pigeon-toed with long dark claws, and he had small, suspicious, angry eyes. He was, in fact, the most frightening. evil-looking animal 1 have ever studied — but AÍ, of course, loved him. “How’s my little Tommy?” he would call out as he passed by, and at the sound of his voice this satanic monster would look as pleased

as a pig having its back rubbed.

1 wondered how Tommy and the lynx would behave when the day came for them to take the stage. Even though the stage upon which they would be released would be bounded, it was still several acres in area, and 1 thought that recording one of Tommy's headlong rushes through a camera lens would be an unnerving experience. However, everyone seemed very relaxed and unworried at the prospect. Indeed this lack of tension was probably the keynote of the whole enterprise, and the secret of the successful handling, direction and camera work. Animals can sense tension almost before a human being has received its message through his own nerves, and they react accordingly. These men were resourceful, quick-

witled, and. above all relaxed yet firmly patient in their dealings with the animals — outwardly relaxed, anyway.

I could have listened forever to their stories of making animal movies: ostriches, dogs, elephants, panthers, spiders, goats, seals — each had some individual trait or facet of character to be recognized and explored by the handler, and later interpreted or exploited by the camera.

Sometimes the unpredictability of animals can be used to advantage: when they totally disregard all direction and take over the scene themselves the script can be subtly altered and tailored to fit. But sometimes the animal director faces some uniquely baffling blocks in his actors’ reactions. There was one such block in a scene where the cat, “hissing and spitting in murderous rage,” was to drive off a bear who was about to attack the unconscious terrier. The actor who was hired for this sequence was a huge old sow bear, extremely amiable and well disposed to humans, dogs and cats alike. This was no drawback, for there was no need for the camera to dwell upon her open love, or if it did, this emotion would later undergo a subtle transformation via some judicious cutting and mood music.

But a friendly bear wins friends. Disarmed by this ursine charm, Sincat would register nothing but pleasure and interest when they met before the cameras. Neither, in turn, could Sin s lesser stand-ins. AI tried one aspirant after another for this role, until at last he found a cat that hated bears, loathed and detested them, couldn’t even stand the smell of them. Unfortunately, this bear-hater was blondei than Sin, but the resourceful AI turned to Miss Clairol, and the standin made his stage debut toned down to the requisite shade. When the bear lumbered up to meet this new method actor and put a friendly snout down to introduce herself, she met instead a flattened-eared, hair-raised, spitting Hitchcock horror The cat drew its paw back from the shouldei in time-honored Siamese fashion, un-

sheathed half an inch of claws, and slugged the bear right across its deeply offended nose. This was an actor who had really studied his part and took a pride in his work.

But to compensate tor the animal actors’ unpredictability and capriciousness, there are days when the camera catches a sudden, unrehearsed, spontaneous act of such appealing charm and natural dramatic sense as to hold any audience spellbound. I think of the terrier, resting on the grass beside the cat, supposedly exhausted, naturally resting his “weary” head on the nearest soft pillow — the cat. I see Sincat, sitting on a rock by the creek, when suddenly a leaf floating by catches his attention and he plays with it in a beautiful sinuous ballet sequence of the fluid perfection of a Nureyev or Nijinsky. Or Sincat, the scene-stealer always, with the camera on the three animals as they looked down from a bridge, suddenly deciding that his small size would be far more effective if he took up a position between the front paws of the big Labrador. I see Sincat stealing other scenes by running along the fence posts instead of the road as he follows the dogs.

I see the beautiful golden head of the Labrador with its soft expressive eyes, turned every now and then to see if his little company were indeed behind him in their right order, as he lead.«» them along dusty roads, by riverbanks and lumber mills, through the forests and over the hills.

Once I saw him lead them over the appalling heights of a trestle bridge that spanned a deep valley, not liking it very much, but resolute and dignified as always, stopping to look down through the planks at the river far below, waiting for the slowly plodding bull terrier to catch up, tilting his head in sudden interest at some caprice of little Sincat, gay and lightfooted, as always running to catch up too. In memory the three unforgettable little figures dwindle in the long perspective of the bridge, infinitely moving, infinitely real. I will never forget them. ★