Hollywood Goes to the Dogs

There's no better way to put it: Hollywood has gone to the dogs.

That was never clearer than when a Jack Russell Terrier named Moose — better known to Americans as Eddie, television psychiatrist Frasier Crane's pint-sized nemesis — passed away on June 26, sparking obituaries that mentioned how much the spunky canine co-star made over the course of the show's 11 seasons — $3 million, as well as receiving more fan mail by far than any other character on the show.

Even a human mother would've been proud of a son who brought home that kind of bacon.

According to some who work on the animal side of the entertainment industry, these are the salad days for the dogs, cats, bears, monkeys and various other creatures that populate our movies and television shows.

Lassie and Benji are the Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt of acting,” said New York-based animal behaviorist, celebrity-pet trainer and animal talent agent Bash Dibra, who's working to found an animal-performers union that would give animals the right to earn residuals. “When your dog makes that caliber, you'll make millions — but you've got to start somewhere.”

In the cases of megastars like Lassie and Benji, celebrity was parlayed into media empires that put them well beyond the pale of your average glamour-puss or pooch.

The “most famous dog in the world,” Lassie, an aristocratic Rough Collie that emerged in 1943, has appeared in 11 movies, three live-action television shows, a cartoon and even a radio show and has a line of dog food. Nine (male) dogs have portrayed the (female) movie hero.

Benji, the 1970s and '80s every-dog (they're on Benji No. 4; No. 1 was a rescued pound dog) has appeared in five feature films (including one in which he portrayed the canine version of Chevy Chase), four television specials and one TV series. All told, the shaggy mutt has grossed $235 million through media appearances and merchandising.

For the most recent Benji movie, 2004's "Benji: Off the Leash!" the amount paid for Benji's copyright, trademark and for rental of the dog herself (all Benjis except for the first have been female) came to about $500,000, according to Joe Camp, Benji No. 4's owner and the creator of the Benji character.

The company created around Benji also received a percentage of the profits — about 25 percent, Camp said.

But to say that Benji — or any other animal performer — is paid the big bucks completely
misrepresents the procedure, he said. The money goes to owners, trainers, groomers, veterinarians and the other assorted human personnel who are necessary when dealing with maintaining a celebrity who happens to go around on all fours.

"The original Benji dog didn't really get paid peanuts, and Benji today lives with us," Camp said.
"She gets to fly first class, and she has five acres to run around with three others dogs, six horses and cats, and she stays in a nasty mess most of the time — that's what she gets paid.

"It takes about half a day for the groomer to get all the burrs out. Benjis one through four have never physically been paid anything except good food and good care," he added.

But what about up-and-coming animal stars?

For an advertising still-photograph shoot, Spot can expect to make from $100 to $500 per day; Socks can hope for $500 to $1,500 for a television commercial; and if Boo Boo is really lucky and develops a reputation, he might cash in $50,000 for a major pet commercial for a powerhouse corporation.

While there aren't currently any breakout animal megastars at the forefront of the public consciousness like Moose was, more and more pets are making their way into magazines and on to the little screen, Dibra said.

“People like pets in advertising because pets don't lie," Dibra said.

The search for the next big thing in animal entertainment has spurred people like dog owner Melissa Hudson and BeKind Organization founder Frances Hayward to try to grab stardom for their beloved pets.

Hayward's “potcake” dog, or island mixed-breed, was originally a stray she found three years ago near her home on Grand Bahama Island.

Since then, Amigo has become a celebrity in the Bahamas, the poster dog for a publicity campaign for neutering and king of the Barkus Parade in this year's Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Hayward plans on getting Amigo more commercial work, with an eye on helping out animal-welfare charities like her own.

“For a tragic little potcake, he certainly lives a life of luxury and is very much to the manor born,” Hayward said.

Hudson's 4-year-old Pomeranian, Lola, is a contender on the Lifetime reality series "Off the Leash," and through the show has landed a job as a spokesdog for a Fortune 500 company.

She's not a household name — yet — but Lola lives a celebrity life, drinking Evian water, eating only filet mignon or organic chicken and never leaving the house without wearing pearls or diamonds.

“Lola is the next big Hollywood dog,” Hudson said from her Laguna Beach, Calif., home. “She has the personality, the looks, the charm and she loves kids. This dog can turn anybody's bad day into a good day. People just see her and light up and smile. I was like, 'Wow. I'm going to share this dog with the world.'”

But you can't be blinded by the bling-bling lifestyles of the few animal performers that have made it, according to Bill Berloni, director for animal behavior for the Humane Society of New York and a Broadway animal trainer for 34 years, including for the upcoming "Legally Blonde" musical (“I'm up to my ears in blonde Chihuahuas right now,” he said).

On Broadway, a show doesn't have the same kind of money to throw around that a Hollywood motion picture does, which means cutting corners. And cutting corners invariably means the animals get the short end of the stick, he said.

So, sure, little Pablo and Princess are every bit as cute as Moose was, but don't expect to see your dearest fuzzball's name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — especially if you don't live near Hollywood.

“If you make $500 once a year with your pet, be happy,” Berloni said. “If Broadway show closes opening day, you're lucky if you break even. I tell people, go to L.A. If you want to get rich off your animals, New York ain't the place."

But he questions whether people should be looking to make a buck off their animals in the first place.

"I worry about people who have an animal and want to make money off of them, because the dog comes first."