W.C. Fields's advice to “Never work with children or animals” has become a repeated refrain in Hollywood, where actors are in constant fear of being upstaged or potentially pooped on. But there are always exceptions, and the entertainment business is full of non-human performers who have won over audiences. Check out some facts about the most compelling animal stars to ever appear onscreen.
Cats have never quite achieved the same level of stardom as their canine counterparts, mostly because some dogs enjoy taking direction whereas most cats prefer to do as they please. One exception: Puzzums, a onetime stray who was “discovered” as a newborn kitten in an alley after apparently being abandoned by his mother. After being trained to drink from a baby bottle, cross his eyes, and even laugh (sort of) on command, Puzzums became something of a special guest star in severals films of the 1920s and '30s, including The Godless Girl and Charlie Chan’s Chance, where he would appear just long enough to perform one of his tricks before trotting off. For his charisma, Puzzums was paid $500 weekly. He died in 1934.
2. Douglas the Parrot
Though he had but one screen role, Douglas the Parrot made the most of it. In 1971’s Pippi in the South Seas, an adaptation of the Pippi Longstocking novels, the scarlet macaw played a bird who terrorizes Pippi’s father. But the real intrigue of Douglas’s avian adventures came much later, when he was threatened with euthanasia in 2003 in Sweden because there was question over whether he was a legal import. Roughly 50,000 people signed a petition in support of Douglas, who was granted a stay of execution when a former owner provided proof of his legal citizenship. He lived to the ripe old age of 51.
Onetime Hollywood star/chimpanzee Cheeta (also known as Jiggs) has settled comfortably into retired life. Cheeta—who is believed to be in his seventies or possibly even his eighties (though this is often disputed by primatologists, as chimps rarely live past 60 in captivity)—lives at a state-approved sanctuary in California, where he enjoys painting with acrylics. He has even sold his works for up to $10,000; Steven Spielberg owns one.
Cheeta is sometimes confused for Cheetah, purportedly a Johnny Weissmuller co-star in the Tarzan films, who passed away in 2011. The confusion is understandable, given that there's just a one-letter difference in their names as well as the fact that Cheetah was also fond of painting and throwing his feces when annoyed. “When he didn't like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it at them," sanctuary volunteer Ron Priest said. “He could get you at 30 feet with bars in between.”
4. Rin Tin Tin
Though he appeared in several films in a starring role, the true-life exploits of Rin Tin Tin far outshadow his onscreen adventures. The German shepherd was rescued by American serviceman Lee Duncan in a French village during World War I after Duncan found a partially-destroyed kennel on the battlefield. Duncan took him to California, where Rin Tin Tin found success as a silent film star with his debut in 1922’s The Man From Hell’s River. The dog proved so popular that his appearance in 1923’s Where the North Begins was said to have helped save Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. When Rin Tin Tin passed in 1932, it was considered such a big story that news bulletins interrupted radio programming.
5. Bart the Bear
It can be difficult to win the respect of an actor as accomplished as Anthony Hopkins, but that’s what Bart the Bear managed to do. A zoo cub and Hollywood veteran with more than a dozen roles to his credit, Bart was said to have made an impression on Hopkins during filming of the 1997 film The Edge. Bart’s trainer, Lynne Seus, said that Hopkins “acknowledged and respected him like a fellow actor. He would spend hours just looking at Bart and admiring him. He did so many of his own scenes with Bart.” Bart also made quick friends with Brad Pitt, his co-star in 1994’s Legends of the Fall. The 1500-pound grizzly passed in 2000.
Usually, dogs are hired for films and then trained on specific tasks they need to accomplish. For Buddy, an entire film franchise was built on his unique ability to play basketball. The 1997 Disney comedy Air Bud was conceived as a vehicle for the canine, who had appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman nudging a regulation basketball through a regulation-height net. After seeing the segment, producers Robert and William Vince asked Buddy’s trainer, Kevin Di Cicco, for a demonstration.
“It wasn't like [Buddy] was just hitting [it] and hoping it went in,” Vince said. “He was looking at the basket. It was weird ... I remember after that I said, ‘I can't believe what I just witnessed here.’”
Buddy passed away in 1998, but his offspring has kept the Air Bud franchise alive for 14 installments and counting. And no, Buddy is not the same golden retriever who played Comet on Full House—though Buddy did make a cameo on the show.
Trying to parse the filmography of Orangey is a difficult feat. The orange tabby cat may have popped up in several films under one of his stage names, including Miranda or Rhubarb, but it’s his turn opposite Audrey Hepburn in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s that made him a star. Of particular note is Orangey’s mercurial star behavior: He was known to flee the set during shooting, which often necessitated studios posting guard dogs at the exits of the lot in order to keep Orangey on schedule.
It's also possible Orangey was a blanket stage name for any number of cats trained by Hollywood animal wrangler Frank Inn, which has led some internet sleuths to try and determine which Orangey is which.
8. Jimmy the Raven
Quick: Name the only actor to appear in both 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s Jimmy the Raven, a charismatic crow who charmed fellow Jimmy (James Stewart) in the Frank Capra classic and landed on the Scarecrow in the adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel.
Jimmy was said to have caused a problem on the set of It's a Wonderful Life when Capra asked for Jimmy to appear on stage; the avian Jimmy flew into the scene instead. Capra took to referring to Stewart as “J.S.” to avoid any further confusion.
Jimmy was taught to perform tricks, like loading a gun with his beak, and squawk some simple phrases on command. Jimmy eventually racked up more than 1000 screen appearances and even earned an American Red Cross medal for entertaining troops during World War II.
Animal trainer Frank Inn dubbed the dog he rescued from a Burbank animal shelter as the “smartest that ever was.” That honor was due to Higgins’s versatility. As the star of Petticoat Junction (1963-1970), Inn once estimated that Higgins learned one new trick a week for seven years. But Higgin’s crowning achievement would come with the release of 1974’s Benji, a starring role that lured him out of retirement.
Higgins passed in 1978 at the age of 19. When Inn himself died in 2002, he had requested Higgins’s ashes be buried with him. (In California, that’s not legally permitted.)
10. Arnold Ziffel
Few pigs have been as beloved by audiences as Arnold Ziffel, the scene hog of Green Acres (1965-1971). Arnold was not one pig but many—typically one piglet per season. The porkers were trained to turn off televisions, pull carts, and perform other tricks that made for spirited comedy in the late 1960s.
At the conclusion of the series, it was rumored the cast cooked and ate the latest Arnold, a cruel urban legend that may have stemmed from a joke made by actor Tom Lester. Fortunately, Arnold was not served at the wrap party. The pigs were retired to a farm.