14 of the Biggest Animal Stars in Hollywood History

Rin Tin Tin was found on a World War I battlefield in France before making his way to Hollywood, while poor Arnold the Pig was rumored to have been eaten after ‘Green Acres’ was canceled.
Rin Tin Tin and trainer Lee Duncan prepare to go before cameras in 1935.
Rin Tin Tin and trainer Lee Duncan prepare to go before cameras in 1935. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Rin Tin Tin), Prasert Krainukul/Moment/Getty Images (marquee)

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.


As any cat owner will tell you, cats don’t take direction well. In fact, famous animal trainer Henry “Curley” Twiford once said cats are the hardest animals to teach. Maybe that’s one reason there have been more notable dogs in movies than felines. But there are some exceptions. Exhibit A is Puzzums, a star of the 1920s who stole almost any scene he was in.

As far as anyone knows, Puzzums was a stray who was taken in by two sisters, Katherine and Nadine Dennis, who worked as actresses. After entering Puzzums in a Los Angeles Cat Club Show in 1927, they started getting offers for the cat to appear in features. While Puzzums was photogenic, his real talent was in his ability to do tricks—like drinking from a baby bottle or tolerating eye glasses. It was even believed he could cross his eyes on command.

Puzzums charmed his way into a studio contract worth $250 a week and popped up in several movies, usually doing a brief bit and then disappearing. In 1934, Nadine got a scare when Puzzums was nearly electrocuted and decided to retire him. Then, movie star Will Rogers convinced her to let Puzzums do one more role—as a cat ordering a chocolate nut sundae—in a film called Handy Andy. Not long after, Puzzums passed from what was said to be a spider bite or possibly an infected tooth.

Douglas the Parrot

Douglas the Parrot turned into a national cause in Sweden.
Douglas the Parrot turned into a national cause in Sweden. / THEPALMER/iStock via Getty Images

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.

Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin
Rin Tin Tin “answering” fan mail. / General Photographic Agency/GettyImages

Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd born in France at the height of World War I in 1918. He and his sister were rescued from a kennel that had been destroyed in a shell attack when they were just a few days old. Their rescuer, an American soldier named Lee Duncan, named them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette after two dolls that were popular among soldiers as good luck charms. Nanette, sadly, didn’t live long. But after the war, Duncan was able to parlay Rinty’s charms, expressive face, and obedient disposition into screen stardom. The dog made dozens of films, including his breakout, Where the North Begins. That film led to Rinty getting thousands of fan letters and upwards of $2000 in salary a week.

Some people actually credited Rinty for keeping a struggling Warner Bros. afloat during the studio’s difficult early years. He also scored endorsement deals: One dog food executive was so desperate to have the dog promote his brand that he ate a can of it to prove it was quality. 

When Rin Tin Tin passed in 1932, it was as if a major human star had died. Some news outlets interrupted their normal radio programs to report the news. Lee Duncan trained his descendants for other screen roles, including on a popular Rin Tin Tin television series, but none could quite capture the spirit of the dog who survived a world war and saved a studio. 

Bart the Bear

Aside from Rin Tin Tin and Buddy, few animal actors ever became the stars of their own films. One ursine exception was Bart, a Kodiak bear who starred in 1989’s The Bear. Bart was an 1800-pound, nearly 10-foot-tall behemoth trained by Doug Seus and who spent decades as Hollywood’s go-to bear thanks to his relatively docile temperament. Just how chill was he? His co-star in The Bear was a cub, which male brown bears tend to eat. 

Bart went on to work on movies like The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt (and no producer puts a bear in a position to maul Brad Pitt unless they trust him). Bart even got a chance to co-present an Academy Award with Mike Myers in 1998 (above). 

Bart passed away in 2000. Doug Seus went on to train another, unrelated bear, dubbed Bart II, for roles in movies and on shows like Game of Thrones until Bart II’s passing in 2021.


Buddy, the star of the quintessential basketball dog movie Air Bud, first garnered widespread attention when he appeared with trainer Kevin DiCicco on Late Night With David Letterman back in 1991. Kevin had encountered Buddy as a stray and soon discovered the dog was obsessed with basketball: He’d tee up the ball for Buddy, who would put it through the basket. Film producer Robert Vince spotted Buddy when he was watching Letterman, and he invited Kevin and Buddy for a demonstration. Using a regulation hoop and basket, Buddy showed legitimate basketball skill.

And that’s how we got Air Bud, a family-friendly fable about a dog who joins a junior high school basketball team. The movie was a hit upon its release in 1997 and even charmed film critic Roger Ebert, who said: “The climactic scenes are not only absurd and goofy but also enormously entertaining. By the end of the film I was quietly amazed: Not only could Buddy play basketball, but I actually cared how the game turned out.”

Sadly, Buddy passed away in 1998, which meant he was unavailable for the football-focused sequel, Air Bud: Golden Receiver. DiCicco purportedly froze Buddy’s sperm in an effort to keep his athletic genes intact, though it’s not clear his offspring ever starred in any films. In a testament to Buddy’s skills, it took at least five dogs to perform the role of a pooch hitting the gridiron in the sequel. 

Fun fact: For years, rumors have circulated that Buddy was the very same golden retriever who played Comet on the hit ABC sitcom Full House. Not so: Comet was played by a dog named Comet. But Buddy did sub in for Comet for a scene in a basketball-themed episode of Full House called “Air Jesse” when Comet needed to make a basket. The episode aired two years before Air Bud was released.


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.

Jimmy the Raven

The other Jimmy in It's a Wonderful Life.
The other Jimmy in It's a Wonderful Life. / National Telefilm Associates, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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 corvid 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 trained by animal expert Henry “Curley” Twiford, who once claimed the raven was about as smart as an 8-year-old boy. The confident bird understood about 200 words, could use a typewriter, and even ride a tiny bicycle. MGM, where Jimmy often worked, even insured him for $10,000. By 1950, Curley—who, it must be said, was prone to exaggeration—claimed that Jimmy had racked up over 1000 screen credits. (He also relied on at least 21 stand-ins when a shot only needed the bird to remain still, or was in general not doing much.) Poor Jimmy Stewart only managed about 80 films.


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.)

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.

Trigger the Horse

In the 1940s, singing Western hero Roy Rogers was typically paired with a four-legged co-star known as Trigger. The two appeared in around 80 films together. The horse even got billing on the film posters. But the real kicker of Trigger’s story is that he’s one of the few classic animal actors you can still see up close—sort of. When Trigger passed in 1965 at the age of 30, Rogers had him stuffed and mounted rearing on his hind legs. The horse was later auctioned off in 2010, selling for $266,500. 


Our final pooch is a standout for doing what virtually no one else in Hollywood could ever do—upstage Jim Carrey. We’re talking about Max, a Jack Russell terrier who co-starred with Carrey in the 1994 film The Mask. Max, playing Carrey’s dog Milo, beat out a Corgi for the role and even slightly improvised a scene in which he grabs a Frisbee from Carrey. The studio was so pleased with Max that the ending was rewritten to give him more of a presence and a limo was dispatched to bring him to the premiere. The role was a breakout one, as Max had only previously been on screen once in the 1992 film Mom and Dad Save the World. He played a space rat.


Few movies scream “the ‘90s” more than Free Willy, the heartwarming tale of an orca in captivity who befriends a boy and eventually finds freedom. Willy was played by Keiko, and while his story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, it’s one worth remembering.

Keiko was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1979 and spent the next decade-plus in aquariums and amusement parks. The orca grew stressed in captivity. Then the producers of Free Willy showed up and recruited him for the film and everyone fell in love with his personality—whale-ality?—and intelligence. According to Lori Petty, who co-starred in the movie, Keiko would blow water out of his spout when ignored and even had the wisdom to avoid a stunt that would have injured a child actor if he had gone through with it.

The success of Free Willy raised awareness for the plight of orcas in captivity, and the ensuing movement to return them to the wild led to Keiko being brought to the Oregon coast to rest and recuperate. He was later flown to Iceland and moved on to Norwegian waters, but after so much time in captivity, he didn’t acclimate well to being on his own and passed away in 2003. It’s sad, but the public’s fascination with Keiko likely saved a lot of orcas from a confining and unhappy life.

Crystal the Monkey

Crystal the Monkey
Crystal at the premiere of ‘Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb.’ / Theo Wargo/GettyImages

With apologies to Marcel of Friends, no simian has done more in Hollywood than Crystal. The capuchin has been in a litany of hits, from Night at the Museum to The Hangover Part II to We Bought a Zoo. When Crystal nabbed a co-starring role on an NBC sitcom in 2012 about a vet titled Animal Practice, NBC execs said she tested higher than any other new character from the network’s 2012-2013 television season. There’s no word on how fellow actors from that fall, like Bill Pullman, Josh Gad, or the human star of Animal Practice, Justin Kirk, felt about that. 

Crystal got her start at a Universal Studios live animal show, where she won over trainers by being rather mellow for a monkey. When other capuchins might be getting violent, she seemed at peace. On film sets, noises like engines and bright lights don’t seem to faze her. And she’s still working. Capuchins can live for up to 50 years. 

Leo the Lion

It’s pretty clear that the most famous big screen animal of them all isn’t really known for a riveting performance. It’s Leo the Lion, the growling, roaring lion that’s been a mainstay of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, or MGM, since it was founded 100 years ago in 1924.

The MGM lion actually originated back in the late 1910s, when, according to the most popular story, Goldwyn Pictures asked someone named Howard Dietz to create a logo. According to Dietz, he turned to his school, Columbia University, and specifically to the lion featured in the college magazine. A lion named Slats was chosen to embody the logo when MGM was formed after the merging of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and the Louis B. Mayer Company in 1924.

The most notorious lion is probably Jackie, who was said to have survived a series of catastrophes ranging from an earthquake to a sinking boat. Jackie even survived a plane crash over Arizona during a publicity tour. Those near-misses earned him another name—Leo the Lucky. 

But the one most people are familiar with is actually named Leo, who was the lion used from 1957 all the way up to 2021, when the studio—now owned by Amazon—replaced it with a CGI animal. 

The mascot has been the subject of a few urban legends. In 2015, an image circulated online that purportedly showed a lion being strapped to a table to film the sequence. The image was really that of a captive lion who needed a CAT scan. A story has also circulated that one of the Leos went berserk during filming of the roar, killing his trainers. Also not true, since the tragic death of an animal handler would be kind of a weird thing for a studio to hang their hat on.

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A version of this story ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2024.