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An A-List Animal Trainer Prepares a Great Dane for His Film Début


I bombed the show at Goodspeed. Walter Kerr, V times“The Evening, like the strip, doesn’t even try to be funny.” Kerr, however, was going easy on the dog — “Sandy is fine (he’s bigger than Annie)” — and so, when Mike Nichols signed on to produce the play and move it To Broadway the following year, Sandy and Berloni were asked to reprise their roles. Berloni attended New York University and was studying with Stella Adler. Now he had to hone his skills as a coach. In one of the scenes, he recounted in his memoir “Broadway Tails,” he devised a way to make Sandy stop In the middle of the stage; instead of using a dog treat, which would bounce off the floorboards and make a sound, a cast member would drop a bit of baloney. Its originator became Bill Baloney Third grade, actually,” Berloni said. This time, the show was a hit, as was Sandy, who, at least according to Berloni, was the first dog ever to play a central character on stage. “And so I became an animal trainer,” he said. World famous at 20 years old.

Since then, he has been the go-to animal handler for hundreds of Broadway musicals and plays. He’s done other Annies, and countless movies and TV shows, but he tends to be wary of Hollywood, because people in TV and film often have unreasonable expectations of animals.

“We shot the NBC movie Annie a few years ago,” he said. “Live on network TV. We’ve already hired an animal trainer, the producers said. This was a Hollywood animal trainer, who said, “I can do this in eight days.” I say: You can’t do this in eight days! A week before the broadcast, on the second day, the dog bit a child in the face. Guess who’s getting the call?

He felt differently about the ‘friend’. “Scott and David are nothing like the directors I’ve worked with,” he said. “They really care about the animals. They want to do it right.”

Experienced movie producers may impose bans on children and dogs, but it’s rare for an IMDb page to be without them. Rescued on the battlefield of World War I, Rin Tin Tin was the cash cow that propelled Darryl Zanuck’s career and the rise of Warner Bros. Pictures. Lassie got into the industry during the years of being wary of the stars in the Red Scare. Meanwhile, coaches built their careers and fortunes. The greatest of them all was Frank N., who was assistant to Lacey’s coach, Rod Weatherwax, of the Weatherwax family – coaches of Toto, Old Yeller and Asta as well. (Many movie dogs were actually multiple dogs.) Discover Burbank fool N. Higgins was 16 when he came out of retirement, after six seasons on “Petticoat Junction,” to take on the role of Benjy. Higgins’ daughter Benjen took over several sequels, including Oh! Heavenly Dog (1980), starring Chevy Chase and Omar Sharif. Cujo, if you’re wondering, had at least four St. Bernards, a mechanical dog, And a stuntman in a dog suit.

At the production offices in Chelsea, the elevator door opened and there was Bing, imposing in every way: lean, muscular, one hundred and forty-five pounds, and, according to the prop department’s measuring tape, forty-two inches from the balls of his feet to the top. From his skull. His snout, like Roger Federer’s neck, turns pink when he feels tired or stressed. It has a spot on its scrotum and a long, ropey tail. He showed mild curiosity, self-possession, and some embarrassment: the air of arriving at the office. Next to him, Biff was wearing a long jacket and jeans, had short dark hair and glasses, and had patience and a good sense of humor. Berloni said I could greet Bing once, but then I would have to avoid petting him or making eye contact with him, to keep his loyalties and interests focused on him and Biff, and on Naomi Watts, who was playing Iris, the film’s heroine. Bing and I enjoyed our moment, he left some drool on my jacket, and then got to work.

Prop masters Gino Fortibuono and Rebecca Spiro designed a collection of expensive collars and leashes, in different sizes and shades of red. “We’re looking for the perfect size, the perfect width, the perfect red color,” Spiro said. “Actually, it’s a tribute to the book’s cover.”

Bing sniffed at the collar, then stood still while Fortibono placed one on him, a respectable attempt at delicacy and speed. Everyone stepped back to evaluate Bing as Bev and Berloni made him strike some poses.

“I know it sounds crazy, but we should try a brighter red,” Spiro said. They exchanged collars. Spiro, who seemed accustomed to working with actors, told Ping: “You’re beautiful! There’s no one more beautiful than you.”

There were other props and locations to consider: Fortebuono unwrapped a giant panda to use as a stand-in for Bing during setting and lighting, and a new air mattress to rehearse scenes set in Iris’ apartment. He and the props team discussed a type of thin chrome mat they were considering for filming on a Brooklyn sidewalk. They didn’t want to expose Bing’s feet to old, splintered paving slabs and sticking out nails, so they found some “dye” to roll over like a rug. The panel style would be restored in post-production, via CGI. Michael O’Brien, the crew transport captain, came to discuss the modifications he had devised for Bing’s trailer, since the steel stairs were too steep and the dog ramps were too narrow to accommodate Bing and the handler. O’Brien purchased a ramp for the moving truck instead. They also strategized around building a seat for a scene on a boat, and a special passenger seat for a scene in a car, so that Bing’s head would be level with Watts’ head. “We will have to remove the seat and replace it with something else,” Berloni said. “And I will hide on the ground at his feet.”

In film, we sense or even celebrate innovations and solutions in the service of illusion. The fake blood, the cars on the tracks, the Potemkin villages, not to mention the computer graphics, the herds, armies and storms that only exist in code. We don’t often indulge in the frugal point of view, which sees all this deception as excessive and wasteful, in practical terms rather than aesthetically. Fidelity to the script and the cinematographer’s vision – fidelity to deception – requires adjustments to the world of real things that can seem, to a layman accustomed to doing this, unnecessarily complex. Why not rewrite the scene to make filming more practical? Why not choose splinter-free paving, with flush and freshly hammered nails? Because there is a magic carpet, and it’s amazing. We must ensure that no animals were harmed during the making of this film.

Spyro said to Ping: “Do you want to try on nice clothes?”

They put him in a zip-up collared jacket, then put on a red belt.

“Is he very busy?”

“It’s very technical.”

“Can we get a picture of him in the sphinx position? He will be in this position on the train.”

“Down,” Biff said in a mild tone. Bing settled into the sphinx, his ears perked up, his tail tucked under his butt. “good boy!” She said in falsetto. A producer, who was walking nearby, tried to throw an empty coffee cup into a nearby trash can, but missed. “Leave it,” Bev murmured in a low, hoarse voice. The dog gave her a glare and resumed posing for the camera.

Bev lives on a ten-acre property in Newton, Iowa, with one of her two adult sons and her husband, a corrections officer. She breeds Great Danes and also has a sideline in dog photography. Her kennel is called Foto Danes. On her forearm is a tattoo in the shape of a footprint, with an image of a camera hole in place of a metatarsal pad. She said: “My beloved.”

An A-List Animal Trainer Prepares a Great Dane for His Film Début

“That’s why, no matter how many clothes you have, you’ll always do the same amount of laundry.”

Cartoon by Eugenia Vitti

Bing is her sixth Great Dane, if you only count the ones she and her family keep in their home. When an executive producer of “The Friend” first contacted her in 2019, Bev deleted the email. “It seemed so far-fetched and crazy,” she said. But then she took it out of the trash. After production stopped, she postponed its repair, because the film’s script called for a healthy male.

Key to Bing’s performance was his relationship with Watts. They began rehearsing together at Watts’ home in Tribeca as soon as he arrived in New York. At their final session, an assistant brought Ping, Bev, Berloni and Nguyen out of the rain, and Watts descended a wide flight of stairs carrying her dog, Izzy, a Yorkie-Chihuahua mix. Watts wore yoga pants and a loose sweater. Izzy and Bing, who had become friendly, greeted each other first, with Biff and Berloni making sure the big dog didn’t crush the little dog. (Izzy would often hang around the set and would eventually appear as an extra in a scene at a pet store.) Watts then greeted Bing. The first time they met, Watts fed him pieces of salami. This time, Berloni handed her a brown bag containing delicious but healthier foods he had prepared in Staten Island. He said his goal was for Watts to overtake him in Bing’s processor hierarchy, ranking second to Bev. Now he relinquished control to Watts, whose goal was to develop a tight control over Bing while appearing on camera floundering, somewhat new, for the sake of the story.



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