Some of the greatest cinematic characters of all time walked on four legs or swam with a tail. From a gigantic grizzly bear to a battlefield rescue dog and a cheeky capuchin monkey, these animals have starred in some of the biggest movies and TV shows of all time, making the world a little brighter with their amazing on-screen skills. Here are eight of the most famous animal actors in Hollywood history!
1. Bart the Bear (1977-2000)
If you’ve ever seen a movie from the 1980s or 1990s that features a brown bear, there’s a good chance that it was none other than Bart the Bear. Bart the Bear was one of the most famous animal actors in Hollywood history. He starred in over 20 films, including Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1988 film, The Bear, for which Bart received international critical acclaim.
The Alaskan brown bear that would one day become one of Hollywood’s biggest animal stars was born in 1977 in the Baltimore Zoo. However, trainers Doug and Lynne Seus adopted him when he was only five weeks old. Within a few years, the Utah couple were humanely training Bart for acting, and eventually he entered the Hollywood scene. Bart went on to star in more than 30 different movies and television shows, including The Great Outdoors (1988), White Fang (1991), Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), Legends of the Fall (1994), and The Edge (1997).
Tragically, Bart the Bear was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and passed away in 2000 at the age of 23. His legacy, however, continues onward in The Vital Ground Foundation, which protects threatened bear habitats in Montana, as well as the three additional bears adopted by Doug and Lynne: Tank, Honey Bump, and Bart the Bear II. These three bears have each enjoyed their own time in the Hollywood spotlight as well, appearing in shows like Without a Paddle (2004), Evan Almighty (2006), We Bought a Zoo (2011), and Game of Thrones (2013).
2. Orangey the Cat (1950s-1960s)
Winning not just one, but two PATSY Awards (“Picture Animal Top Star of the Year”, considered the Academy Awards for animal actors), Orangey the cat is one of the most famous animal actors in Hollywood history. The famous feline was owned by Hollywood animal handler Frank Inn and starred in a number of films and television shows in the 1950s and 1960s.
Orangey was often credited under a number of various names, but he is well-known for his roles in shows like The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Rhubarb (1952), Our Miss Brooks (1952-1958), and The Dick Van Dyke Show (1962). However, his most iconic role was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). In the film, Orangey played the homeless cat who befriends Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Orangey steals both Holly’s and the audience’s hearts.
Unlike Bart the Bear, Orangey was not known for his calm demeanor, but he was willing to stay and work on set for hours on end. Well, usually… when he wasn’t disappearing for hours on end during production. He was a cat after all, and his acting career was very much done on his time, and not that of any production studio.
3. Rin Tin Tin the German Shepherd (1918-1932)
In the early days of Hollywood, one of the most famous animal actors was actually rescued from a battlefield! During the First World War, an American soldier named Lee Duncan, discovered an Imperial German Army kennel in France after a bombing. Inside were six German shepherds: a mother and her five puppies who were not even a week old yet. Duncan brought the animals back to the United States, one of which would become the famous Rin Tin Tin.
Rin Tin Tin became a very popular movie star and appeared in 27 films and several commercials. His fame, however, long surpassed the dog’s natural lifetime. After his death in 1932, several of his own canine descendants picked up the mantle and took up his name as Rin Tin Tin II, Rin Tin Tin III, Rin Tin Tin IV, and so on. In fact, Rin Tin Tin XII, the most recent descendant, still participates in public events with his owner, Dorothy Yanchak! Rin Tin Tin’s legacy continued on in Hollywood as well, with The Return of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959) and three different radio shows airing between 1930 and 1955.
4. Pal the Rough Collie (1940-1958)
Since the 1943 film Lassie Come Home all the way up until the 2005 film Lassie, Hollywood’s famous rough collie has reigned as a key figure in the animal acting world. Obviously, there have been numerous animal actors that portrayed Lassie, as her reign in Hollywood spanned nearly six decades. However, the most famous was a male dog named Pal. Pal was a rough collie that starred in seven of the Lassie films, up until 1954 when he passed away. His legacy continued, however, as many of his descendants filled the role of Lassie in several of the shows produced after his death.
Pal was a rather unique dog that could trace his ancestry all the way back to England’s first great collie in the 1800s, “Old Cockie.” After making his way to Rudd Weatherwax, Pal was trained to be both a beloved canine companion and a Hollywood star. In fact, he was so loved by Weatherwax that after his death at the age of 18 in 1958, the animal trainer refused to watch another Lassie movie because of how much he missed Pal. However, he did continue training Pal’s descendants for the next seven generations.
5. Terry the Cairn Terrier (1933-1945)
The most famous and iconic dog in Hollywood history is Toto from The Wizard of Oz (1939). Toto was played by a female cairn terrier named Terry (although at the time she was credited as “Toto” rather than Terry). Terry’s portrayal of Dorothy’s beloved canine companion, along with the astounding success of the film, led to a formal name change in 1942, from Terry to “Toto”.
Trained by Carl Spitz, Terry debuted on the Hollywood film scene in 1934 with appearances in Ready for Love, and Bright Eyes as Rags alongside Shirley Temple. Terry was not just a pretty face — this tenacious little dog even did her own stunts! Unfortunately, this led to an onset injury while filming The Wizard of Oz when a Winkie guard stepped on her by mistake.
However, like a true professional, Terry took the injury in stride with the utmost level of grace. Her co-star, Judy Garland, took the small terrier home to help her recuperate for the next few weeks. During that time Garland became so attached to Terry that she offered to buy the dog from Spitz. However, Terry was making more than most human actors, so Spitz kept her. The tiny terrier appeared in 23 films during her 11 years of life and died on September 1, 1945. A memorial to Terry / Toto stands in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
6. Crystal the Capuchin Monkey (1994-present)
One of the most successful animal actors of all time is Crystal the capuchin monkey. Crystal made her Hollywood debut in the 1997 film, George of the Jungle. She has shot to popularity through many more unforgettable roles, such as in the Night of the Museum films. Her biggest role so far was in The Hangover Part II, where she played a drug-dealing monkey. But don’t worry, this cute little monkey never actually had to smoke a cigarette; the smoke was digitally added during post-production.
Not only is Crystal fantastic in the spotlight, but casting directors love her fun personality and how well she performs her own stunts. She has appeared in over 31 movies and TV shows. In her role as Dr. Rizzo on Animal Practice (2012-2013), Crystal received $12,000 for each episode. That’s a bigger salary than many human actors receive!
7. Keiko the Killer Whale (1976-2003)
One of the most successful film series of the 1990s was the story of Willy, an orca who developed an unusual friendship with a young boy. The star of the original 1993 film, Free Willy, was a killer whale named Keiko. Keiko had been captured from the wild in 1979 and then passed around to various amusement parks and aquariums. Unfortunately, the famous orca was housed in horrendous conditions when he lived in captivity.
After retiring from show business, Keiko was released back into the wild, but he struggled to integrate into a pod. He had to be watched over by humans, and eventually died of pneumonia. While Keiko’s life story is far more tragic than his famous film franchise, this orca’s real-life plight helped to bring greater awareness and support of humane practices in Hollywood as well as in aquariums around the world.
8. Trigger the Horse (1934-1965)
Roy Rogers’ beautiful palomino was the most famous horse in Hollywood, and quite possibly the smartest. According to Rogers, Trigger could understand at least 150 different trick cues, walk on his hind legs, and use a pencil to sign an “X”. Believe it or not, this Hollywood animal star was even housebroken!
When Roger’s first met Trigger — who at the time went by the name of Golden Cloud — he was looking to rent a movie horse for his upcoming film. However, Rogers was so impressed with Golden Cloud and his quick responses that he purchased the horse for himself and renamed him Trigger.
Trigger worked side by side with Rogers throughout his career, appearing with the cowboy in a TV series for over 100 episodes, as well as over 80 films! Even outside of filming, Rogers kept his equine companion close. He brought Trigger along with him to hotels, theaters, and even hospitals where the two visited sick children.
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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Iryna Kalamurza/Shutterstock.com
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What is a PATSY Award?
PATSY stands for Picture Animal Top Star of the Year. It is an award that comes from the Hollywood office of the American Human Association. Animal actors are divided into four categories: equine, canine, wild, and special. Unfortunately, due to low funding, the awards ended in 1986. The American Humane Society created their own form of animal-Oscars with the Pawscars in 2011.
Can animal actors win an Academy Award?
Unfortunately, animal actors in Hollywood are not eligible to be nominated for an Academy Award yet. However, three of Hollywood’s animal actors have been honored with a star on the Walk of Fame: Strongheart, Rin Tin-Tin and Lassie.
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