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

The show bombed at the Goodspeed. Walter Kerr, in the Times, wrote, “The evening, like the strip, doesn’t even try to be funny.” Still, Kerr went easy on the dog—“Sandy is all right (he’s bigger than Annie)”—and so, when Mike Nichols signed on to produce the piece and take it to Broadway the following year, Sandy and Berloni were asked to reprise their roles. Berloni had enrolled at New York University and was studying with Stella Adler. Now he had to hone his skills as a trainer. For one scene, as he recounts in his memoir, “Broadway Tails,” he devised a way to get Sandy to stop mid-stage; instead of using a dog treat, which would bounce off the floorboards and make a sound, a member of the cast would drop a bit of baloney. This technique would come to be known as the Baloney Drop. Its originator became Bill Baloney. (“I was Bill Baloney in third grade, actually,” Berloni said.) This time, the show was a huge hit, as was Sandy, who, at least according to Berloni, was the first dog ever to play a central character onstage. “And that’s how I became a world-famous animal trainer at twenty,” he said.

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

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

He felt differently about “The Friend.” “Scott and David aren’t like the filmmakers I’ve worked with,” he said. “They really care about the animals. They want to do it right.”

Seasoned film producers might dispense droll prohibitions against kids and dogs, but rare is the IMDb page without them. Rin Tin Tin, a battlefield rescue from the First World War, was the cash cow that propelled the career of Darryl Zanuck and the rise of Warner Bros.; Lassie got the industry through the star-wary years of the Red Scare. Meanwhile, trainers built their own careers and fortunes. The grandest of them all was Frank Inn, who had been an assistant to Lassie’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, of the Weatherwax family—trainers, too, of Toto and Old Yeller and Asta. (Many movie dogs were actually multiple dogs.) Inn’s mutt Higgins, discovered in Burbank, was sixteen when he came out of retirement, after six seasons on “Petticoat Junction,” to originate the role of Benji. Higgins’s daughter Benjean took over for several of the sequels, including “Oh! Heavenly Dog” (1980), starring Chevy Chase and Omar Sharif. Cujo, if you’re wondering, was at least four St. Bernards, a mechanical dog, and a stuntman in a dog suit.

At the Chelsea production offices, an elevator door opened and there was Bing, magisterial in every respect: a lean, muscular hundred and forty-five pounds and, by the prop department’s tape measure, forty-two inches tall from his forepaws to the top of his skull. His snout, like Roger Federer’s neck, flushes pink when he gets tired or stressed. He has a splotch on his scrotum and a long ropy tail. He projected mild curiosity, self-possession, some awkwardness: your basic arriving-at-an-office vibe. Bev, at his side, wore a long parka and jeans, had short dark hair and glasses, and projected forbearance and good humor. Berloni said that I could greet Bing once but would afterward have to avoid petting him or making eye contact, to keep his allegiances and attentions focussed on him and Bev, and on Naomi Watts, who was playing Iris, the film’s protagonist. Bing and I savored our moment, he left some slobber on my sweater, and then he got to work.

The prop masters, Gino Fortebuono and Rebecca Spiro, had laid out an array of expensive-looking collars and leashes, of varying sizes and shades of red. “We’re searching for the perfect size, the perfect width, the perfect red,” Spiro said. “Really, it’s an homage to the book cover.”

Bing sniffed at the collars, then stood still as Fortebuono put one on him, with a deferential attempt at delicacy and haste. Everyone stepped back to assess Bing as Bev and Berloni had him strike a few poses.

“I know it sounds nuts, but we should try a brighter red,” Spiro said. They swapped collars. Spiro, apparently accustomed to working with actors, said to Bing, “You’re beautiful! There’s no one more beautiful than you.”

There were other props and accommodations to consider: Fortebuono unwrapped a giant plush panda, to use as a stand-in for Bing during setup and lighting, and a new air mattress, to rehearse scenes set in Iris’s apartment. He and the props team discussed a kind of thin chrome matting that they were considering for a shoot on a Brooklyn pier. They didn’t want to expose Bing’s paws to the pier’s old splintery planks and protruding nails, so they’d found some “chroma” to roll over it like a carpet. The board pattern would be restored in postproduction, by way of C.G.I. Michael O’Brien, the crew’s transportation captain, came over to discuss modifications he’d devised for Bing’s trailer, since the steel stairs were too steep and dog ramps were too narrow to accommodate Bing and a handler. O’Brien had procured a moving-van ramp instead. They also strategized about building a bench for a scene aboard a boat, and a special passenger seat for a scene in a car, so that Bing’s head would be even with Watts’s. “We’ll have to remove the seat and replace it with something else,” Berloni said. “And I’ll be hiding on the floor at his feet.”

In film, we intuit or even celebrate ingenuities and work-arounds in the service of illusion. The fake blood, the cars on rails, the Potemkin villages, not to mention the computer graphics, the herds and armies and tempests that exist only in code. We don’t often indulge the frugal point of view—that all this trickery is excessive and wasteful, in practical rather than aesthetic terms. Fealty to the script and to the vision of the cinematographer—the devotion to the deception—requires adjustments to the world of real things which can seem, to a layman used to making do, unduly elaborate. Why not rewrite the scene, to make it more practical to shoot? Why not choose a splinterless pier, with flush and freshly hammered nails? Because there’s a magic carpet, and it’s awesome. And we must insure that no animals are harmed in the making of this film.

Spiro said to Bing, “You want to try a beautiful outfit?”

They put him in a zip-collar sweater and then in a red harness.

“Is it too busy?”

“It’s too teched out.”

“Can we get a photo of him in the sphinx position? He’s going to be in this position on a train.”

“Down,” Bev said, in a moderate tone. Bing settled into the sphinx, ears pricked up, tail tucked under his rear. “Good boy!” she said, in falsetto. A line producer strolled by, tried to throw an empty coffee cup into a nearby garbage can, and missed. “Leave it,” Bev murmured, in a low husky voice. The dog gave her a droopy-hound glance 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 she has a tattoo of a paw print, with an image of a camera aperture in place of the metacarpal pad. “My two loves,” she said.

“And that is why, no matter how many clothes you own, you will always do the same amount of laundry.”

Cartoon by Eugenia Viti

Bing is her sixth Great Dane, if you count only those she and her family have kept in their home. When an executive producer of “The Friend” first reached out to her, in 2019, Bev deleted the e-mail. “It seemed far-fetched and crazy,” she said. But then she fished it out of the trash. After the production was interrupted, she put off getting him fixed, because the script of the film called for an intact male.

The key to Bing’s performance was his relationship with Watts. They had started rehearsing together at Watts’s home in Tribeca as soon as he got to New York. For their final session, an assistant brought Bing, Bev, Berloni, and Nguyen in out of the rain, and Watts came down a broad stairway holding her own dog, Izzy, a Yorkie-Chihuahua mix. Watts wore yoga pants and a loose sweater. Izzy and Bing, who’d become friendly, greeted each other first, with Bev and Berloni taking care that the big dog not crush the small one. (Izzy often hung around the set and would eventually appear as an extra in a scene at a pet store.) Then Watts greeted Bing. The first time they’d met, Watts had fed him bits of salami. This time, Berloni handed her a brown bag of equivalently decadent but healthier treats he’d prepared on Staten Island. His aim, he said, was for Watts to surpass him in Bing’s hierarchy of handlers, to rank second after Bev. Now he yielded control to Watts, whose goal was to develop firm control of Bing while appearing on camera to be fumbling, a bit of a newb, for the sake of the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *