June 21, 2024

The 8 Greatest Animal Actors

The greatest animal actors were stars of films and TV, often upstaging their human counterparts. Here are 8 of the best.

Greatest animal actors: Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin, the first movie star dog, had a real life origin story better than any film.

In September 1918, as World War I drew to a close, US Air Force Corporal Lee Duncan was in an advance patrol that overran a bombed out German position. Here he found two German Shepherds; one male and one female, both injured and close to starvation. Duncan rescued both animals, and at the end of the war brought them back to the States. He dubbed the male dog 'Rin Tin Tin', after a French good luck charm a child had given him.

Settling in California, Duncan taught his dog some tricks and began seeking movie work.

After a couple of bit parts, Rin Tin Tin landed a leading role in the 1923 film 'Where the North Begins', playing a wild dog, living with a wolf pack, who comes to the aid of a stranded family. The film was wildly successful, and is credited with saving its studio, Warner Brothers, from bankruptcy.

Rin Tin Tin would star in 24 further films, and his popularity was such that he was on the ballot for 'Best Actor' at the first Academy Awards, in 1929. The legend is that his name was subsequently removed, when it appeared he was going to win.

Greatest Animal actors: Jimmy the Raven

Jimmy the Raven

Jimmy the Raven was found by Hollywood animal trainer Curly Twiford in the Mojave Desert, in 1934.

Twiford taught Jimmy a variety of tricks - typing, answering the phone, riding a tiny bike - and to repeat around 200 common English words. These skills lead to a remarkably durable movie career; Jimmy starred in more than 1000 films over twenty years.

He was a particular favourite of legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra, who cast him in every film he made after 1938.  This includes the seminal classic, 'It's a Wonderful Life', alongside another Jimmy; the world's biggest movie star, Jimmy Stewart (the two Jimmy's are pictured, above).

Jimmy the Raven was so widely utilised that MGM insured him for $10 000, and he had several stand ins. Other, less talented, birds would take Jimmy's place if the scene did not require any tricks or voice work.

Best animal actors: Trigger


In the 1940s and 50s the Western was one of the biggest genres in popular entertainment, and one of their biggest stars was Roy Rogers.

Handsome and charismatic, Rogers initially found fame as a country singer, before turning to movies. He would star in more than 100 films, often appearing with his wife, Dale Evans, his dog Bullett, and his remarkable sidekick horse, Trigger.

Originally named Golden Cloud, Trigger was a Palomino stallion from San Diego, acquired by Rogers in 1943. He was re-named Trigger due to his rapid fire ability to learn new tricks; he could walk 50 feet on his hind legs, sign an 'X' with a pencil, sit in a chair, and cover himself with a blanket while lying down, among 150 different stunts. He was even housebroken, and so was allowed to stay indoors in his own hotel room when Rogers took his live act on the road.

Trigger died in July 1965, he has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Best animal actors: Lassie


Rin Tin Tin's successor as world's greatest dog fell to 'Pal', an unassuming Rough Collie from North Hollywood. Brought by movie animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax in 1940, Pal initially worked as a stunt dog; he was considered too plain looking for more substantial roles.

This changed with the 1943 film 'Lassie Come Home'.

Based on the popular children's book, 'Lassie' tells the story of a dog removed from its family, and relocated far away, who then escapes and finds its way home across hundreds of miles of wilderness. The female Collie originally cast struggled with the complexity of the action, and Pal was brought in as a replacement, wowing the production with his ability to perform elaborate tricks.

In one famous scene, Pal swims across a river, lies down without shaking the water off his coat, attempts to crawl while lying on his side, before giving up, pretending to be exhausted. Captured in a single take, this elaborate sequence was so amazing the director, Fred Wilcox, burst into tears.

Audiences agreed, and 'Lassie Come Home' was a huge success, followed by six sequels and a TV series. Pal died in June 1958. Weatherwax was so attached to the dog that he slipped into depression following his death, and would visit his grave every day.

Orangey the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's


The unimaginatively named 'Orangey' was a male, marmalade coloured tabby cat, who starred in a score of movies in the 1950s and 60s. His first leading role was in 'Rhubarb', playing a cat who inherits a fortune, but he is best known as Holly Golightly's cat in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (pictured).

In real life, Orangey was temperamental and difficult to work with, dubbed 'the world's meanest cat' by one producer.

As an actor, his chief strength was his ability to stay put, and keep calm, during long takes. Although at the end of the shooting day Orangey would often hide, while exasperated crew tried to coax him out from under props and equipment.

The American Humane Association used to bestow awards, 'The Patsy's', on the best animal acting performances of each year; Orangey is the only animal performer to win two of these.

Koton the dog in K9


Unlike most of the animals on this list, who had long acting careers, the German Shepherd 'Koton' had only one starring role; the 1989 crime-comedy movie 'K9', alongside Jim Belushi.

Koton was a trained police dog, who served with the Kansas City Police Department, and had participated in 24 arrests when the movie was cast.

In the film, Belushi plays a misanthropic cop who is partnered up with a dog, when everyone else in his precinct refuses to work with him. The film makers thought adding a real life police dog would bring a touch of realism to the silly premise, and they appeared to be correct; the film is cute, was a modest hit, and the dog is undoubtedly the best part.

Koton returned to active duty after the film wrapped up. In a tragic epilogue, in 1991 he was shot and killed while on active duty, in pursuit of a suspected murderer.

Best animal actors: Bart the Bear

Bart the Bear

Bart was an Alaskan Kodiak bear, who was born in Baltimore zoo in January 1977. As the zoo did not have the facilities to care for a cub, he was adopted by animal trainers Doug and Lynne Seus, who began preparing him for an acting career.

While still a cub, he appeared in the hit TV show 'The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams', but he quickly outgrew this role, as he matured into a 2.9 metre tall, 680kg adult.

While gentle and affectionate by nature, Bart is best known for his convincing portrayals of wild bears, often menacing humans who have entered the wilderness. His best known films include 'The Edge', and 'Legends of the Fall'.

In 1998 he appeared onstage at The Oscars, as part of tribute to animals in the movies, and handed presenter Mike Myers an award envelope.

Agee the Polar Bear


Agee is a Canadian polar bear who was abandoned by his mother when he was six weeks old. He was rescued by wilderness officers, and was subsequently adopted by animal trainer Mark Dumas (pictured with Agee above).

Dumas has stated in the press that he and Agee share a very intimate bond; they swim together each day, wrestle and play fight, and Dumas even sleeps in Agee's enclosure sometimes, at night.

7 feet tall and weighing 600kg, Agee's onscreen presence is imposing. In the 2018 film 'Arctic', he convincingly terrorises actor Mads Mikkelsen, playing a pilot stranded in a remote region, in the movie's standout scene.

Agee has also appeared in other local films, and TV commercials.

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