The Dog Who Was The Shaggy Dogby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
It was a real dog.
Whenever I watch the first Disney live-action comedy feature, The Shaggy Dog (1959), I want to remind people that it was a real dog. As an audience, we have all become much too jaded in recent years, thanks to cinematic trickery like Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), that can make dogs not only talk realistically but act like spies or superheroes or masters of impossible movement in the blink of an eye.
However, in the movies there is nothing that can compare to a real dog star, whether it is Rin Tin Tin or Lassie or Benji or Asta or the host of other canine companions who heroically and comically entertained us over the decades. Even Walt used his Uncle Robert’s talented dog, Peggy, in the early Alice Comedies.
Born in Denver, Colo., “Shaggy” belonged to Mrs. Billye Anderson, a clerk for the California State Division of Highways in San Bernardino, who bought him for $500 when he was two months old. Sam, whose official name was Lillybrad’s Sammy’s Shadow, always behaved as something more than “just another dog” according to his owner. His father was Norval Pride King and his mother was Lillibrad Lindy Lou, so he came from prestigious breeding despite some publicity trying to make it seem that he was purchased from the pound.
Anderson signed him up for a novice obedience class at the age of four months with William Koehler who, over the years, supplied and trained animals for many motion pictures, including Disney Studio films. This film was the beginning of Koehler’s association with working with animals on Disney films such as The Incredible Journey (1963), Big Red (1962), That Darn Cat (1965), The Ugly Dachshund (1966), and other movies.
Koehler was impressed with Sam who scored high in his graduation exercises after only nine weeks of training. Koehler’s partner, Hal Driscoll, learned about a year later that the Disney Studio was looking for a sheepdog for its next film. Koehler and Driscoll operated a firm called Allied Movie Dogs that operated out of two kennels, one in the San Fernando Valley that was close to the movie studios and another in Ontario (California) that was used for training, because of all the distracting sights and sounds of industry and agriculture nearby.
“Walt Disney Productions had viewed more than 20 Old English Sheepdogs for the title role in a picture to be called The Shaggy Dog,” Koehler recalled in 1979. “Each of them had exhibited the contemporary curse of the breed: degrees of neurosis that varied from ‘geared and dingy’ to cowardly and emotionally unstable. It appeared that the dearth of qualified candidates would set the stage for Sam who qualified in temperament and had novice obedience training.”
Working with Barney Rogers, who in addition to his responsibilities at the Disney Studio set decorating department, arranged for animal showings at the Disney Studio, Koehler and Driscoll took Sam to the Disney Studio to demonstrate his prowess on basic obedience exercises. A few days later, they were given a script to prepare Sam for production.
One of the key scenes was “Shaggy” driving a Ford hot rod. Training began with making Sam comfortable in a wheelbarrow with the long hair held out of his eyes by rubber bands so he could see clearly. Over a period of days, the dog adjusted to not only sitting in the wheelbarrow, but being moved slowly around as he sat in it over bumpy ground, different speeds, steep grades, tight circles, and more.
Then, Sam was brought to the Disney Studio to go through the same exercises on a “flat,” a four-wheel platform used for moving heavy items from the Set Decorating Department to the Sound Stages. There was a raised metal rail at each end used for pushing or pulling the flat so Sam could learn to place his front paws on a designated spot. It is an exercise called “feet up” and Sam demonstrated that behavior several times throughout the film, whether on a bedroom dresser, kitchen counter or a slanted ladder. Sam enjoyed daily tours around the lot and moving from bright sunlight into darkened stages. Apparently, the Disney Studio employees enjoyed seeing the happy dog, as well.
During this time, Sam also had to go to fittings in the Special Effects area. A bucket seat for the hot rod had been skillfully contoured to his large rear end and was adjusted so he was comfortable. To add to his stability, hair-covered mittens were laced to the steering wheel for him to slide in his paws. They also made a seatbelt for him, which was also covered with hair to blend in with his own fur.
Stuntman Carey Loftin was the driver in the hot rod that was a “blind drive car.” Metal was cut away under the dashboard and right through the hood on the right side so he would be able to see the road. For night shooting, a series of lights on the right-hand side of the road was used for the driver to follow and stay on the road. Loftin’s steering wheel was synchronized with the wheel that Sam held by a series of sprockets and a cycle chain. When Loftin turned his wheel, Sam’s wheel would turn and it looked like Sam was moving the wheel as long as the dog offered no resistance. Sam never offered any resistance to the stunt, only cooperation, even when the car was rocked back and forth.
“Driving the car was the dog himself and it worked beautifully," said assistant director Arthur Vitarelli in an interview with John G. West Jr. "The dog would look over the top of the windshield and out the side. It looked like he was really driving.”
Three dogs were originally planned for the film with Sam doing the principal work and the other two as doubles doing specialized actions. However, Sam ended up doing just about everything. “Sam just seems to go along with everything,” said Bill Walsh, associate producer and co-writer, at the time.
Vitarelli revealed that “we had a young boy who worked in a [sheepdog] suit in the living room a few times, and we used him a lot when he went to see the professor in the museum. We used a midget in that suit when the dog had to jump off the boat near the end of the film.”
However for the vast majority of the film, audiences saw Sam, a real sheepdog. Vitarelli claimed that they couldn’t use the dog suit for action scenes, “because you couldn’t walk like a real dog in the suit. It was only good for sitting or looking over the back of the couch.”
The boy in the dog suit was little 10 year old Johnny Kirk, the younger brother of star Tommy Kirk. For scenes of the dog talking, there was an unconvincing puppet head that both Kirk and actor Kevin Corcoran remember being manipulated by Koehler, although I have found no other confirmation of that assumption.
Another challenge for Sam was that a key scene in the film that involved him not only diving and swimming but doing so heroically and without hesitation.
That training included a patient schedule of walking alongside a small creek and persuading Sam to cross a narrow section to get to the trainer on the other side. At first Sam was hesitant to get wet, but the trust that had been built up between him and Koehler got him into the water. From there, it was a process of going across deeper and deeper sections until Sam became not only comfortable but pleased to be in the water.
One thing that happened in the training but interestingly was not used in the film for comic effect was Sam’s natural instinct to shake himself vigorously dry whenever he exited the water, sending huge plumes of water several yards in the air.
In the film, the Shaggy Dog must rescue a teenage girl, played by actress Roberta Shore, who is tossed into the water from a boat by villains who are trying to flee the country. This night scene at the fictional “Walker’s Dock” was actually filmed at nearby Universal Studios Hollywood.
“When he [Sam] was saving the girl from drowning in one scene, he was wired to her. That’s the only way we could get him to swim to shore with her. When he reached shore and they cut the wires off him—not the trainers, but strangers to the dog—Sam never made a pass at anybody and he was big enough to do it. He was just a lovable and smart dog,” stated Vitarelli.
“The dog, seriously, was almost human,” stated Roberta Shore on the commentary track of The Shaggy Dog DVD. The only thing that actor Tim Considine remembered about that scene was that Sam accidentally stepped on his eye during a fight in a fishing net.
In the film, there is a scene where Tommy Kirk discovers his transformation looking into a mirror. The camera stopped so that trainer Koehler could place Sam in the same position so filming could resume and he looked to the crew and asked, “How do you want him to look? Dejected?” which brought a howl of laughter from everyone.
Koehler was able to get a wide variety of expressions and attitude from Sam by doing simple tricks like ducking out of sight and emitting suspicious sounds, or popping up suddenly and showing him a mouse, a cat, a turtle, an interloping other dog, or a crispy, crunchy bone.
During breaks in the filming, Sam romped on the Disney Studio lawns with 9-year-old Kevin Corcoran.
Sam took to filmmaking like an old professional. According to a publicity blurb from the film:
“On his third day, when [Sam] heard director Charles Barton say ‘Roll ‘em’ at one end of a sound stage while he was being posed for a still picture at the other, he bolted from the still and into the scene Barton was directing.
“Once he had to walk into a bedroom, close the door, open a dresser drawer and take out a pair of pajamas with his teeth, enter the bathroom, and close the door. Everybody applauded when he did the whole routine perfectly the first time.
“The bathroom door burst open and back into the bedroom bounded Shaggy, tongue hanging out in a happy dog grin. ‘Look at the ham,’ said Fred MacMurray, ‘taking a curtain call!’”
Actually that scene resulted in a continuity error because in the film, when the dog, now dressed in pajamas re-enters the bedroom from the bathroom, the dresser drawer is now mysteriously closed even though Sam had left it open earlier.
In a later scene where Jean Hagen as the mother discovers the Shaggy Dog in her kitchen with his paws on the counter, he is nearly as tall as she was. When he raised his muzzle to look at her, director Barton cut the scene with the comment, “Shaggy is hiding Jean’s face.”
“Yes, and he’s stepping on my foot. Ye Gods!” wailed the actress. “Upstaged by a dog!”
Sam was a natural for publicity purposes and there are many stills of him dressed in a variety of costume pieces that did not appear in the film, including him in a frilly bonnet while on his back in bed.
Sam even got a large two-page spread in the May 25, 1959, issue of LIFE magazine titled “A Shaggy Sheep Dog’s Social Life” about his attending the birthday party of 5-year-old Jeff Zeitlin of Brentwood.
The Disney press department took Sam to the beach and he discovered the ocean. When he saw the breakers charging up on the property, he charged right into their green wall of water and barked and bit at them.
“He was satisfied when they turned white, collapsed, and fell back to regroup. Time after time they charged, and if it hadn’t been for him the property might have been lost that day. Good dog. Good old Shaggy,” stated the press release.
According to that same Disney publicity release from 1959, Sam was “always licking actors’ faces, a predilection that got him nick-named ‘the makeup-eater’.” Apparently, there was a problem because he was so friendly that people petted and scratched his shaggy head so much that, after 10 weeks shooting the film, “he looked like a wire-hair compared to the dog he’d been at the beginning.”
“Dogs can be the worst scene-stealers in the business, worse than kids,” actor Fred MacMurray was quoted in publicity for the film in 1959. “But this fellow is something I’ve never had to compete with before—a dog comedian. And let’s face it, he has the best part in the picture. “Shaggy kept the whole cast and crew in stitches. He even broke ME up a couple of times, and for an actor, believe me, that’s no laughing matter. I knew I had to give everything I had to keep him from walking away with the picture. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d been just a trick dog. I tell you he’s an actor. I never saw any amateur catch on to the business so fast as this one did. He’s a natural screen personality.”
Sam only appeared in this one movie but he became an instant star. He won the 1960 PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) award from the American Humane Association for his performance. His paw prints were immortalized in cement in the courtyard of the Burbank Animal Shelter at 1150 N. Victory Place, Burbank, California, 91502. (In addition, at that same location, tourists can find the cement footprint impressions of Francis the Mule and Pyewacket the Cat, as well as other PATSY winners from 1951-1960.)
Great article, as usual.