There was Toto and there was Rin Tin Tin — there was Lassie and there was Benji — but perhaps no dog in recent memory had as much impact on the history of motion pictures as Uggie. The canine who shamelessly stole scenes from his human co-stars in “The Artist,” the Academy Awards’ Best Picture of 2012, has died at 13 after a battle with prostate cancer, as TMZ first reported.
“I will forever hold him dearly in my heart and never forget his infinite love for chicken and hot dogs,” Sarah Clifford, who trained Uggie for “The Artist,” told TMZ.
“I can recall very little about my puppyhood,” according to the 2012 biography “Uggie: My Story.” “I think I met my father once when he came to sniff dispassionately at me and my sprawling siblings. All that I remember of my mother was that she was gentle and nurturing; the smell of warm milk would forever remind me of her. Sadly I was plucked from her teat early on and sold to the first stranger to pick me out from the litter.”
Headed for the pound — and, likely, the Big Sleep — he was saved by Omar Von Mueller, Hollywood dog trainer extraordinaire. This was a moment as poignant as as when lowly chorus girl Caroline Meeber is given the line that vaults her to fame in Theodore Drieser’s “Sister Carrie.”
“He was a crazy, very energetic puppy,” Von Mueller told the Guardian in 2012. “And who knows what would have happened to him if he gone to the dog pound. But he was very smart and very willing to work.”
“He was a remarkable little character who had a blessed life thanks to his owner … who rescued him from death row,” said Wendy Holden, the actual writer of Uggie’s biography, who told The Washington Post she “spent a lot of quality time” with the dog.
The pup had moxie.
“One of the most important thing is that he was not afraid of things,” Von Mueller said. “That is what makes or breaks a dog in the movies, whether they are afraid of lights, and noises and being on sets. He gets rewards, like sausages, to encourage him to perform, but that is only a part of it. He works hard.”
Uggie, with Von Mueller’s help, built a resume any human thespian would envy. First came the small stuff — commercials to keep the Von Muellers and their many animals in dog chow. Then Uggie appeared in “Wassup Rockers” (2005), by cult filmmaker Larry Clarke, and the Reese Witherspoon vehicle “Water for Elephants” (2011). Not bad for a dog in his middle period.
But there was more to come. At around nine — that’s 63 in dog years — Uggie found international fame as “The Artist,” a largely silent movie, wormed its way into the hearts of many a moviegoer and swept the Oscars. The human actors were praised, of course — Jean Dujardin won Best Actor. But Uggie was a crowd favorite.
New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick: Uggie gave “the best performance, human or animal, in any film I’ve seen this year.”
Despite an informal Facebook campaign mounted by Movieline, Uggie, not being homo sapiens, was not eligible for Oscar gold. But that didn’t prevent a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a steady stream of talk show appearances and a high-profile Nintendo endorsement. Nor did Uggie squander his riches and reputation and forget the less fortunate — he appeared in a dog adoption spot for PETA.
“I have worked with many celebrities, but people were literally queuing around the block to see this tiny furry star,” Holden said of a book tour she and Uggie went on. “There was something about him that changed people. Women especially adored him. People approached him far more readily than a human star.”
Alas, Uggie had only a few years left. Suffering from a neurological condition that caused shaking, he put down the metaphorical bone after putting in an appearance as himself in “The Campaign,” in which he was punched out by Will Ferrell.
“It is a shame this has happened when he is getting the biggest success of his career but we feel the best thing to do is to retire him after the Oscars,” Von Muller told the Daily Mail in 2012. “For ‘The Artist’ we were working 15-hour days and I can’t put him through that again.’”
Now, Uggie has gone to the great kennel in the sky. Though it’s likely the rabid fame factory that is the motion picture business will foist another dog du jour — younger, cuter, better-groomed — on a fickle public in the near future, moviegoers of the early 21st century will always remember their Canis Major: Uggie, the dog who did not even have to bark to make a proud nation fall in love.
“Everybody thinks I am a great trainer,” said Von Muller. “I don’t think so. I think he is just a great dog.”
Memories of Uggie: