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Saturday 1 October 2016

Pussy galore: the cats that won Hollywood gold

As Kevin Spacey's comedy 'Nine Lives' opens, Helen O'Hara applauds cinema's most talented felines, from Blofeld's Persian to Holly Golightly's 'Cat'

Helen O'Hara

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

THE CAT’S PYJAMAS: Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly with ‘Cat’ in the 1961 movie 'Breakfast at Tiffany’s'. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
THE CAT’S PYJAMAS: Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly with ‘Cat’ in the 1961 movie 'Breakfast at Tiffany’s'. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

In the eternal battle between cat and dog, the latter always seems to have had a better agent. From Rin Tin Tin to Lassie to Uggie in the Oscar-winning The Artist, dogs have Tinseltown at their paws thanks to their trainability and eagerness to please. But in recent years the rise of the internet cat video has proved that there is an appetite for feline films, and Hollywood is eager to cash in.

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This week brings the release of Nine Lives, a comedy about a nasty businessman, played by Kevin Spacey, who finds himself trapped inside the body of his family cat. As well as a lot of CGI, the movie employs the talents of some of YouTube's most popular furballs.

Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967). (Photo by Larry Ellis/Getty Images)
Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967). (Photo by Larry Ellis/Getty Images)

"They're huge stars," says actor Robbie Amell, referring to Waffles, Hamilton, Nala and his other fellow cast members. "I ruin more takes than the cats are ruining."

For all the pain of working with the famous felines (Amell took the role despite being "super allergic" to cats), the scenes in Nine Lives with real cats are notably better than the scenes that use visual trickery to exaggerate a cat's expression for comic effect. It might take longer to get the right reaction from a real animal, but it's almost always more effective if you can do it.

That was the philosophy of Keanu, another cat comedy that came out last month. Chronicling the story of two cousins who find themselves in trouble after taking in a stray kitten who belongs to a murdered drug lord, the film employed seven adorable tabbies recruited from animal shelters. The cat 'actors' had to learn to wear a gold chain to blend in with their gangster setting, to run or sit on command and to jump over dead bodies and dodge 'gunfire'.

"If people love kittens, we're going to give them a story where you see this kitten do some amazing things," says Jordan Peele, one of the human stars.

Telly Savalas as Blofeld in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969). (Photo by United Artist/Getty Images)
Telly Savalas as Blofeld in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969). (Photo by United Artist/Getty Images)

Of course, they're not the first to do so. Cat actors have been in Hollywood almost since the beginning. The first feline star was Pepper, a Maltese cat born under the floor of Keystone Studios in 1912.

She crawled up through the floorboards in the middle of a scene and studio founder Mack Sennett was so enamoured of her he kept her in the picture. Like so many up-and-coming stars of the time, she was uncredited for her first few appearances, but in 1913 Pepper received a credit for A Little Hero, opposite Hollywood's first canine star, Teddy the Great Dane, and stardom followed.

Her 17 credited appearances included work with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle as well as the studio's Keystone Cops. Pepper was dubbed the 'Sarah Bernhardt of alley cats' and was insured for $5,000. In most of her films, she was paired with Teddy, the disparity in their size always good for a laugh, and after he died in 1923, Pepper never appeared on screen again.

The only other cat to come close to Pepper's screen dominance is Orangey, who worked through the Fifties and Sixties. The lead feline in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1955), he later cuddled up to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1962). He won two PATSY awards (Performing Animal Top Star of the Year) for 1951's Rhubarb and for Tiffany's, and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, alongside some of Hollywood's biggest (human) names.

Jeff Goldblum and Elizabeth Perkins in ‘Cats & Dogs’ (2001). REUTERS/Warner Bros
Jeff Goldblum and Elizabeth Perkins in ‘Cats & Dogs’ (2001). REUTERS/Warner Bros

So what does a cat have to do to make it in Hollywood?

"We strive for the same behavioural cues that we would put on a dog: a 'sit', a 'stay', a 'down', a 'call' to come here," says Gwen Griffiths, a trainer with Birds And Animals UK, the same company that trained Keanu's stars.

"But with cats you have to use a different attitude. Cats are not so ready to please. Toys are a great motivator, obviously food. But basically what we're doing is shaping the behaviour." Griffiths and her team use a 'clicker', a small device that makes a clicking noise every time a cat correctly carries out a task, and follow it up with the reward of a toy or tasty morsel. Soon the cat learns to do that task to the cue of the clicking sound, then it's simply a matter of combining individual commands. "You go through the script and you break down the action," says Griffiths.

"You have to look into each piece as a behaviour, and from there you chain those behaviours together."

Training may start only weeks before production, or the same animal may have been taught basic commands over months or years, just waiting for the right role to give them their big break.

Ideally, though, the animals are socialised from kittenhood so that they are able to cope with the noise and bustle of a set. The key, says Griffiths, is to choose the right animal in the first place. "Some cats are more gregarious and affectionate, where other cats are more introverts - and that's not the cat you're going to train. And some are good holding cats.

"They're very important, because most cats do not like to be held. Some cats are good at jumping up on stuff. So it's important to have the right cat for the right job.

"One of the best I've known is Crackerjack, who played Crookshanks on Harry Potter," says Griffiths. "There were maybe four Persians that played that part, but he was one of the top cats to work with. I could take him on a job on his own, and I knew Crackerjack would always pull off the shot."

But even great cinema cats can have difficulties. Solomon, who played Blofeld's Persian pet in five Bond films, was quite content to sit on Blofeld's lap for hours, but was known to relieve himself on the actors if he became scared by any loud noises on set. Are cats ever told off by tyrannical film directors, in the way humans are?

"We're animal lovers," says Griffiths. "This is why I do this for a living; it's because I care about each individual's welfare. You have to know when to say no within the film industry. That's the mark of a good trainer."

© Telegraph

'Nine Lives' is in cinemas now

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