Adam Sandler is the closest thing to a sure bet you can find in Hollywood. His last two movies – The Waterboy and Big Daddy – both grossed more than $160 million, establishing the former Saturday Night Live standout as one of the most bankable comics in the business. The money train is expected to keep rolling when his latest movie, Little Nicky, arrives in theaters Nov. 10 – just in time for the holidays.
But this time, Sandler's co-star may just walk away with all the attention. He is among the most reliable scene-stealers in moviedom – man's wet-nosed, four-legged and furry best friend.
From Benji to Lassie, from the cuddly 101 Dalmatians to the snarling rottweilers in The Omen, canine characters are often remembered by audiences long after the names of many an Academy Award winner is forgotten. Somewhere in between the life-saving collie and Satan's pets is Beefy, the foul-mouthed English bulldog who could emerge as the true star of Little Nicky.
In the movie Sandler plays Nicky, the feeble son of the Devil (Harvey Keitel), who is dispatched by his Papa to New York to battle his brothers. The brothers – angry at not being named heirs to the family throne – have decided to create their own Hell on Earth. As the family feud threatens the natural order, Dad-the-Devil orders Nicky to bring his brothers back to Hell.
On his foray through the city, Nicky needs a guide and happens upon Beefy, an English bulldog, a pugnacious breed more often associated with Winston Churchill than Beelzebub.
Three Dogs Play Beefy Role
The role is actually played by three dogs – Roo, Harvey and Harley (as in Davidson) – who were trained by Steve Berens. He has been teaching animals the tricks of the movie trade for more than 20 years. "Beefy is a street-smart, been-there done-that kind of character," says Berens. "The dog actually comes up from Hell himself, so there is obviously a reason why he is down there. He is a nice character, but kind of street-wise."
As he did in his last movie, Big Daddy, Sandler is ignoring the old acting dictum about never working with children or animals. "Adam was fabulous, says Berens, whose previous credits include the Jim Carrey hit, The Mask and, appropriately, The Truth About Cats and Dogs. "He loved the dogs."
That isn't always the case. "When you are working with actors who don't want to work with dogs, I'm sure dogs sense that. It makes it more difficult," Berens says.
The would-be top dogs are up against some serious star power in Little Nicky, which is directed by Steven Brill, best known for writing and producing the Mighty Ducks movies. An eclectic cast includes Rodney Dangerfield as the devilish dad and a slew of Sandler's former Saturday Night Live castmates, such as David Spade, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey in assorted roles.
Producers Wanted a Bulldog
While the producers always envisioned a bulldog for the part of Beefy, Berens was not easily convinced. "I thought it was going to be too tough for a bulldog," the California trainer admits. "I had never worked to any great length with the English bulldog, so I was a little apprehensive going into this. But we finally settled on a particular look and I got my dogs together. It went well."
In a business known for the monumental egos of its stars, why three dogs for one role?
"Whenever you have a large film where an animal is playing a key role – one of the co-stars, so to speak – we generally have doubles," Berens explains. Occasionally, I've done films where the dog has a good part and goes through the film without a double." The bulldogs, however, needed some insurance. "There are limitations," he says. "They get tired, they get hot. You've got to be prepared to let them have breaks and rest them, make sure they are taken care of."
Though Beefy is a talking dog, the biggest difficulty for Berens was getting Roo, Harvey and Harley to keep their mouths closed, leaving the way clear for the special effects guys to work their magic. "With what they can do with computer generation, they wanted the mouth to remain closed," Berens says. "With the bulldog breed that was a big challenge."
Shot on the Streets of New York
The hectic location for the shoot was no less challenging. "Working shots on the streets of New York, and at Grand Central station was a pretty good challenge for a bulldog. These are busy areas," Berens says. "You usually don't see bulldogs working that much out there. They are usually just sitting or lying somewhere."
The requirements of the part and the pressure of the location meant that 'rehearsals' for the trio went beyond the basics that every dog being trained for the movies must master: 'Sit' and 'Lie down'.
"You break down the script into scenes and find out what you need," Berens says. "You just have to work your dogs through the scenes and train specifically."
While two of the bulldogs – Harvey and Harley – were both over two years old when filming started, Roo was six. Berens says it is not essential for a dog to be young to be successfully trained for the movies. "It kind of depends on the dog," he says. "It's always nice the younger you have them, but it doesn't have to be a young dog."
Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
Age aside, any discomfort that loomed during the shoot for Roo, Harvey and Harley was dealt with far in advance. "One of the most important things is that you are preparing the animal for the scene, so that when he goes in there he has been there before," Berens points out. "He's gone through this, he's been rehearsed, it's not a big surprise to him. It's not something thrown at him out of left field."
All the training amounts to a long process for what is usually just a few minutes on camera. Roo, Harvey and Harley went through their paces for almost eight weeks before getting to the set. The 'preparation process' for various scenes continued throughout filming.
That seems like child's play now for Berens, who is currently working on a picture called The Animal, in which he'll be in charge of 50 animals. "I've got scenes that involve several different animals, where they will be prepped three and four weeks for one day," he says. Compared to that, three bulldogs fighting over one starring role doesn't seem so bad.