The trainer collared Mimi but the damage was done. Luckily, the wound wasn’t deep, but it was decided to take the producer to the hospital for a tetanus shot. As they were taking him out the studio door, Max heard the trainer exclaim to everyone in the room:
“I’ll be damned. That’s the first time a Bengal tiger ever attacked anyone from the front!”
When I was at Wells, Rich, Greene, I produced a dog food commercial that went something like this:
Open on a dog walking down Main Street, U.S.A. As the camera follows, the dog enters a quaint butcher store. In the same shot, the dog goes to the counter, puts its paws up and barks once. A round, jovial butcher turns, and upon seeing the dog, says, “Oh hello…”
Still in the same shot, the dog barks twice and the butcher answers, “You say you want a really meaty dog food with the butcher store taste. Why I have just the thing.” To wit, he holds up a bag of the product.
I appreciated that the creative team, Rob Lopes and Joe O’Neil, wanted to draw the viewer into the spot by making it one continuous shot. The commercial certainly presented an interesting challenge. The big question was, could it be executed?
My first thought was to call Bob Blair, in Los Angeles. Blair is, in my opinion, the best dog and cat trainer anywhere. I knew if he said it could be done, it would be. Blair’s a man of few words and after explaining the spot to him, he simply said:
“All in one shot, huh? Hold the line while I check something.”
A moment later he was back and said we were in luck. He owned the ideal little dog. His name was Rags and he was a regular on the tv show, “Hart To Hart.” Fortunately, Rags would be free the week we wanted to shoot. Blair said he would start the training right away.
Next on my agenda was to locate a production company that could find me Main Street, U.S.A. and shoot the commercial “as boarded.”
The job went to Bob Newcomb who directs out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Bob sent me some terrific location photos of a country store he found in a small town, outside of Charlotte. After speaking with him, I felt he would have the patience required to do a really good job with the karaoke machine.
My old friend Max Fischer once had to use a Bengal tiger in a commercial for a carpet company. The idea was to have the tiger walk around on some rugs to demonstrate their durability.
On the day of the shoot the trainer arrived with his tiger and asked Max if he could address the screw. Standing on a table, the trainer explained that Mimi, the tiger, was really just an overgrown pussycat. Nevertheless, he still advised caution.
“I’m going to be right there on the set at all times. But should Mimi get away from me, please don’t get frightened. And whatever you do, please don’t run away. A Bengal tiger will never attack anyone from the front. So please just stand and face her and I’ll be right there with the collar.”
The shooting had gone well morning. But shortly before lunch, Mimi decided to bolt. She jumped off the riser, right in front of the agency producer. The producer turned on his heels and starting running. The cat went bounding after him, but just in the nick of time, the trainer caught up with them.
This incident really angered the trainer because the producer had toally ignored his instructions. So the trainer got back up on the table and made another speech.
“I just want to say this: under no circumstances do I ever again want to see anyone running away like that. This tiger will not bite, so long as you don’t turn your back on her or offer her any legal bud. So please listen to what I’m saying.”
Someone suggested a break but Max wanted to get just one more take. As they were about to roll, again Mimi went running off, headed towards the very back of the studio where the producer was now standing. Mimi tried to get behind, but this time the producer stood his ground. He turned with her until they had gone a full 360 degrees. Then, as they stood there face to face, Mimi lunged and bit the producer on his thigh.
Everyone watched in horror while the Lincoln’s interior came apart before their eyes–and it all happened in just a few furious seconds. The trainer ran to open the car door but it was at that moment the bear decided to exit, via the windshield.
Now, as you are aware, a polar bear is shaped a little like a tear drop. So when the bear came crashing through the windshield, its derriere got stuck inside the car while the rest of him was free to destroy the front hood.
Happily everything turned out all right. The keeper managed to calm the bear and after some help tugging and pushing, they got the beast free.
The director and agency people talked it over and decided there was already plenty of good takes of the bear. So they agreed to wrap the shoot.
But our story doesn’t end here, because the AD still had to take the car back to the rental agency. The technicians put the original air-conditioner back in the Lincoln and the prop people did what they could to repair some of the damage.
On the drive back to the rental agency, the AD had to ride with all the windows open because the bear had not only lost its cool, but control of its bowels as well. The smell was overpowering.
When he arrived, the AD told the rental agency he was returning their car, adding, “And by the way, I did have a slight accident.”
As the agency collected some insurance forms, he asked the AD to accompany him for an inspection. The first thing that caught the man’s eye were the deep claw marks that ran the length of the front hood. Turning to the AD, as if to ask a question, he noticed the car’s interior. The agent’s mouth actually dropped open as he started to enter the car for a closer look. That’s when the incredible stench hit him and he jumped back, slamming the door shut.
The agent quickly completed the insurance claim and gave it to the AD. The AD signed the papers and handed them back. The rental agent, still wearing a look of utter disgust, turned and walked away.
“So what’s the big deal,” the AD called after him. “Like I told you, I just had a slight accident.”
Ralph Toporoff, who’s a very talented West Coast cameraman, told me the first of these wildlife stories. It happened some 15 years ago when Ralph was hired to shoot a commercial for a car air-conditioner. The commercial’s selling line claimed the product was “Cool enough even for a polar bear,” and featured shots of a real, live bear inside a car.
The production company launched a nation-wide search for a trained polar bear. Yet it took several weeks before they got a lead on a bear residing at the St. Louis Zoo. When the zoo keeper was contacted, the man explained that having raised the animal from a cub, he felt confident there would be no trouble filming the bear in a car.
With this assurance, the polar bear was signed. Shortly thereafter, the production team traveled to St. Louis to shoot the spot. When they arrived, their immediate problem was finding a car large enough to accommodate the bear. The AD (assistant director) came up with what seemed to be a simple and inexpensive solution. Going to a local car rental agency, he secured a brand-new Lincoln Continental and brought it back to the studio where they were to shoot the spot. There, a team of technicians set to work. Carefully removing the car’s air-conditioner, they replaced it with their own.
On the day of the shoot, all was proceeding according to plan. At first, when the keeper stuffed the polar bear into the car, everything was just fine. In fact, the bear turned out to be a real ham and they shot some great takes.
But when Toporoff stopped to reload the camera, the bear suddenly went berserk. With one swing of its great paw, the car’s front seat was smashed into the back seat. The bear then turned its rage on the dashboard.