Uggie The Artist Dog's Trainer Omar Von Muller: The Man Behind the Dog
|Courtesy Omar Von Muller|
Stardom came late in life for Hollywood's Next Big Thing. Before he played opposite Reese Witherspoon and landed a scene-stealing role in an Academy Award-nominated film, he endured random parts in commercials, TV shows and films -- and even performed tricks on Third Street Promenade for pocket money.
He didn't hit the big time until he was in his mid-50s. Which is to say, mid-50s in people years: In dog years, Uggie is just 10.
Uggie, of course, is the orange-and-white Jack Russell terrier in The Artist. Already a veteran of such movies as Mr. Fix It and Water for Elephants, Uggie became a movie star in his own right by playing sidekick to Jean Dujardin's tragically declining film star in the dark-horse silent film. There was the Palm Dog award at Cannes. There was the big splash he made at the Golden Globe Awards, getting photographed on the red carpet and then stealing the show during the moviemaker's acceptance speech. There was his guest appearance on the BBC's Graham Norton Show. And then there's Movieline's ongoing "Consider Uggie" campaign, a general effort to honor the terrier for The Artist.
Uggie resides with his Colombian-born owner-trainer Omar Von Muller, 49, along with Von Muller's wife and daughter, several other dogs, a few cats and a handful of domesticated birds, in a comfortable ranch house in Panorama City.
Von Muller is an ace trainer, a guy who gets little face time or glory but who knows how to inspire astounding moments of animal theatricality. (Readers might remember our piece about his amazing skateboarding dogs, seen at Venice Beach -- see "Omar Von Muller's Skateboarding Dogs. Yes, Skateboarding Dogs," Sept. 22, 2011.)
Von Muller, who grew up in a multigenerational animal-training family in Colombia, adopted Uggie as a puppy, saving him from the pound. The terrier's previous owners had deemed him too wild.
Today, his trainer says, Uggie is anything but.
"I don't want to put anyone down," Von Muller says. "There's a bunch of good animal actors out there. But Uggie is one of the best. He knows when the word 'action' comes, he does what he's supposed to be doing, he doesn't get distracted with the people around him, the camera and the lights, and he takes no time to get used to what the director wants."
|Uggie with Jean Dujardin in The Artist|
A few days at actor Dujardin's house before shooting was sufficient to create a connection between the rakish Frenchman and the rascally yet understated Jack Russell. "Jean was a great person to work with," Von Muller says. "Because he really, really liked Uggie." One wonders what actor wouldn't like Uggie, or at least who would confess to such a thing: Besides his shaggy charms, he brings, well, a dogged work ethic with him to the set each day. (The gossip rags went so far as to report -- incorrectly, according to Von Muller -- that actor Robert Pattinson liked working with Uggie so much on Water for Elephants that he sought to adopt him.)
Uggie is, as Von Muller says, a pro.
"For humans, for sure, it's very long hours -- 12 to 15 daily, and we shot 30-plus days. He was OK," Von Muller says. "We would just go back to the room and rest in between shots."
While the down-to-earth Von Muller is the furthest thing from a starry-eyed coddler of talented pups -- no gold-plated doggie bowl or satin-lined bed for Uggie -- he considers his pets true companions: "He's like family, and it's all about having fun."
Just as he's hit the big time, though, Uggie is retiring from movie work.
Is this a case of going out on top, like Joaquin Phoenix quitting acting not long after Walk the Line? Some reports suggest the Jack Russell suffers from a rare neurological disorder that causes him to shake sporadically. Von Muller only acknowledges that Uggie's age is an issue.
"I see him getting tired faster now. We have a couple of other young dogs that are ready, and equally good."
Still, Uggie has just become official spokesdog for the 3-D video game Nintendogs Plus Cats, a job that should keep him in the media spotlight. And he can rest knowing he has achieved Hollywood immortality.
"This movie was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in. Besides it being in the Oscars and Golden Globes, my dog got to actually have a great part in it. Most movies with a lot of dogs are cheesy, like Disney movies and ones filled with chihuahuas," Von Muller says. "It's hard to find a movie this good."Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.