TONY CURTIS, POODLES AND ME
My grandfather said many times, NEVER GIVE UP. He insisted that when I started something I wanted to do, finish it. Complete it. And above all, do not step away from it until you are done. It’s a tough lesson for a kid to comprehend much less make part of your overall makeup.
Something I learned while growing up in a very dysfunctional family was to groom dogs. In the beginning it was a chore I got stuck with, but when I relocated to California and had the overpowering dream of becoming an actor, I quickly discovered you needed a job to survive. You just don’t move to California and become a star. Nothing happens overnight and if you don’t hone your talents the breaks won’t happen at all. To work at starting a career you need pictures, exposure, and experience. Yikes, no one told me about that stuff.
Little theatre and workshops were mostly available at night. Acting coaches actually had the audacity to ask for money for sharing their knowledge and teaching abilities. If you attended you had to pay. In order to pay you had to work at something outside of the “business,” so jobs like waiting tables, delivery services, part-time this and that helped but if you had a family those jobs didn’t pay the bills.
What did I know? Not much until it dawned on me I could groom dogs. I opened a dog-grooming salon in the heart of Beverly Hills, gave it a fancy name and attracted poodles from the rich and famous. Movie stars brought their dogs in, film directors, writers and producers stopped by with their poodles. I thought it would lead to acting jobs, but what it did was bring in more poodles. I was good at this and some visitors said I was the best they’d ever seen. Word spread and all of a sudden I was grooming dogs belonging to Lucille Ball, Debbie Reynolds, Eartha Kitt, Liberace, Gig Young, Agnes Moorhead, Rory Calhoun, Ray Danton, Jack Benny, Beverly Garland, Peter Brown, Jack Ging and Henry Mancini. I owe that, of course, to grandpa. I never gave up and learned to perfect the trade. I was also fast and the dogs loved me. I guess my smile made them relax.
I also sold dog supplies and had sales to attract more visitors. At the end of the day, most owners came to collect their little friends and there was always a line. On one particular day this little guy stormed into the shop, cut in front of everyone and announced he needed to talk to me. I politely asked him to wait until I took care of everyone in the line and he got furious. I apologized to those in the line and this man got louder. When I told him he would have to wait he shouted, “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” I told him it didn’t matter. He fumed for a moment and then said even louder, “I am Tony Curtis.” I laughed and told him that was ridiculous. He mumbled something incoherent and I told him he was too short to be Tony Curtis. I watched Tony fight Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and Tony was a big tall muscular guy. Being I stood six feet five inches tall, I towered over this Tony Curtis imitator. I thought the guy was gonna have a heart attack right there on the spot. He stood dumbfounded, turned several shades of red and when he realized I was going to help everyone in line first he stormed out of the shop. That’s when I saw the long black limousine pull to the curb where a man got out and opened the door for this “guy.” They drove off, and some of my customers were all giddy with smiles – you know like they had just seen a movie star.
A what, a movie star? Then another customer who was a film director stepped to the counter smiling and shaking his head. “I’ve never seen anyone talk to Tony like that. You got some real guts.” I said nothing, but my chest felt the weight of a cement truck on it.
I wrapped up for the night and was about to close when the door opened and this jovial character walked in. He stood there and just looked at me for what seemed like hours. He introduced himself as Bob, the production manager on Tony Curtis’s new film “Monsieur Cognac, to be shot at Universal Studios. He grinned at me, shook his head in amazement and then proceeded to invite me to Universal Studios at the end of the week to meet with Tony Curtis, the film Director Michael Anderson, makeup artist Bob Westmore and animal trainer for the film Frank Weatherwax and discuss coloring a group of dogs. I didn’t know what to say and considering I usually had diarrhea of the mouth that was extraordinary.
When I came back to earth, I quickly said yes I would meet with them. He told me Tony was impressed that I cared for those in line instead of taking care of him because he was famous and offered an apology through the production manager. Bob went on to say Tony told him no one had ever stood up to him like I did and he loved it.
Over the years I had colored poodles for parades, birthday parties, anniversaries etc., so if that’s all they needed it was not an impossible task. Then I remembered all the dogs I had colored in the past where white and easy to tint. After Bob left I started doing research to make sure I wouldn’t hurt any animal. I wouldn’t give up until I was positive it could be done safely. It took me three days but once satisfied, I created a safe color mixture and tested it on my dogs. I designed it to last for only a few days at a time. I easily rinsed it off my dogs and saw no skin irritation. It worked perfectly.
As an actor grooming dogs for a living, the visit to Universal Studios was unbelievably exciting. I was standing right next to major stars and hoped some of my talent would be enriched being next to them. The director wanted to know if I could color a team of poodles to look identical. The makeup artist was rather famous and did basically all films produced at Universal Studios, but he had never colored a dog. Neither had the animal trainer, also world renown for his mastery of animals working in film. The studio didn’t know if it could be done safely and thus the reason for my invitation. I told them yes, it could be done but I would need all the dogs to be white or beige. We signed an agreement and it was a done deal. The next week they showed me the team of large standard poodle actors they had signed to work the film. They were all brown.
Back to the drawing board I went for further testing, new mixtures and additional experiments. Eventually I found the solution, the right mix and it held. Then they called to ask if I could also make a matching toupee. I asked why, and was told their groomer made a mistake on the lead dog and trimmed his head too short. So I made my first and only Standard Poodle toupee.
On the set I told Tony Curtis to make a big deal out of the change when he saw the dogs so they’d believe how special they were, and it worked perfectly. The whole cast along with the stars, Tony, Christine Kaufmann, Larry Storch and Marty Ingels clapped and hooted when I brought the dogs to the set. They had a dog who jumped, one doing tricks, one to walk at their side and several that were duplicates just in case something happened to any of them.
Once principal photography began Tony and the other cast members started having fun with the dogs. Tony had Frank teach one of them to paw at plates of food. One day the dog pawed at a bowl of soup and it flew all over the set and into everyone’s face. Even the dog enjoyed his little trick and started doing them on his own. To keep the dogs involved Tony messed with other tricks and amused everyone. The movie title, “Monsieur Cognac” was later changed to “Wild and Wonderful” and the film was released all over the world.
By not giving up I learned another valuable lesson. Regardless of the obstacles in your path, if you believe in yourself you can overcome just about anything. Working on this film not only gave me a chance to see how films are made behind the scenes, it also created a desire that would surface a few years later when I was cast to work on Ice Station Zebra, and ended up working both in front of and behind the camera. Writing assignments soon followed and then my screenplays started selling. That film was the ultimate test of my motto to “never give up.” I also realized how much fun it was to be behind the scenes instead of in front of the camera. I suddenly had the best of both worlds. One year after Ice Station Zebra I wrote, produced and directed my first feature film The Man From Clover Grove.
My novel “Zebra’s Rock and Me” is currently the number one Kindle download in the UK, available everywhere for only $.99.
Please visit http://amazon.com/dp/B004PLO8LM
Posted April 3, 2012 by William Byron Hillman
My web site: http://williamhillman.com
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My latest novel is Veronique and Murray (a romantic mystery)