September 11, 2015 | Posted in Famous TV & Movie Dogs
The screen credits read “with Asta (the pooch)”, and with that, a film star was born. The dog in question was the on-screen pet of Nick and Nora Charles, the famous crime-solving couple played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 1930s hit film series. Asta was played by a wire-haired fox terrier named Skippy, who was owned and trained by comic actress Gale Henry East and her husband Henry East. They’d been making an earlier film and couldn’t find a dog to behave properly, so they abandoned the film but decided to open a side business training animals for film acting.
They found Skippy, born in 1931, and began working with him when he was three months old. The couple enlisted the expert help of seasoned trainers Frank Weatherwax and Frank Inn, who went on to train such dogs as Toto and Benji. Skippy/Asta was said to be the most intelligent dog star of his time. He was a bit player in a “Three Stooges” film and he was then cast in the first “Thin Man” film in 1934, even though the original “part” called for a female schnauzer. Skippy worked on verbal commands and hand cues and specialized in pretending to not take commands from his owners, Nick and Nora.
In the films, Asta helped the couple find clues, discover bodies, and solve murders. Audiences responded so well to him that interest in his breed increased tremendously. Skippy was treated like a star, earning between $200-250 a week, unheard of for animal actors. By the way, his trainers earned $60 a week! Skippy had his own dressing room, ate a special mixture of vegetables and was allowed to sleep for long periods of time so that he would appear fresh on camera. He once nipped at Myrna Loy but she never held a grudge.
Mrs. Gale Henry East, his owner, said that if Skippy had to do a scene where he would drink water, he would eagerly drink in the first take. If he’d had his fill but had to do another take or two, she observed, “He’ll go through the scene just as enthusiastically as though his throat was parched, but he’ll fake it.” She said he would make it look like he was drinking, without actually picking up any water. That’s acting!
Skippy appeared in other films such as “Topper Takes a Trip”, “Bringing up Baby” and “The Awful Truth”, and he did the “Thin Man” series of films until 1939 when he went into well-deserved retirement for the rest of his doggie years. He passed away in 1945.