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The Life and Career of Frank Inn, Famed Hollywood Animal Trainer

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Frank Inn with Higgins, the original Benji

Frank Inn with Higgins, the original Benji

With a career spanning over 50 years, Frank Inn trained hundreds of animals for some of the most popular and successful films and television shows of his time. The animals he trained helped shape pop culture and won a total of 40 Picture Animal Top Star of the Year (PATSY) Awards, the animal kingdom's equivalent of the Academy Awards.

In 1916, he was born Elias Franklin Freeman in Canby, Indiana, where he grew up working on farms. When he was 17, he hopped a train going west, taking odd jobs as he made his way to California. Once he arrived, he took the name Frank Inn and found a job at a stable in Culver City.

One day, Inn grabbed the reins of a runaway horse, stopping it from running onto a busy highway. The rider, who worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), got him a job as a maintenance man on film sets to show his gratitude.

Some time after, Inn was struck by a drunk driver. He was initially pronounced dead and taken to a morgue, where it was discovered he was still alive. Inn now faced a long recovery, and needed to use a wheelchair. Luckily, a friend took him in and gave him a puppy to keep him company. He named the puppy Jeep, and the bond between them inspired his career path.

Director and screenwriter Joe Camp has told NPR, "He sat in that wheelchair and trained the dog to do things, like go get his keys [and] go get his paper. He could talk to the dog, and literally, the dog understood."

Once he recovered, Inn returned to work at MGM studios. One day, when he was sweeping on the set of The Thin Man (1934), he noticed an animal trainer trying and failing to get a dog to perform. Inn brought Jeep to work the next day and demonstrated the tricks he'd taught him. He was hired on the spot.

''He had an almost telepathic communication with animals,'' his daughter has said. ''He could tell them to do things just by talking to them like a human. It used to be kind of eerie to me.''

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Skippy the Dog

The first dog Inn trained for the screen was Skippy, a wirehair fox terrier who became a massive star in the 1930s. He was also trained by brothers Frank and Rudd Weatherwax and by his owners, MGM property owner Henry East and his wife, actress and comedian Gale Henry.

Skippy was best known for his role as the canine sidekick Asta in the detective comedy The Thin Man (1934) and its four sequels, all of which starred William Powell and Myrna Loy. He was even accidentally credited as Asta for his roles in other films, which included the acclaimed comedies The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Skippy became the highest-paid animal actor of his time, and had his own dressing room at MGM that only his owners were allowed to enter. Audiences loved Skippy so much that there was a nationwide surge in popularity for the wirehair fox terrier breed.

Skippy appeared with his son, Asta Jr., in Song of the Thin Man (1947), the sixth film in the Thin Man series. His grandson, also named Asta, was in an NBC series adaptation of the films, which ran from to 1957 to 1959.

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Pal the Collie

Though Pal was a male collie, his famous role as a female collie in the hit film Lassie Come Home (1943) launched the beloved Lassie franchise and led to six sequels, all of which starred Pal. He was owned by Rudd Weatherwax and trained by both Weatherwax and Inn.

Pal's last film was The Painted Hills, alternatively titled Lassie's Adventures in the Goldrush (1951). Weatherwax then bought the Lassie trademark and took Pal on the road, performing at dog shows, fairs, rodeos, and other events. Pal retired in 1954 after filming two Lassie television pilots for CBS.

When one of the pilots got picked up, Pal's son, Lassie Jr., was cast in the leading role. He played Lassie until 1959, when Pal's grandson Spook took over. By the time the show ended in 1973, four of Pal's grandsons had played Lassie. Inn trained them all.

The Lassie series has had several revivals in film, television, and radio ever since. Most of the dogs who have played Lassie have been descendants of Pal, and trained by Inn. The character has even recieved a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1992, The Saturday Evening Post declared Pal had "the most spectacular canine career in film history."

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Orangey the Cat

Orangey was a marmalade tabby cat trained and handled by Inn. He often scratched and bit actors, and was dubbed "the world's meanest cat" by one studio executive. But Inn—who by then had a decade of experience in training animals—formed a bond with Orangey like no one else could.

Inn first trained him in his cinematic debut, Rhubarb (1951). Thirteen other cats also played the title role at different points in the film, all of whom also were trained by Inn. This role won him a PATSY Award, and he was accidentally credited as Rhubarb in many films that followed.

When auditioning cats for Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Inn chose Orangey, describing him as "a real New York type cat, just what we want." Thanks to this famous role alongside actress Audrey Hepburn, Orangey became the only cat to ever win two PATSY Awards.

Inn also trained Orangey in his role in the sci-fi film This Island Earth (1955). Orangey became prolific in television shows as well as films, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), and The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971). Early on, he had a recurring role as Minerva the Cat in the CBS sitcom Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956).

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Bernadette the Basset Hound

Inn was contacted by the production team for the family sitcom The People's Choice (1955-1958) and told to find a sad-faced dog for the series. Inn promptly found a basset hound named Bernadette and bought her for $85.

While Bernadette waited in the car for Inn to finish paying, she pulled the keys out of the ignition and chewed through the leather strap of the key chain. In addition to her chewing habit, she was a shy and high-strung dog who hadn't been housebroken. She'd had three different owners prior to Inn due to her behavior issues.

Inn worked with Bernadette day and night, and his patience and gentle training paid off. On The People's Choice, she played Cleo, the loveable yet sarcastic family pet, with Mary Jane Croft providing voice-over work for the dog's thoughts. The tricks she performed included balancing a ball at the end of her nose, climbing a ladder, and walking a tightrope. In 1958, she won a PATSY Award. Thanks to Inn, Bernadette became so comfortable in public spaces that she began making publicity appearances.

In addition to her role as Cleo, Bernadette made small, uncredited appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966), The Danny Thomas Show (1953-1964),The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), and several other shows.

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Arnold the Pig

Arnold was a Chester White pig born on a farm in Mooresville, Indiana. Inn was once quoted as saying he had to use "delicate psychology" to train him, as opposed to training cats and dogs. Whatever methods Inn used certainly worked, as Arnold the Pig soon landed his breakout role as Arnold Ziffel, the "son" of an eccentric elderly couple, Fred and Doris Ziffel, in the sitcom Green Acres (1965-1971).

Arnold Ziffel quickly became the most popular character on the show by far, and came to dominate the storylines. For this role, Arnold the Pig learned to use a straw, carry a lunch box, deliver letters and newspapers, play cricket, and change the channels on a television. He recieved thousands of fan letters from both children and adults, and started going on tours and making guest appearances on other shows.

But the producers of Green Acres wanted to keep Arnold Ziffel cute and little, so when Arnold the Pig grew larger, they replaced him. During the show's six-year run, the role was played by three other pigs, all trained by Inn.

Inn took Arnold the Pig home to live out the rest of his days as a pet. The four pigs who played Arnold Ziffel won a total of three PATSY Awards, which made them the only Green Acres cast members to win any acting awards.

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Higgins the Dog

One of the best-known dog actors of the 1960s and 1970s, Higgins was a mutt adopted by Inn from Burbank Animal Shelter as a puppy. Inn would eventually tell reporters that Higgins was the smartest dog he'd ever worked with.

Higgins first recieved attention for his role as Dog in the sitcom Petticoat Junction (1964-1970), which earned him a PATSY Award in 1966. During the height of his career, Inn claimed that Higgins learned one new trick or routine per week, and has an exceptional memory for commands. His tricks included coughing and sneezing on cue.

Higgins bonded closely with his co-star, Edgar Buchanan, and the two made guests appearances together in Green Acres. Though Higgins retired at age 14, he came out of retirement for one last movie, Benji (1974), which he starred in with Buchanan.

Benji was an immediate success, and was followed by sequels. Higgins' daughter Benjean, also owned and trained by Inn, took over the role in four sequels, as well as a television series spin-off that lasted one season. The Benji films have continued since. Most of the leading dogs have been found in shelters, just as Higgins was.

Other Animals He Trained

While Inn trained several famous animal actors, the others he worked with have faded into obscurity. As animal trainers have often gone uncredited, it's impossible to know just how many films and TV shows he worked on.

For example, not much is known about Tramp, the dog from My Three Sons (1960-1972), the chimpanzees from Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (1970), or the many animals featured in The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971). As Inn trained them all, there's a chance he eventually took them home to keep as pets, as he often did, so they wouldn't be euthanized once they retired.

The last record of Inn's career is as a dog trainer for the film Kansas City (1996).

Tramp the Dog with the rest of the cast of My Three Sons (1960-1972)

Tramp the Dog with the rest of the cast of My Three Sons (1960-1972)

DVD cover of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (1970), a one-season television show featuring a cast of chimpanzees

DVD cover of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (1970), a one-season television show featuring a cast of chimpanzees

Actress Donna Douglas on the set of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)

Actress Donna Douglas on the set of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)

Later Life

Inn was married to Juanita Heard from 1946 until her death in 1996. They had three children. After she died, Inn retired and spent his time looking after his vast menagerie of pets, writing poetry, and training a new generation of animal trainers.

In 1998, Inn was honored by the American Humane Association (AHA) for popularizing shelter pet adoption—particularly that of mixed-breed dogs—with his own adoption of Higgins. The event took place at the annual AHA conference in Anaheim, CA and included the unveiling of a special portrait of Higgins's famed character, Benji. The portrait was donated to Burbank Animal Shelter, where Higgins was adopted from.

In 2001, the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) developed their own Hall of Fame to honor those who have made a positive impact for dogs. Inn was their first choice, and he became the first person ever inducted into the IACP Hall of Fame.

Inn's health began to worsen in early 2002, so he moved into a nursing home. He died in July of that year at age 86. Unfortunately, California laws had changed and wouldn't allow him to be buried with his pets' ashes as he wished. The ashes were left to his children, and Inn was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills next to his wife.

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 18, 2020:

A great and well-deserved tribute to Frank Inn. His recovery from accident was a miracle and his work with the animals was exceptional!

Readmikenow on October 13, 2020:

Excellent article. I always have taken for granted the animals that appeared in movies and television. I failed to understand there had to be a highly-skilled trainer behind them. I enjoyed reading this.