This document is brought to you from the archives of
The Santa Barbara BBS Nostalgia Page
and is featured exclusively at
The Swagazine Rack

Rin Tin Tin Speaks!
by Colin Campbell


Rin Tin Tin has been a legend in Hollywood for over fifty years yet he remains an enigma. Star of the silver screen and the small screen alike, his private life has remained private throughout his career, in sharp distinction to other stars of his stature.

Born Reichsbaron von Krieghund in Peir Pointe, Louisiana on April 18, 1911, Rinty served two years in the K-9 Corps, then wandered the country working as a watchdog, sheepdog, and fraternity mascot before trying his paw at acting. After making the tough transition from the silents to the talkies successfully, he gradually found roles harder and harder to find, Except for a brief resurgence in the 50's on television he was not much in the public eye until the turbulent 60's, when he campaigned for a dog rights group called the "Anti-Specist League." His media blitz for the group was eclipsed by the Watts Riots and never captured the attention he felt was due.

I'd heard rumors that a new Rin Tin Tin movie was due for release by Untied Artists, I contacted his agent and requested an interview, which was granted late this spring. I arrived at "Rin"s magnificent Montecito home late in the morning. I found him to be in remarkable physical condition but quite eccentric mentally; he refused to discuss Lassie, whom he termed a hermaphrodite, or to talk about the recent movie Won Ton Ton (due to pending litigation, he said); he insisted also on terming his award for most popular movie of 1926 an Oscar, although no Oscars were awarded until 1927. He was a gracious host, however, serving me a hair of the dog of his own concoction. We began by talking about his new movie, Canine Sativa:

CC: The movie concept of a hero has changed dramatically since you began your movie career. The accent is on realism, rather than the gung-ho heroism that stamped your work. Does your upcoming movie reflect this change?

RTT: Well, you have to go with the market. You wouldn't believe it, they wanted me to play the airport dope sniffer, you know? I mean, I'm against drugs as much as anybody, but I told 'em, Look, if we do this script, we lose half the market. All those damned kids out there smoke, you know, and how can you expect them to enjoy seeing kids getting sent to jail by a dog? Bad for the image, too. Besides, it was supposed to be something different, something out of the ordinary. I re-wrote the whole thing, I always get script control or I won't do the movie. It's a comedy and a love story: Bruce Dern, running to avoid the Mob, hides out in Elizabeth Ashley's house, where I also live. Dern owes the Mob a lot of marijuana; I sniff it out for him, and the Mobsters exit, seething.

CC: Did you do your own stunt work in Canine Sativa?

RTT: Hell, no. Would you climb up a two-story garage, leap onto the phone wire, walk on it to the house, and jump from there through a closed window? Not me! I'm 68 years old, after all. No, we used stuntdogs. In the old days we used to deny it. All of us. Tom Mix always claimed to do his own stunts; what a laugh. For him, wearing a hat was a stunt. I had specialists: a jump-off- the-ledge-at-your-throat stuntdog, a ladder-climbing stuntdog, even a knot- tying stuntdog. Of course, in the old days it was different. I wasn't a star, who cared what happened to me? I broke in as a stuntdog that's why they always gave me the build-up about doing my own stunts, later. But I did stuff like in To Hell With the Kaiser, my first movie, that was really dangerous. Nobody's ever heard of that clinker; it was a Z movie even in 1918. Anyway, I only had a bit part. There was a scene where a dog was supposed to crawl across the battlefield with a grenade in his mouth, knock/the smoke-stack lid of a German underground bunker, and drop the grenade down. They tried two dogs before using me. Now, this was the old silent days, and lots of movie people didn't really understand what they were doing. They gave us real grenades, since they were so much cheaper than special-effect grenades. The guys in the trench pull the pin, see, and then the dog is supposed to keep the little arm down until he drops the grenade down the stack. The first two dogs were sort of stupid. They set the grenade on the ground before they knocked the lid off, then tried to pick it back up again. They both got their heads blown off. I was scared shitless when it was my turn, but I had been watching and had figured how to do it. The lid was purposely loose, and I knocked it off with my paws.

CC: That was long before your Academy Award...

RTT: Oh, God, yes. I didn't even get screen credit. And the money was terrible. I worked nights as a watchdog, earning just enough to starve on. I mean, I couldn't even afford dog food. Or table scraps. I was trying to get into vaudeville, but it was dying out, and people didn't like dog acts that much anyway. To Hell With The Kaiser was my first break. I'm afraid it typecast me a bit, though. Six years later, 1924, was my first really big picture, Find Your Man. And what was I doing? Wandering around another fucking battlefield, spotting wounded men for the medics. Still, I got top billing which made Chuck Farrell awful mad. What a mess that was. He played the medic and argued endlessly that a human shouldn't be second billed to a dog -- typical specist attitude. He kept demanding weird things, like a dressing room bigger than mine, as many hair stylists, that sort of thing. We finally had to tell him to shut up about it or get off the picture.

CC: We?

RTT: My manager and I. I don't want to talk about that bastard. I don't even want to hear his name. I know it's an old story in this business, but he robbed me blind.

CC: Okay. After you became known, you acquired a reputation as difficult on the set, often being accused of snapping at directors...

RTT: Well, looking back at it, I guess I was a bit cocky. I didn't think so at the time, though. I had gotten out of my old contract and signed with Warner Brothers for more money than you'd believe. I felt like a big star, and I figured I should get big-star treatment. I turned down scripts left and right, which drove my manager nuts. I wanted to direct, I even wanted to do camera work, but I kept fogging the viewfinder. If I thought a scene needed work, I didn't hesitate to do it my way which led to a lot of fights. But the only ones I actually bit were Norma Talmadge and Jackie Coogan. Coogan, I just couldn't work with him. He'd just done that Chaplin movie, he was hot. The Kid, or something like that. We were together on A Dog of Flanders; Coogan made them change it to A Boy of Flanders. He was always pulling my ears or stepping on my tail when nobody was looking, and one day I just couldn't take it any more. That was the only time I got kicked off a picture. They got some mutt to take my place. They had to do a lot of re-shooting, went way over budget. Then, without me in it, it played two weeks in Hicksville and nobody's seen it since.

CC: Did you always have trouble with children?

RTT: Oh, no, no. I generally knew how to handle kids. I did the casting myself after that and made sure I had compatible people.

CC: Sheila Graham charged that you always selected only actors you considered second-rate, so you would have no competition. Were you unsure of your acting ability?

RTT: Me? Unsure of my acting ability? That's a howler. I won an Oscar, didn't I? A Dog of the Regiment, 1926. Most popular picture of the year. You see, I was always friendly with the younger actors. I came up the hard way myself; I knew how tough it was to get into the movies. I gave a lot of fine but struggling young actors their first big break in Hollywood. It's not my fault most of them didn't go on to become stars; luck has a lot of influence in this business. Like the kid who played Rusty in my TV series. We were looking for the right kid, and we kept getting these precious Hollywood darlings, you know? They could tap dance and twirl flaming batons while they sang Yankee Doodle, but I couldn't see any of them yelling "Yo, Rinty!" realistically, let alone riding a burning stage- coach into a patch of quicksand so I could save them. We looked at maybe 80 kids one morning, then broke for lunch. On the way to the restaurant I saw this street kid fighting off two or three other kids, trying hard but obviously losing. I told the chauffeur to stop, jumped out and chased the other kids away, then offered Rusty a job in the series. I never regretted it. I understand Rusty has left the business, now. Last I heard he was working as an abalone diver.

CC: You were one of the pioneers in television, one of the first big stars to go to the small screen. Were conditions in TV different from the movies?

RTT: Let's not mince words. I was on my ass, broke as hell. In those days, working on the tube was the ultimate come-down for a Hollywood star. But they had me over a barrel. These days it doesn't matter any more, but I had a couple of costly paternity suits to hush up. Things are different now. I see Berle is bragging about his conquests in his book. But what was I supposed to do? Those bitches kept coming around...I never did go for the other show-biz dogs at all, though. All that stuff about Asta was just studio hype. At any rate, they came around with this TV contract, and I needed the money. I felt very, well, diminished working in TV. I tried to get all my work for the year done in a month or so, then work on other projects or just relax for the rest of the year. Fred MacMurray used the same gimmick in his show: we shot all the scenes with me in them in July, then the rest of the cast worked till December or so filling in. I was already getting old; I really couldn't handle the pace any more, much as a I hated to admit it. I used a lot of doubles and stuntdogs. I tried to do all the scenes with Rusty myself, though. He was scared to death of dogs and didn't really trust any of the doubles, especially when the script called for a dog to untie him, which was almost every episode. But he was a pretty good kid. For some scenes I'd give him maybe sixty or seventy lines and require him to memorize all of them. Rusty had trouble remembering his name, sometimes, let alone his lines. I'd bare my teeth and growl at him when he forgot, and force him to complete the scene, making up dialog if he had to, we were on a short budget. Some of those trapped-in-a-cave scenes and captured-by-Indian scenes worked so well because he wasn't acting fear, he was genuinely frightened.

CC: You're on record as being against specism in Hollywood. Yet in six seasons of your TV series, not one other breed of dog had a role.

RTT: Well, there's specism and racism. I guess you could call me a racist; I'm a German Shepherd, and I never felt comfortable playing anything else. There are some fine German Shepherds in show biz...Bullet...but each race has it's place, right? Could you see me as Cleo, for instance? Or as Benjie? Maybe I could have done Yukon King, but that would have been stretching it. I think the image of dogs has deteriorated quite a bit...Snoopy... but there are still roles that can't be switched from breed to breed. Could you see a St. Bernard as Toto? I turned the part of Toto down, you know. Maybe it was a mistake, it turned out to be a terrific role. But I thought it would be a terrible miscasting for me. Toto was a friend of mine, I sent him over to the studio, and he clicked. He made his name in that picture, but I already had a big name. I was glad he was a success.

CC: Speaking of names, "Rin-Tin-Tin" isn't your real name, is it?

RTT: So who used their real names back then? You can be a Snodgrass or a Humperdinck today if you want, but back then names had to be euphonic, or describe the character to some extent; I mean, there was Harry Ham, Bessie Love, Grace Darling, Arline Pretty, names like that. Also, you have to remember the First World War was going on when I was trying to break into pictures with a name like Reichsbaron von Krieghund. I ran into Teddy, the dog who was very big in comedies over at Keystone, at a party and he gave me a lot of valuable pointers. He helped me quite a bit, and I was quite saddened by his death last year, even though we had that falling-out in 1920. Which wasn't as big a deal as the papers tried to make it. Anyway, he told me about stage names, which I had never heard of. There wasn't an actor in town with a name that sounded even remotely German, of course, because of the war, so I already had two strikes against me, being a German Shepherd. At that party Teddy told me his real name, which was sort of a secret at the time. It was really noisy at that party, and I honestly thought he was suggesting a stage name for me. I was really surprised about all those court things over who was the original Rin-Tin-Tin. The name-change helped; at least, I got the bit part with the grenade soon after that. Then things started going better; I started getting roles as heavies in the flock of anti-German propaganda movies, you know, leaping on the helpless American at the command of the Gestapo. No, wait, that was later. But it was the same thing. I didn't get any leading roles till after the war. After I did The Hell With The Kaiser the anti-German feelings were too high for me to play heroes. Hell, they even renamed sauerkraut for the duration, called it "Liberty Cabbage." That's true. They used good Allied dogs for the good guys in the movies. Brave French Poodles ignored machine guns a and mortar fire to slash the throats of the Hun. Still, I learned a lot doing those films, and after the war I hit my stride. We were careful for a while, I was always sort of half wolf or something, and avoided doing war stories. I rescued more small children than you'd believe.

CC: Do you rescue any children in Canine Sativa?

RTT: Ouch. Yeah, I do, and I know how tacky it sounds. I tried to talk them out of it, but they said, "Rin, baby, this is a truly moving scene that mothers all over America will identify with." They also though it would somehow make plausible the scene a while later where I land the marijuana-loaded airplane while the handcuffed Bruce Dern shouts instructions to me. I almost quit over that scene, and I've done some pretty ridiculous scenes in the past. Do you realize how many times I've set off an abandoned revolver that was by chance aimed exactly at a menace?

CC: You sound as though you feel that roles for dogs in movies are inherently limited...yet you are the most activist of the anti-specists. How do you reconcile that?

RTT: Roles for dogs are not limited, not any more than roles for blacks. Forty years ago you had to be Stepin Fetchitt to be black and work in movies, but things are different now. There are many roles today that a dog could play as well as a man could, but there's species prejudice. Look, I'll tell you a story. About two years ago my agent called up, bursting with excitement. ABC had a new cop show coming up, Starsky and Hutch, and Sol had sold them the idea of me playing Hutch. They were worried about my physical condition, considering my age, but Sol convinced them that my age doesn't show at all, which it doesn't, as I think you'll agree.

CC: You look surprisingly fit, for your age.

RTT: Thank you. I went down to the studio to sign, on Cloud 9 because of this breakthrough for the anti-specists, and then it turns out that Sol, the klutz, hadn't told them I was a dog. I knew I had that part, I could play it with my tail tied down, but they wouldn't give it to me. Just because I'm a dog. Oh, they came up with fancy excuses. "What if, in a scene, Starsky is shot and Hutch has to radio for help? Huh?" I've radioed for help, dialed phones and barked SOS for help, fired guns for help, and I'm a whole lot of help all by myself. Did you ever see that bit where I gave treatment to a rattlesnake victim? I carefully slashed the wound with my teeth, then...

CC: Uh, yes, I saw it. But do you think the viewing public is able to believe those stunts? These days, you need credibility...

RTT: Look, I'll grant that humans are a lot smarter than dogs. But you couldn't have built your civilization without us. Dogs, too, have worked to build this world into what it is today. True, we've benefited, but dog food and flea collars aren't enough. I don't want dogs to be left behind. Dogs have gone everywhere with mankind. We went to the North and South poles; many of us died, but we didn't complain, it was our adventure too. We were first into space. We guard your lives, yet you maintain gas chambers for us. Sorry, I got carried away. But it's true: there's a specist conspiracy against dogs. Four years ago I found a script by a great, a just tremendous writer. I took it to the studios, to the networks, nobody wanted it. It was aching to be done, it was so good. It was timely and had a hell of an impact. All you saw in the papers was hijack, hijack, skyjack. They put in sky marshals, X-ray machines, and the planes kept getting ripped off. Everybody had a plan: sleeping gas, armor doors, gallows on the runway. I was to play the first of a new breed, the sky dogs. We actually made a pilot, I was so sure this would make it. Six Arab guerillas take over this emergency hospital flight out of a disaster area. (Well, we had to shake it up a little.) I feign extreme friendliness toward the hijackers, taking advantage of that to slowly and carefully disarm or hide all their bombs and guns. The tension really built, because you never knew if the Arabs would find out.

CC: But it didn't sell?

RTT: Have you ever seen it, dummy?

CC: We're just about out of time. Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?

RTT: Well, I've been talking to Norman Lear a lot lately, but I can't really say anything about that at present. I was a consultant on A Boy and His Dog, and I have a few possibilities on a sequel. I recently won a court battle over the syndication rights of the old TV show, so I have a little money right now; I'm looking for a good property. But, realistically, I'm 68. I don't have that much time left. I've lived a better life than most dogs, been more places, smelled more things, and I'm fairly content. My energies these days go mostly toward the Anti-Specist League, which I started in 1966. If I can get one, just one honest dog film on the air or in the theaters in the time I have left, I'll know that I've not lived in vain.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara News & Review, December 6, 1979

Copyright © 1979 by Colin Campbell. All rights reserved.