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Uggie The Artist Dog's Trainer Omar Von Muller: The Man Behind the Dog

Uggie
Uggie
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
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."

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