MR. WINKLE IS THAT CHARMING LITTLE DOWNY PUFF OF A DOG WHOSE big warm marbles for eyes and russet fur make him look like a living stuffed animal. The one you might have seen dressed up as an angel or a witch on T-shirts, mugs, posters and the Web site that made him an international celebrity: mrwinkle.com. He's the one whose slightly too-long legs and tremulous sideways gait give him the juvenile innocence of a newborn pony or a furry Bambi in miniature forever venturing out onto the ice. The one whose tongue always sticks out from under that little bittersweet chocolate-brown nose and those sympathetic Marty Feldman eyes gazing out widely and innocently to delight all onlookers and summon the soft core of even the most hardened military retiree. The one who, when you see him, makes you say lookatthelittleguy and ohymygod the whole thing is justsogoddamnCUTE!
I admit that I melted instantly when I happened to meet Mr. Winkle on the street a few years back. A friend and I were sitting outside at a café when Mr. Winkle came trotting down Hillhurst, and soon enough we were playing with him, holding him, marveling over how preternaturally cute he is:
"Check out little dude right here."
"Mr. Winkle? He totally looks like a Mr. Winkle."
"Does his tongue always stick out like that?"
"Really -- always?"
"What kind of dog is he?"
"You almost can't believe he's real."
"You know what you should do? You should clone him!"
"Totally. Have a whole army of Mr. Winkles running around."
"For real. Or like T-shirts or something with his face. People would totally buy them."
Little did we know that Mr. Winkle, maybe the world's cutest one-of-a-kind mutt, was well on his way to being franchised. His owner, Los Angeles photographer Lara Jo Regan, realized that she could dress little Mr. Winkle as any kind of character, take pictures and make a brisk business putting his image on calendars. Very quickly, the Mr. Winkle enterprise took off. Only two years after launching her own Web site to offer just a few items, there are now Mr. Winkle cards, books and, starting this month, a new plush toy.
In the past year, Mr. Winkle's been doing his sideways scuttle up that logarithmic incline that turns footnotes into media phenomena, and he's had an accelerating schedule of publicity appearances in bookstores, at charity events, on the Today show (twice), Rosie and Sex and the City. Fans have waited six hours in the rain to see him. At his last New York book signing, Mr. Winkle drew a larger crowd than Bill Clinton. All of this makes Mr. Winkle perhaps the biggest celebrity dog of all time. He's huge in Japan (of course). The United Kingdom is especially fond of him; several Oxford dons reportedly have Mr. Winkle paraphernalia on their walls. Even the Germans have taken heart of "His Royal Cuteness"; I went to Berlin this summer, and within 24 hours three separate people had asked me if I had heard of "Herr Vinkel."
"He's taking his sudden celebrity in stride," Regan says, as Mr. Winkle ambles around the living-room floor of his owner's apartment, preparing for his next photo shoot. This time, he will portray Camille Claudel, Rodin's neglected mistress, and Fionne the costume designer is due to show up with the first attempt at the artist's frock. Walter, an administrative helper, is in the other room filling Web-site orders. Daryl, the assistant photographer, comes in and out with equipment. Behind us is a 2-foot pile of reject prototypes for the Mr. Winkle stuffed animal; pieces of sets and props from previous shoots are strewn throughout the room. In the midst of it all, Mr. Winkle radiates puppy charm.
"I can't believe all this myself sometimes," Regan says. "I mean, look at him!" Mr. Winkle perks his head up on cue. "We even got picked up by a limo last week to go to the set for his latest TV appearance. But I don't think it goes to his head."
Mr. Winkle doesn't get impatient, demand a special trailer or want Persian caviar, Regan says. He's just as he was when she found him on the industrial edge of Bakersfield, only happier and healthier. "He does favor chicken, and likes me to feed it to him out of my hand," she says, adding that this preference comes out of anxiety rather than vanity.
We wander across the street where Chris, the set designer, has readied the scenery for today's shoot in his garage. (All the principals of Team Winkle happen to live on the same block in Los Feliz, one whose location must remain undisclosed, due to numerous credible threats about Mr. Winkle being kidnapped or plucked for his genetic material.) Surrounded by little empty wine bottles (Claudel was a drinker) and miniature sculpting tools, Mr. Winkle sits in a diorama depicting a 19th-century atelier.
"Let's dust his frock with clay, you know, like he's been up all night, drinking and working and cursing Rodin," Regan says. "And I think the buttons needs to be sewn so they don't hang down so much. See? Like this?" Mr. Winkle endures all the activity sitting quietly in pose. Regan puts one of his paws higher on the sculpture, and it stays there.
"Is he always so pliable?" I ask.
"Oh yes!" everyone competes to say. He's so good-natured he doesn't mind being in costume and under lights for hours at a time. He even gets into character, they insist. "He knows when to look like he's having fun," says Regan, "or when to be serious or when to turn on that tragicomic essence."
Which is what must have happened while we were talking because when we looked back at Mr. Winkle, we all feel compelled to fawn over him. Mr. Winkle's charm, it seems, never wears off, even on the people who work with him all the time.
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Between making adjustments to his clothes and props, they're taking pictures and waving at him like parents seeing their newborn's first smile. When, after 15 minutes or so, Mr. Winkle finally gets tired and slowly flops over, looking like an exhausted Claudel at daybreak, a new round of smiles and pictures erupt. "As corny as it sounds," Regan says, "he just brings a lot of love to a lot of people."
Regan has volumes of e-mails with stories about how Mr. Winkle helps people resolve family conflicts or overcome depression or lift the spirits of the infirm. "One family," Regan explains, "told me how their grandmother was listless in her hospital bed, but when they brought in a Mr. Winkle book, she loved the sight of him so much she began talking again." And then there are the sick children. I've seen the e-mails from kids with cancer or other terminal illnesses with subject lines like "Thank you for giving me hope." They tell Regan, or Mr. Winkle directly, that he has had a therapeutic effect on their treatment. Others wish to meet him before they die. All of this can make his book signings a little like a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a place where people want to brush with a mysterious source of inspiration.
"One of the reasons I started this," Regan says as we get back at her apartment, "was as a safety valve. I felt I had to let out the cuteness somehow, share it with others. Otherwise we all might have blown over here." Regan believes that by directing Mr. Winkle's concentrate of energy outward he can positively charge people's lives. That's why she doesn't want Mr. Winkle to be too big a star; it wouldn't be in keeping with his message, which is about goodwill. So they have together controlled his trajectory of success. Mr. Winkle doesn't "do" wine tastings or art openings. All proceeds from his TV appearances are donated to charities that help animals. The approaches from corporations who'd like to brand Mr. Winkle into the stratosphere have been rebuffed. And where most celebrities do the charity circuit as an afterthought, to "give back," Mr. Winkle's entire celebrity has been built on what you would call giving back.
"Doesn't he look like he wants to help people?" Regan says. Mr. Winkle is standing by a Styrofoam cup of dog food, looking at his owner, waiting for something to happen. "And in return," she says, digging her fingers into the cup to scoop out a few of the soupy cubes inside, "all he wants is a little chicken."