Animals play important roles in movies and on television. Puppies, kittens, crows, rats and snakes—they elicit eeks and awws, and many of them achieve true stardom. From Mr. Ed to Lassie to Willy the Whale, we love onscreen animal stars. Sometimes they warm our hearts and sometimes we’re terrified of them but they always make an impression.
But we mustn’t forget the supporting players, those hardworking creatures whose silly antics or slobbery displays of affection contribute so mightily to our enjoyment of what we see on the screen. Without Cheeta, Tarzan would have been just another man in a loincloth and those are a dime a dozen. Dorothy without Toto? A dumb kid who couldn’t read a map.
Imagine, though, if some of those celluloid sidekicks had been cast differently.
What if Cheeta was a moose? “Cheeta! No more bananas!” would likely have done little to correct mischievous behavior but it is interesting to consider the hilarious visuals of Cheeta trying to keep his antlers from getting caught in vines.
Imagine Don Corleone on his daughter’s wedding day, listening to pleas from people who needed his help. Imagine him, sitting impassively, stroking not a cat in his lap but a billy goat.
“Don Corleone, my daughter, she has fallen in love with a boy…”
“What? Luigi! Put down the desk blotter! Tom, get the desk blotter out of Luigi’s mouth.”
“…but the boy is being deported…”
“Luigi! Tom, now he has my shoe. Help me here, will you?”
A cat in a lap is a common cinematic trope. Think of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever. Now think of Mr. Blofeld—and his double—bantering with James Bond while holding fishbowls in their laps. In each fishbowl was a single neon tetra. Considering that it would have been difficult for 007 to stomp his foot at a neon tetra, causing it to lurch at the real Blofeld, I think the producers took the proper course in this situation.
What would Green Acres have been without Arnold Ziffel? Just one more sit-com set in a hillbilly town with an erudite New York lawyer and his Hungarian wife as leads, that’s what. Arnold Ziffel carried that show. But just think of the possibilities if Arnold Ziffel were a parakeet. Oh, how folks would have laughed at Fred Ziffel inviting his parakeet Arnold to change the channel on the TV or help with the dinner dishes.
Do you remember The Boys From Brazil? I do. Think of the ending, in which Dr. Mengele is shredded by a pack of vicious Doberman Pinschers, and then imagine instead the Angel of Death attacked by six angry Yorkies. I can see that.
Those of us of a certain age watched Baretta every Thursday night and recognized Fred the cockatoo as a true co-star to Robert Blake. But what if Baretta shared his dingy apartment with a hamster? Oh, the hilarity!
Returning to The Wizard of Oz, no one didn’t love little Toto, but imagine if Dorothy had gone on her adventures in the company of her Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm. The ants’ intricate network of tunnels would have provided an obvious and convenient metaphor for Dorothy’s own odyssey back to Kansas.
Animal pals are not limited to real life. They live in the animated world, too. Pebbles Flintstone’s fun-buddy was Dino the dinosaur, but couldn’t she have had just as much valuable companionship with an adorable animated woolly mammoth? I think so.
And the Jetsons? Everybody has a dog or a cat, but I think Elroy might have been a good match for a pot-bellied pig. Pot-bellied pigs are funny, especially animated ones from the space-future.
Can you think of other alternate casting scenarios for movie and TV animals?