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James Belushi: Still Top Dog

by debi lee mandel

The dOc participated in a press tele-conference with Jim Belushi Wednesday to promote Universal's upcoming release of K-9: P.I. to DVD. Topics ranged from dogs and kids to, well, dogs and kids. Our hosts opened the forum so that we all had free access to this very comfortable and amiable star. Belushi may refer to himself as "second banana," but there's little doubt he's an alpha male. And yes, there's "talk" about a fourth K-9 installment....

The following is transcribed from the press conference; the "niceties" have been edited for brevity.

Universal Studio Home Video: Press Tele-conference with James Belushi

July 24, 2002
1:00 p.m. [EDT]

Moderator: Before we start, just so you all know, we're here again to talk about K-9: PI. It [comes] out on video and DVD July 30th. It's the third [installment in the series] and we're all set to go.
Q: Okay, this is your third go-around. I guess WC Fields is wrong about working with animals and children?

Jim: Absolutely. He was a drunk. He didn't like anybody let alone children and dogs. I love children, I love dogs; they suit me very well. From Curly Sue to K-9 to this According to Jim I'm doing now, I have three kids in it.

Q: Now has it been the same dog all three times or different?

Jim: Different dogs. This one was King who was really a stud. I mean, this guy, he could paint your house for you. With the right hot dog treat, he would do it. This dog King actually was, when K-9 was such a big hit, and especially in Germany, they started a television series based on K-9 and Carl Miller and his daughter Teresa [used] to get the dogs and train the dogs for that TV series. It's a huge hit in Germany, this dog show.

Q: Is it a weekly series in Germany?

Jim: It's a weekly hour show. I mean, it's not based on our movie, but it was stimulated by our movie.

Q: How long has that been running now, Jim?

Jim: Eight years. So Teresa has been over there every year for eight years working German Shepherds for this series. And King is an East German dog that she has been bringing in slowly into the series for the last three years, and in the last year King was the number one dog. Then she brought King over to shoot the movie. This dog can dance on barrels. I mean, he did barrel tricks, he's just amazing. The one photo, I hate to talk so much, but I love these dogs, the one photo that we did on the original K-9 series where the poster's me and the dog's got his paw on my shoulder, we're both looking at the camera, that took about two hours to get in the photo shoot. With King, it took us three minutes. I mean, King was like put your paw up, put it there, look over here, here, here, shoot, shoot, shoot, done.

Q: Jim, on the DVD you had some commentary and you were talking about how each dog you work with is an individual. And you were like describing the traits of the first Jerry Lee and the second one and how they got to be better actors. How does it change the way you work with them and what is it that trainers do to make them different?

Jim: Well, the trainers don't do anything different. The dogs are like people. I mean, they're just born certain ways. {Rondo], who was the first dog in the first movie, he was a prima donna. I mean, he was a good-looking dog. He had a close-up that the camera just loved and he knew it. So he was a little just, he was a little more moody, a little more snotty, maybe, even.

King is a workman's dog. He's like there for you, happy to be there. Just loves the gig. He's more like me, just kind of a working man's dog and a working dog's man.

Q: I was just wondering, do you have shepherds yourself?

Jim: I have two shepherds.

Q: Was this something that started when you started doing the movies, the K-9 movies?

Jim: I had a golden retriever for years, and the only bad thing about a dog is when you get a dog, you're making an agreement to have your heart broken because you always live longer. And Memo, my golden, just broke my heart. But when I was in Ireland doing some publicity, we went and visited these people on an estate and we stayed overnight in their coach house and they had these beautiful shepherds - Shutzenfre and Core Class shepherds - and they were protection dogs. And I go, "Oh, you know, I always wanted a shepherd. I worked with so many of them." And they said, "Oh, too bad, because we just gave the last puppy away." And I said, "Oh no, no, I don't really mean give me a dog. I was just kind of..." Well, nine months later they called and they said, "Do you still want the dog?" They shipped me the brother and the sister of this wonderful litter. And, Truly-her name is Truly Scrumptious, and Choo-choo Train is the male-Truly made her debut in K-9: PI.

Q: Is she a body double or something?

Jim: No. I got in a big fight with the producers. They thought I was having this big ego trip. I said, "I want a special credit for Truly: "Introducing Truly Belushi as Jackie." So there's a scene where we go to meet the German couple and we're going to mate, you know, I'm trying to get the dog mated and that little dog, the German Shepherd that they're holding is Truly.

Q: Wow.

Jim: Yeah, it was her debut.

Q: Is there any jealousy at the house now, since she made the cut and the brother didn't?

Jim: Okay, now you're making a joke here, but it's very truthful that that day I had to have my stand-in take Chooch for a long walk, because he knows, he's the alpha dog. He knows every move she makes and he does get jealous, and he would weasel his head in. And not only that, you know what he'd really do? He'd punish her. So we did have to kind of sneak around.

So Chooch, we needed a female dog, so Chooch couldn't do it, so we went with Truly. I'm with them right now, actually. I take them wherever I go.

Q: What brought your back to doing K-9: PI? Did you find that this was a more original story, that you enjoyed the first couple times so much? A lot of actors don't want to duplicate what they've done before.

Jim: Well, I don't know, acting is duplicating. I mean, in the theater you're just trying to duplicate the performance of the night before and it takes about three months to actually fill out the full progression of the character on stage, and that's eight shows a week. After about three months, then it's really duplicating, then it's like you're done. But the K-9 series and the According to Jim series I'm doing, I'm finding each time that there's a lot more room in the character and the relationships to grow, so it's a continual challenge and I enjoy the challenge.

Also, I love making a family film. I have kids now and I can't show them Salvador yet. And I say "son of a bitch" too many times in The Principal. So basically all they can see is Curly Sue and I want them to know I have a bigger career than that.

Q: Do you have any plans for a fourth K-9?

Jim: We're talking about it. I want to do K-9 Secret Agent, but it's just in the talking stage now. I guess it's determined on how well this does.

Q: Now looking at it, there's been a huge character arc between the three movies, and quite a lot of time in there. How different...

Jim: Quite a lot of weight. Quite a lot of pounds.

Q: It's not noticeable.

Jim: Oh, thank you so much!

Q: How did you approach the character given the different vantage point?

Jim: I don't know. I really didn't think about it, I just kind of did it. The only vantage point that I really hold on tightly to in the process is that it's very important to maintain the relationship of the dog. My question to the writers and the director and the producer, every day I would harp on them, "Where's the dog? Where's the dog? Where's the dog in this scene? What's the dog doing in this scene?" I always felt that was the most important element in the movie was the personification of a dog and trying not to make it a Disney dog. You know, make it a real dog. What I mean by Disney dog is a dog that can walk, talk and think.

Q: Like Snow Dogs.

Jim: Yes. Which, by the way, I was a voice in Snow Dogs.

Q: Yes, Demon.

Jim: Demon. Yes.

Q: Jim, you were talking about "it's about the dog." That's on the DVD, too. The director says, "I have to tell Jim it's about the dog." How does that make you feel?

Jim: I know, I know my place. I know what's important here. I know it's about the dog and the relationship with the dog. I work, it's really tough to be a really good second banana and I worked my ass off to make that dog look good. The only difference between the dog and me is I make just a little bit more money then him.

Q: How much time is there standing around sort of waiting for the dog's reaction or is that cut differently? What is it like for you to have to react to something as unpredictable as an animal?

Jim: Well, my training is in improvisation and so the great thing about improvisation is you have to be in the moment. The thing about, I'll tell you why people don't like to work with dogs and children is because they are in the moment more than any actor can be. What draws your eye on stage or on screen is to the actor who is the most concentrated and who's most in the moment. Therefore, they don't want to work with dogs and animals because they steal the scene because they are more concentrated.

But for me, it's my training to be in unpredictable situation with an actor. What that does is it pulls me into a higher focus. So I get excited, once they say, "Action," let's see where the scene's going to go. I mean, that's where we caught a little bit of the magic in each one of these is some of the improvised stuff.

Q: Jim, not to age you, but the first one, if I'm not mistaken, was 1989. Are you ready to have the children of people who are kids when the first one came out, have them pop their kids in front of the TV set to watch this thing?

Q: Well, it's only 13 years.

Q: If the kid was eight or nine back then...

Jim: Right. It'd be about 21.

Q: Something like that.

Jim: Actually, my first boy is 21. He was on the set. He was nine years old. You're right. That's right. Yeah, plop them in front of it.

Q: Well it's completely different for dogs. Isn't that 91 in dog years, though, so it's like a completely different, multiple generations there.

Jim: You're right!

Q: Now, has Animal Planet come knocking yet[?]

Jim: That was one of my favorite interviews. I did an Animal Planet interview up in Vancouver when we shot this. I took my dogs out and showed them all the tricks I taught my dog. It was my favorite interview to do. But you have to understand, I love animals, I mean, I love dogs. So to be on Animal Planet is like a big deal for me.

Q: Jim, are your dogs just pets or are they show dogs?

Jim: My dogs are pets. I mean, I don't show them, I don't compete them, but I have done some with them. Some protection work. Let's just put it this way, when I leave town, my wife feels very safe.

Q: Are you drawn to the show dog world at all? You're really thinking about companions.

Jim: Yes. It's more about the companionship.

Q: Do you have a big yard? I mean, you don't live in an apartment anymore?

Jim: No, I don't have a big yard and that's a problem because shepherds need at least two miles a day of a walk or a run, so I'm out on the street quite a bit. I'm actually the Neighborhood Watch program all in one because I'm out on that street walking these two German Shepherds all the time. I know everybody in the neighborhood, I know what's going on. I pick up garbage off the street and I turn off lights in cars that leave them on. I'm kind of this guy who walks his dog.

Q: Is this still near Chicago?

Jim: No, I'm in Los Angeles.

Q: Do they have scooper laws out there?

Jim: Oh, I carry baggies with me all the time. I've picked up more sh** than you can imagine. After 15 years of owning dogs, I've become a very good doctor, by the way. I can tell you how they're feeling by their poop. Actually, in my house with two babies and two dogs, the conversation is all about poop. Did they go, did they go, did they [go]? Did you walk them? Did you walk them? Did they go? They just peed? Didn't poop? Did they poop? Was the poop okay? The baby poop, the baby pooped. Oh good, the baby pooped. Oh, she didn't poop, that's why she's so crabby. I mean, we're eating dinner talking about poop.

Q: Jim, that actually sounds like it would be a good episode for the Greedy Show.

Jim: Yes.

Q: Can I ask you a question about that?

Jim: Yes, it's not family.

Q: There's a baby in one of them, it's very funny, doesn't say very much though...

Jim: [The] baby drop? That's a funny scene.

Q: Yes, it is. I'd like to know a little bit about the process. I'm really fascinated with more creative uses of the Internet and I'm also wondering if you have any plans to collect them on DVD at some point.

Jim: The process is just like doing animated cartoons. We did the writing and we did the recording and we tightened it up and then we gave it to the animators.

Q: But it's much more limited on the Internet.

Jim: That flash was pretty sophisticated.

Q: Oh, the flash was fabulous.

Jim: We've never thought of putting it out on DVD. Right now it's [Shockwave] and Macromedia and that whole company is just hanging in there, so any kind of expansion stuff they're going to put on the table. They have the rights, actually, to make 13 more if they wanted to, but they never contacted us. I think they're just kind of settling down for a little bit just to make it through this tough time with the economy.

Q: Now, looking back on it, obviously 13 years ago is a long time, but if you can remember, did you actually spend a lot of time with K-9 units?

Jim: Yes, I did. I remember every moment of it.

Q: What was it like?

Jim: It's very funny, because the bad guy on the street will take a shot at a cop, but they freeze when they see a dog. The dog scares the hell out of people on the street.

Q: And it's a different brand of law enforcement, though, because between the two partners - the man and the dog - it's a 24 hour relationship.

Jim: Yes. And that's the problem, because they love their dogs. I mean, one guy had a dog, a Santa Monica guy, his dog was named Bill and he'd been through two wives. He said, "This is the longest and the best relationship I've ever had in my life." Because these guys are in the hold, they know how to protect each other's lives. So when a dog gets shot in the line of duty, these guys really take it hard. They love these animals.

Q: When you went to the character portrayal, apart from the humor did you try to bring that symbiosis and reality into the part?

Jim: Yes, and that's why every day on the set I would go, "Where's the dog, where's the dog? What's the dog doing here? What's the relationship here? Where are we at? Am I angry at him? Why aren't we having him do more? We have to set up conflicts in this relationship." Because the problem with King is, King would do anything you asked, but the tension comes from when he doesn't do what you ask. In every relationship, it's trying to make deals to get things done. So yes, it's all about the relationship.

I don't know if I answered your question.

Q: Yes, you did.

Jim: Okay. No, I value that and that's, again, when we write these new ones, that's the challenge. Otherwise, it's just this straight action piece. What makes it special is this relationship.

Q: So do you have a lot of input in the writing of the script?

Jim: Well, I have an input on the... it's like in the TV show I'm doing, According to Jim, I don't write it, but I put the ["According"] into Jim. I try to get into the context. Same thing with the... I don't really write the movie, but I could tell you where it's going wrong or where the relationships aren't there or present, where it needs more work and trying to keep them on track. Because unless you really have a great relationship with a dog, it's hard to write something because you don't understand how deep a dog goes.

Q: Jim, in between shooting [K-911] and the new one, K-9: PI, you had of course performed as Demon, the voice of Demon, which presumes the mind of Demon. Did being inside the mind of a dog help you at all and form you in this third trip down the K-9 trail?

Jim: No, not at all. I did it in five minutes. I walked into the studio, said four lines and left. Brian Levan said, "Hey, you want to come in and be a dog?" "Yeah, I'll be a dog. What do you want me to do?" But I guess they're making another one and Demon has been expanded. So now I have to do some more character work, because it's a different kind of dog.

Q: Do you think you'll wind up with huskies or malamutes, whatever...

Jim: I probably could. Easily. Just as long as I don't pick up costars along the line. My wife wouldn't approve of that.

Q: Have you watched the new movie with kids yet in the audience?

Jim: No, I have not.

Q: It just seems to me when the dog does some of these great tricks, there's one where he climbs through an air duct or a mine shaft or something, I would expect the kids to like be impressed, too, along with the rest of us. That's hard for anybody to do.

Jim: Yes.

Q: Was that hard to get the dog to do?

Jim: That was one of the big stunts that they used to work with him every other day on. Absolutely, because that was a very claustrophobic kind of place and to do that hind leg elbow walk is tough. It's equivalent of you walking on your knees and elbows in an Army crawl.

Q: But he just dived right in there is what it looked like.

Jim: Well, you have to understand, Carl Miller did Babe. He did all the animals in Babe, okay? If I have trouble doing something on the set, I ask Carl to kind of get me through it. Give me a little hot dog, a little something to get me through it. He's amazing with animals. He's taught me a lot about animals.

Q: It was neat [too], the documentary, the featurette it showed him working with the animals and talking about how he works with them. One of the things he said the trick is to have the dog looking at him, but on the camera we thinks he's looking at you. Did you have to line up with the trainer, is that how you do that?

Jim: Yes. The line is very thin. I mean, a lot of our time is setting that up. It's funny, because in the first one, the first movie I went to Carl's house and worked with Rondo for about two weeks, from 10 in the morning to noon. Five days, two weeks. By the third day, Rondo got excited around that time because he knew I was coming. "Oh, here comes that nice guy with the food." And I got into a relationship with him and we walked together, we did tricks together and I'd give him treats. Carl was really training me more than the dog on how to behave with an animal.

So the first scene we shot, though, was the scene where we get into, I picked the dog up at the pound, this was in the first one, and I take him to the Mustang and he gets into the front seat. And I say, "Get in the back seat." Well when we shot it, he's in the front seat, I come over, I go, "Get in the back seat," and he looks at me and he goes, "Geez, Jim. What are you cranky for. Fine, I'll go in the back seat." And he would go in the back seat, but the gag was that he wouldn't move. So I had to go, "Get in the back seat." And Carl was off camera going, "Stay." And I'm going, "Get in the back seat." And Carl's going, "Stay." And poor Rondo, he got a little confused for a couple days about me. He was going, why is this nice guy, and the problem was, when they go, "Cut," I'd go up to Rondo and go, "Oh, I'm sorry, baby." So it was like torture to the dog that morning. He got over it and he was fine. Believe me, a pork chop can fix a lot of problems. I wish we could do that in our every day relationships.

Q: It's a fun little movie. I liked the surprise party and it just moves from there, it moves pretty quick.

Jim: It does, doesn't it?

Q: You had to see the script beforehand and all that? When you read the script, do you read just the story or do you worry about what it requires you to do with the dog?

Jim: Again, when I read the script, I go, "Where's the dog? What is the life of the dog and what is the life of the relationship?" I mean, again, it's like the sitcom I'm doing, it's like all these jokes have been done with Lucy and Jackie Gleason and Dick Van Dyke. Everybody's done the same jokes, but what makes it special is the relationship. What makes K-9 special is the relationship with the dog. And you can never lose sight of that. It's just like I can't lose sight of the relationship with Courtney Thorne-Smith in According to Jim. The sparkle that we have is what works.

Q: Jim, how different was it to make this as a direct to DVD as opposed to a theatrical. I'm assuming it was faster, but was it easier, too?

Jim: Well, theatrical has a hell of a lot more money going on, so there's a lot more pressure. But Universal, these guys at Universal Family really have a great sensibility on where to spend the money. I don't know, it was just faster, really. I guess that's it. I guess you're right, it's just faster. The original K-9 was in 10 weeks and we shot this in 5 weeks.

Q: Is it shot on film versus digital video or something like that?

Jim: Yes, no, shot on film, 35.

Q: What about crew, Richard G. Lewis is the director here, on the original I don't recall off the top of my head who directed the original, but was there any efficiencies brought about by just having a team that had perhaps been down the road to a degree before?

Jim: No, it's in the writing of the script. I mean, the first one we had a helicopter rising up from the ocean and a lot more gun shots. We had more expansive shots, they're more expensive to set up. We also had a dog that took a little more time. With King you could move.

Q: In other words, I don't know whether you want to say this, but in the first one did you go over at 10 weeks, was it longer than you expected the first time out and this time it was just much more efficient in part because...

Jim: It's absolutely more efficient. I understand the question you're talking about. Sure, because there's a short hand with Carl, there's a knowledge of what the limitations and expectations of dogs are, and how long a trick or a gag would take. We'd have to get the major dog gags to Carl eight weeks before the filming, so he could work on the dog to do the crawl through that vent or certain jumps. Like in the original K-9 there's a jump between buildings. In K-9 2 there was a jump from a roof down onto the back of a man. He had to work that one for weeks. Running the dog through glass, ramping him up and having him jump through the glass, building up his confidence. And then putting the candy glass in its place and the dog doesn't see it and he just jumps through it. You only get one take. Those gags take a little more time, but that's all prework. If you do good prework, you can fly on the set.

Q: Do you have any sense that King has a sense of humor?

Jim: Oh yes.

Q: What did he think was funny?

Jim: Anything with a hot dog. He got really charming and goofy around lunchtime, around the Kraft service table. They're like children with candy. Like my daughter when she sees a cookie on the counter, she starts getting really charming and funny and makes you giggle, and she's just working you for that cookie. My daughter grabbed my finger the other day and we went through 12 different stores. She's three years old, and she pulled me through stores, and I thought she was shopping for shoes-she was looking for candy. I thought this was the most lovely thing, this is the only time I've ever liked shopping with a woman. Then I realized that it was nothing to do with shopping, it was all about the candy. So he definitely would get, the dog gets funny around food.

Q: Does he know enough not to jump up on to the Kraft's table or is he sticking his nose in the coleslaw[?]

Jim: If he knew that you weren't there, he'd be sleeping on that table. Believe me, they have great peripheral vision. That dog was never without somebody near him. He didn't get to wander around. And it's very difficult on the set, because he's a dog, everybody wants to pet him and feed him or give him treats, and the discipline on the set is that he can't really allow King to be in relationship with anybody on the set except for the lead actor and the trainer. Because when you try to get a dog to do something difficult, he'll turn to somebody else he knows on the set to try to get out of it. It's like if I'm in a room with my daughter, my mother-in-law and my wife, and I give her a command like, "Honey, don't touch that stereo," she'll look to the mother and, you know what I'm saying? She'll go into their wings to try to get what she wants. So on the set we have to keep everybody away from the dog.

Q: Jim, when you were a kid, who did you like better, Lassie or Rin Tin Tin?

Jim: I think it was Lassie. He's so pretty. He had long hair.