It's Not Just Any Bull in a China Shop—It's Merrill, Trained by Joan Edwards and Stevie Myers
On their San Fernando Valley ranch, Edwards, 54, and Myers, 50, tend not only 30 bulls but 180 horses (they trained John Wayne's mount in True Grit and taught a white gelding to play dead in Animal House), 65 sheep (some leap over an insomniac in a Montgomery Ward commercial) and assorted chickens, geese, rabbits and dogs. The women train actors as well as animals. Dustin Hoffman learned to ride a horse (for Little Big Man) on their ranch, as did Rock Hudson.
A year and a half ago the ad agency Young & Rubicam was looking for a bull capable of navigating a china shop to show, as Y & R's Bill Appelman puts it, that "Merrill Lynch is agile and clever in addition to being large." Says Edwards: "We had to go out and use a lot of cow sense." They spent a month hand-feeding the 3-year-old bull, which they found in Southern California, and leading him through a maze of crates and hay bales that simulated a china shop. Then, after being dyed a photogenic sorrel color, he went before the cameras, time and time again sauntering around genuine (and expensive) Baccarat glass and Wedgwood china. "That bull worked like a trouper," says Edwards. In 16 hours of shooting, Merrill did not so much as chip a teacup. A $3,500 candelabrum was shattered, but after the bull had left. A set decorator dropped it.
The commercial was so successful (last year it won a Clio, advertising's Oscar) that Y&R has made sequels with Merrill wandering through a maze and a greenhouse and finding a needle in a field of haystacks. Chemical Bank in New York has also done a takeoff of the original ad. In Chemical's version, another Longhorn, also owned by Edwards and Myers, sideswipes $1,000 worth of crockery and glass. The message: Bank certificates of deposit are less risky than stocks. "That was a much easier commercial to make," admits Edwards.
The touchiest critter they work with is Jeckle. The Schlitz star is a Brangus, a hybrid of Brahman and Angus. "These are treacherous bulls," Edwards notes. But then no bull is benign. "Very few fences will hold them in, so you try to keep them as happy as possible," she explains. "Overworked, they get cranky." Even the needs of mild-mannered Merrill must be gauged. "We know him well enough to know what he's thinking," Edwards says. "When he has had enough, we let him alone."
Edwards and Myers were childhood friends. Stevie was born in Amarillo, Texas and in 1933 moved to California, where her father, George, went to work on a ranch supplying livestock to the movies. A few years later he and a partner purchased the ranch. Stevie, a stunt woman who doubled for Barbara Stanwyck, bought them both out, with Joan's financial help, in 1956.
At that point Edwards, who got her horse sense from "my mother's people, racetrackers from Nebraska," sold her Hitching Post bar (a hangout for stunt men and rodeo riders in Glen-dale) and moved in with the divorced Stevie and her daughter, Leslie, then 10. "The best way to bring up a kid is around animals," says Myers, a member of Teamsters Local 399 for show business wranglers and drivers. "Children don't have time to go out on the street corner and get into trouble."
"But it's tough being a woman in this business," Edwards adds. "We had to double-prove ourselves." And they did. "We don't work cheap, but we guarantee results," they say. They also make sure the animals share in the profits too. "Every horse and bull is a member of the family," Edwards says. When one of them retires, it is put out to pasture—not taken to the dog food factory. "I think women are more caring," says Edwards. "It's the secret to our success."