Down and Out Is a Movie with Legs—Four of 'em—and They Belong to a Collie Named Mike

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

That old showbiz saying "never work with kids or animals" is good advice, and the latest proof is Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Emerging from an advance screening at the Disney Studio, industry folk were less impressed with Nick Nolte, Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss than with a Scottish Border collie named Mike. Playing the neurotic pet of an equally neurotic couple (Midler and Dreyfuss) who befriend a genial bum (Nolte), Mike easily won the biggest laughs of the night.

It was not an isolated incident. Excelling in a role that has all the key dramatic elements—love (between man and dog), danger (Mike twice runs across a bed of hot coals) and intellectual debate (between Mike and his psychiatrist)—the pooch now has the critics yapping. The New York Times appraised his acting as "Oscar-caliber work." But the ultimate industry accolade was a headline in the Los Angeles Times: "Pup Ponders Multi-Pic Pact."

At the relatively advanced age of 7½, Mike has waited a long time for the gravy train to come in. He was just 7 weeks old when animal trainer Clint Rowe found him tied to a shack on a northern California farm. Rowe's friends laughed when he started teaching Mike to act. "They said, 'Who's going to want a black and white dog with one brown and one blue eye?' " But Rowe, 34, has been working with animals since he was 15, and he knows how to spot potential. Today Mike has mastered about 150 tricks, or "behaviors," as Rowe calls them, and has six years of commercial work (Toyota, French's Mustard and Double-mint gum, among others) under his collar. There might be other actors in Hollywood who can respond to a 200-word vocabulary, but few are as willing to take direction.

It was his looks, rather than his credits, that got Mike a shot at pupularity. "Originally I was looking for a smaller dog," says Down and Out director Paul Mazursky. "But the first thing that hooked me was those eyes. Then he did the most amazing tricks. He actually climbed a rope ladder with a pail in his mouth!"

Mike also established instant rapport with Nick Nolte. In fact, Nolte refused to appear on Good Morning America unless he could bring along his canine co-star. Other cast members, however, were slow to warm up to Mike. One of his fellow actors, Little Richard, had the biggest bone to pick. According to Richard, Mike bit him on one occasion and became so frisky on another that "I was screaming like a bitch." But the two have since made peace. Mike is even featured on Richard's new video, Great Gosh a' Mighty, It's a Matter of Time, which debuted last week.

Unfortunately that multi-pic pact Mike was pondering has not panned out. "We were in serious negotiations for a couple of weeks," says one Disney official, "but we couldn't come to terms. Mike's holding out because he thinks he can get a better contract on the free market." Warner Brothers is reported to be sniffing around for a package deal that calls for a series of children's music videos and a line of stuffed Mikes.

Meanwhile, the star is keeping his ego on a leash. He still lives on a small farm near Acton, two hours east of L.A., with his best pal and Down and Out stunt double, Davey, 5, and Rowe. The dogs take a three-mile run in the morning, then spend the afternoon training. In such bucolic surroundings, the pressure of deal making seems very far away. Apart from catching Frisbees, his favorite pastime, Mike is seriously working on his tan and waiting for his agent to call.

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