It's a Grizzly Story, but Bart the Filmmaking Bear Is Clawing His Way to the Top

updated 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

The biggest American film star in France these days is Bart, hero of The Bear. He's bigger than that perennial French favorite, Jerry Lewis. He's bigger even than Brando-at least in a physical sense. Bart, a 12-year-old grizzly, Ursus arctos horribilis, weighs in at 1,800 lbs. and stands, when he feels like it, 9' 2" tall.

Such is Bart's box office allure that The Bear mauled the movie competition all across Europe. In the year since its release, this magnificently filmed outdoor adventure has been seen by an estimated 10 million fans and has raked in $120 million. When it outgrossed Roger Rabbit in its debut, the French newspapers went wild. THE BEAR ATE THE RABBIT! blared the headlines.

And now, with The Bear having opened in 800 U.S. theaters last week, Bart is on his way to becoming urso boffo in America too. Featuring Bart, a 5-month-old bear cub named Douce and three human actors—who speak just 657 words of dialogue—the movie tells the story of a bear hunt from the bear's point of view. "I wanted to tell a strong, dramatic tale through the eyes and heart of a simple creature," says French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, 46, whose previous works have included the prehistoric fable Quest for Fire. Annaud found his inspiration in the 1916 novel The Grizzly King by James Oliver Curwood, an American adventure writer and early conservationist. Finding his leading male was a little harder. Annaud auditioned 50 hairy prospects from all over the world before settling on Bart. "I had a vision of this bear in my mind," says Annaud. "He would be strong, big, menacing but reliable, a good person at heart, very much a John Wayne kind of character." Unfortunately, the first bear he met was "more of a Dudley Moore bear. Then I met the Travoltas, the Stallones. I didn't know bears were so different."

Although he was attracted to Bart's Duke-like personality and impressed by his résumé (The Clan of the Cave Bear with Daryl Hannah), Annaud was equally taken with the genuine camaraderie between Bart and his trainer, Doug Seus. Seus, 47, of Heber City, Utah, has been caring for Bart ever since he got him as a 5-week-old cub from the Baltimore Zoo. "He's always had a certain spark," says Seus, who also trains foxes, deer, wolves and cougars. "That's what makes him a talented bear."

For the movie, Seus used reward and praise rather than reward and punishment to teach Bart new "behaviors"—a term the trainer likes better than "tricks." Each successful run-through was rewarded with an affectionate word and a juicy apple or pear. During filming, in Italy and Austria, Seus taught Bart seven new behaviors, including crawling on his belly, limping and holding a fish. Perhaps his biggest challenge was teaching Bart to accept his co-star Douce. "It was a world first in training," says Seus, "because biologically there is a natural abhorrence of the little bear by the big bear." Seus managed the impossible by sprinkling a stuffed teddy bear with Douce's urine and teaching Bart to lift it gently, then hug and kiss it. Bear-to-bear introductions followed when Bart was comfortable with the toy.

Not everything went so smoothly. Although many stars feel like killing the director, Bart nearly did it. "I did everything wrong and I got injured," admits Annaud. What he did, in fact, was enter the bear's enclosure—which was off-limits to cast members—to pose for publicity photos. Bart was on his hind legs two yards behind him. "I pointed toward Bart with my viewfinder, to strike a pose," says Annaud. "Bart suddenly dropped on all fours and charged. I fell to the ground flat on my face. I remembered instantly what I'd been told and read—don't fight back. An animal will not fight a corpse." It took four seconds for Bart's trainer to call off the animal, and to Annaud it felt more like an hour. Although he carries a scar on his lower back, he bears Bart no animosity. "I should not have come into his territory," he says simply.

What's next for Bart? A starring role in the Jack London classic White Fang, set for filming next March. But first he'll head home to Utah to indulge in a bit of midwinter torpor. "Then by spring he's his usual active, cheerful self again," says Seus. Just don't try to verify that through a viewfinder.

—Irene Lacher, Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles, Cathy Free in Heber City

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