Training a cat actor? Better understand the peculiar world of feline motivation

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the classic Truman Capote story, is opening on Broadway. And in the famed role of Cat? A cat.

Today’s New York Times has the story of the search for an appropriate feline to play the animal character, who doesn’t get a whole lot of love in the script (the narrator describes him as “thug faced;” Holly Golightly refers to him as “poor slob without a name”). On Broadway, there are two cats sharing the role. Vito and Montie are being trained by Babette Corelli, one of the trainers at New York City’s Dawn Animal Agency. Both cats are rescues. Yay rescues! It’s worth noting, here that the dog Sandy in the current Broadway production of Annie, is also a rescue. Today’s Times article suggests that animals that come from shelter environments are better able to deal with hectic environments of movie sets and theater stages. I think this is a bit of a dangerous generalization, not unlike making a statement like “foster kids are really great at adapting to change.” But still…Yay rescues!

Cat training is a pretty misunderstood area. Dogs have evolved for tens of thousands of years to mooch off us. We’ve co-evolved. Studies suggest that they learn from us better than a chimp will learn from a human. This is because their survival has largely depended on their ability to understand us. Cats, on the other hand, evolved to eat the small critters that eat our garbage. This led to the evolution of a different kind of lifestyle. One where they could afford to be picky eaters and to do things on their own schedule — there was a lot of garbage, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

Training is just a game of finding a creature’s motivation and then delivering it wisely. What makes cats notoriously difficult to train is the complexity of their reward systems. They are usually not as motivated by the two big things we use to train dogs: food and human attention. They are more interested in things that are harder for us to dole out in exact proportions: Curiosity, sleep, licking themselves. Lasagna.

Garfield is a cat with a peculiar reward system.

In the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Cat was played by Orangey, an tabby from Queens. Orangey was trained by Frank Inn. Inn was a Quaker from Indiana who hitchhiked to Hollywood because he wanted to be in the movie business. While sweeping on the set of The Thin Man, he noticed a trainer having difficulty with a dog and he offered to help. Inn had learned to train dogs when he was stuck in a wheelchair as a teenager after being hit by a drunk driver; he’d gotten his dog, Jeep, to help him out around the house while he was incapacitated.

Animal Trainer Frank Inn and Arnold, the pig from Green Acres. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Copson, via NPR

Inn’s work on The Thin Man led to a long career as a Hollywood animal trainer. He was responsible for getting Arnold the pig to play piano in Green Acres; he taught Benji everything he knew. In 1961, he was asked to find a cat suitable for acting opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In his book about the making of the film, 5th Avenue, 5AMSam Wasson tells of the casting process.

The production held an open cat-call at New York’s Hotel Commodore, at which twenty-five orange-furred hopefuls appeared freshly preened and plucked. After an arduous round of auditions and callbacks, the twelve-pound Orangey, belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Albert Murphy of Hollis, Queens, was named the winner. “He’s a real New York type cat,” Inn declared, “just what we want. In no time at all I’m going to make a method, or Lee Strasberg type, cat out of him.”

For his work in the role, Orangey won the American Humane Association’s PATSY award: Performing Animal Television Star of the Year. Orangey also plays the role of a baseball team owning millionaire in the 1951 film Rhubarb

In the Breakfast at Tiffany‘s, Orangey appears on screen for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Here is the entire film condensed to just those moments:

 

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