On TV, He Plays Hero; Off-Screen, He Just Plays

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Cameras are rolling and emotions are high when a classic dramatic moment occurs: Our hero must decide whether to leave or return for his lady-love and perhaps lose a chance of escape. The actor takes matters into his own hands - er, paws - and looks back, leaving only after his love is safely by his side.

Did I say paws? Indeed, the moment brings a pause to the set of "Rosie, Oh, Rosie, Oh!" a show with a modern twist on the classic "Romeo and Juliet" tail - oops, tale.

The most famous romantic lead of all time is being played by an eight-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Soccer, though his name on the show is "Wishbone," in an episode of the whimsical yet serious public-television series of the same name.

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Wishbone was supposed to run off camera without looking back, says the creator and executive producer of the show, Rick Duffield. But, he says, "I think Wishbone knew the scene would play better if he stopped and looked back for [Juliet]. So we left it in that way."

This canine canon, now 40 episodes strong after only a single season, aims to draw children aged 6 to 12 into the world of classic literature by romping through the old greats with a dog's-eye view.

So far, the show has covered such titles as "Oliver Twist" (the "Wishbone" version is "Twisted Tail"), "The Odyssey" ("Homer Sweet Homer"), "Cyrano de Bergerac" ("Cyranose"), "Don Quixote" ("The Impawssible Dream"), and "Frankenstein" ("Frankenbone").

Mr. Duffield says he got the idea for a canine interpretation of the classics from the Classic Comics he used to read as a kid. "They were so simple and yet they made all these important books a part of my life," he notes.

How can a terrier recreate some of the most dashing humans in history, famous for swashbuckling and horseback-riding, not to mention romance and mystery - activities that challenge even actors with opposable thumbs?

"Easy," Duffield says. "Wishbone does them as a dog."

Say what? Silas Marner wearing dog tags? Ivanhoe on a dogwatch? Robin Hood living the dog's life?

"What I mean is," Duffield says, "Wishbone sees the character with the simplicity and honesty of a dog."

The modern-day tales paralleling the classic stories on each episode help children make connections to their own lives. When Wishbone portrays Silas Marner, who faces losing his money but gaining a daughter, the modern mutt lives through being lost by his careless 12-year-old owner obsessed with a new bike. He is found by the penitent and wiser boy a day later.

"We try to find issues that children can relate to in their everyday lives and show how the classics deal with the same fundamental human issues," Duffield says.

Surely there are limits to what a dog can do? "Wishbone is indeed a creation of the cinema," Duffield concedes. "Real dogs don't talk."

Soccer's trainer, veteran animal-handler Jackie Kaptan, might even take exception to that. "Have you ever gone to a foreign country? That's what it's like for Soccer. He doesn't speak English," she says. Despite that tiny limitation, she adds the two of them communicate very well, thank you.

"I can tell right away when he's lost in a scene," says Ms. Kaptan, noting that Soccer (as well as the two other terriers who help play Wishbone) can remember a sequence of actions once he has rehearsed them. The big difference between him and his human colleagues is a matter of memory. "We need to do [the scene] right away or he'll forget," she says.

Wishbone's costumes are tailored to his tiny figure (he's about a foot high, on all fours) and fasten with Velcro. Kaptan says Soccer loves his work, because, unlike human actors, "you couldn't make him do it if he didn't like it."

"Wishbone," the show, is produced by the same Dallas-based company that presents "Barney," far from the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood. Kaptan says the dog-days of a Texas August are the most challenging aspect of the show. "That humidity just takes Soccer's zest away," she says.

WISHBONE'S human counterparts on the show present a certain amount of distraction, Kaptan says. "Dogs are like children. They have to stay very focused or they get all giddy and can't perform." Understandably, the likable terrier is a magnet for the cast. Kaptan has to kindly, but firmly, ask everyone on the set to leave Soccer alone while he is working.

"He needs a clear head so he won't get hurt," she adds, noting that the actors are allowed to play with Soccer during lunch-hour "quality time."

Wishbone's on-set activities are governed by the American Humane Association guidelines, set up by a group of animal trainers nationwide. Representatives of the group are on the set at all times, "in case I have a problem, something I can't do or need help with. But frankly," says Wishbone's trainer, "I haven't had a problem in 22 years."

Duffield says the Wishbone series is not intended to push children into reading the classics, but rather to surround them with the timeless ideas these classics embody. Wishbone paperback books are already on the shelves and there are plans for an adventure and a mystery series. Duffield says that new directions are fine, but he's, well, dogmatic about one thing. "We want Wishbone to be associated with books."

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