FILM / Interview: Unadulterated mutt: The star of Beethoven is much more than a hairy chest and a gold medallion. John Lyttle reports on a dog's life in Hollywood

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The Independent Culture
The star of the hit comedy Beethoven bounds from the bedroom of his Dorchester hotel suite a step ahead of a pack of burly minders and immediately adopts the attack posture. Chris St Bernard foams at the mouth: 'What sort of country is this? Your immigration policies suck. I fly here to do publicity and they want to quarantine me for six months. Six months] Then I learn how my fellow artistes are treated. Your National Theatre's Midsummer's Night Dream is dragging some poor mongrel through a mud bath every night. Regular walks are fine, but hasn't the director heard of the extending leash? The RSPCA's been called, but where's Equity when a professional needs help? Uh?

'And I fell to pieces when I read that some poor pup up in Scarborough had actually been cut into bits and hung from a ceiling in the name of art. That's not art, baby, that's a torso murder] You guys make the Koreans look good. Thank God I'm a thoroughbred, American and famous.'

Very famous indeed. Beethoven, the story of one dog and his man, has taken over dollars 50 million at the US box office. Audiences and critics alike have hailed the birth of a popular new icon. The expression 'Doing a Beethoven' - being a bad dog - has even entered the language. Yet with celebrity has come a certain snappishness. When a bodyguard goes to sit on the sofa, St Bernard barks, 'Hey] How many times have I told you about sitting on that sofa? How many times?' The bodyguard jumps at the sound of his master's voice and skulks away, obviously humiliated. St Bernard shrugs and orders a steak from room service. 'Gee, what do you have to do? Rub their noses in it?' This isn't the lovable pooch the public has grown to adore.

It's all a long way from those early brandy and dog food commercials. Perhaps a touch of arrogance is to be expected. 'Arrogance? Don't believe all you hear, cupcake. I'm a real pussy cat. (He laughs.) Saying I'm arrogant is like saying Lassie was a bitch.'

But Lassie was a bitch.

'You know what I mean.'

So rumoured stories of on-set clashes with co-star Charles Grodin should be discounted?

'So you read his piece in Premiere? Listen, I thought Charlie and me were buddies. I wouldn't say I was the man's best friend, but I didn't realise he expected me to roll over and play dead. To tell you the truth, he's never recovered from the time the pig snatched all the notices in The Muppet Caper. But I did not bite him. That is a downright lie. And whatever he trod in on the way to his car had nothing to do with me. I'm studio-trained. Ask Stevie (Spielberg).

'Yes, I did have the best accommodation. I'm a big guy (St Bernard weighs 185lb); that's why I was given Brando's old trailer. I did look sexy in the rushes. Women couldn't wait to get down to some heavy petting, get my drift? And, unlike some actors I could mention, all my hair is my own. I was better with props. I mean, I've done some of my biggest business with trees. The writers started putting more and more tricks in for me, though I'll be honest and admit there was a stuntman for the slobbering sequence. Charlie saw the focus shift. He didn't like it. But the movie is called Beethoven, not Charles Grodin and I play Beethoven. Look, Hollywood is a dog- eat-dog town and no one is gonna eat me. Not unless she's a cute little French poodle.' The bodyguards chuckle on cue.

Perhaps St Bernard's aggression is explained by a widely publicised insecure childhood. Shortly after the film opened, the National Enquirer unearthed the unhappy details. 'The National Enquirer] I wouldn't pee on it. So I come from a broken home. So what? My brothers and sisters and I were separated when we were eight weeks old and sent to various homes. I never knew who my real father was. For all I know it could have been Cujo. But it's my business. That's why I'm suing. The Enquirer said my background made me unbalanced. The headline was 'Barking mad'. And they intimated that I habitually lick my own genitals] Outrageous]'

Despite this professed distaste, St Bernard has courted controversy. There have been attacks on rivals - 'Bruce Willis is living proof that I'm not the only dog on the A-List' - a series of arrests for threatening behaviour and fouling the footpath, and a one- night stay at the Los Angeles pound for allegedly doing something obscene to a cop's leg.

All this before the romantic entanglements. Madonna has been a regular companion. 'We've attended obedience classes together a few times, yeah. Her obedience classes I hasten to add.' Small wonder, then, that his Beverly Hills mansion is known locally as Cupid's Kennel. Our hero demurs. 'Oh, please. I must be the only guy in California who hasn't been engaged to Julia Roberts. Do I bury my bone? Sure. But I'm careful. Everyone should be. There are so many diseases out there. Hardpad. Distemper. Mange. Worms. A friend of mine died of rabies last year. That was a learning experience.'

The industry will be forgiving as long as Beethoven plays fetch at the box office. 'At the moment I'm hotter than a Pekinese in a parked car in July,' St Bernard agrees. 'I'm no Rin Tin Tin yet. It might happen though. I have to make sure that my talent isn't muzzled. So far most producers can't see beyond the fact that I'm a dog. I saw how they used Jerry Lee (the star of K-9) and Hooch (star of Turner and Hooch).' St Bernard's neck hairs bristle. 'Hollywood is very species-ist. People need to see me as an actor first and a dog second. Yes, I occasionally drool, roll in dirt and break wind. So does Micky Rourke. They say he's a genius but I'm an animal. If Mel (Gibson) can play Hamlet, why not me? But what am I offered? The Postman Always Rings Twice. Stereotyping.

'On the other hand, I don't see why I should be a role model, carrying the aspirations of every dog. Yes, we are discriminated against. No Dogs Allowed. All Dogs Must Be Kept On A Leash. Keep Off The Grass. That sort of thing really gets to you. It isn't us who need to be 'fixed', it's the system. If not, one day L A will explode. I've been out there on the streets, looking for a fire hydrant, and I can tell you the brothers feel they have nothing left to lose. The pooper-scoopers are always on their tails, and they ain't gonna take it no more. But the system has to change slowly. I'd like to see a water bowl at every script conference as much as the next canine, but it's gonna take time before man and dog can live in harmony. But maybe I'm just howling at the moon?'

The steak arrives. The interview is obviously over. St Bernard rises to return to the bedroom, pauses, ambles back, and licks my face. His breath stinks. I head for the door to a final growled complaint. 'Did you hear that? He asked me if I had an owner. Me] I don't have an owner. I have an agent.'

'Beethoven' is on general release.

(Photograph omitted)