Oscar: the stars' best friend

His story reads like a Hollywood tale of rags to riches. Amol Rajan tells how a once-abused stray found his way into the hearts of the A-list – and became a London celebrity in his own right
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The Independent Culture

He'd shaken hands with Danny De Vito, been patted by Dustin Hoffman, and been fed tasty sweets by George Clooney.

In fact, in little over a decade he'd had his photo taken with several hundred celebrities, met most of Hollywood's most glamorous names and become a regular face in newspapers and glossy magazines.

How many dogs can say that?

Not even the most obsessive social climbers in Britain could match Oscar the Dog, who died aged 12 on Sunday, for sheer animal magnetism.

The German Shepherd helped to turn around the life of his homeless, unemployed owner, just as his owner gave him a new lease of life. It was on 5 May 1997, outside a notorious drug dealer's house in Paddington, west London, when Dennis Gill saw a small, battered animal from across the road. Mr Gill was in a similarly bad way himself: out of work, living in temporary accommodation, and mourning the recent death of his brother, Gary.

"I had a hole in my heart, and somebody would have to fill it," said Mr Gill, 47. "I saw this little puppy covered in oil and poo tied up by rope. He was clearly very undernourished and I knew that the people who lived inside were drug dealers, so I went home and got a knife and set him free."

Mr Gill told the police and the RSPCA, who allayed his fears that he had broken the law by commending him for his actions.

Over the next decade, Mr Gill and Oscar would become inseparable. "He was my shadow. I could never get away from him, not that I'd want to. He came absolutely everywhere with me, whether it was out on the streets or around the house. I'd be sat on the toilet doing a number two and he'd just sit there in front of me, demanding to be massaged."

Selling The Big Issue to make ends meet, Mr Gill was walking past the Metropolitan Hotel in London's Mayfair later that year when he noticed a number of photographers snapping away. Curious, he asked what the commotion was about only to see Jack Nicholson emerging from the foyer seconds later. Before he knew it, Nicholson had befriended Oscar, and Oscar, then still only a puppy, tried to leap into his chauffeur-driven car.

"He loved jumping into cars," said Mr Gill. Pictures of Nicholson with the German shepherd puppy appeared in several newspapers the following morning, and Mr Gill, still selling The Big Issue, decided to make a habit of turning up at the Metropolitan, where "the receptionists and valet drivers loved him [Oscar] nearly as much as I did".

Over the next decade, a cavalcade of famous names lined up to be photographed alongside Oscar. Along came Jerry Springer, Spice Girl Melanie B, and Chris Evans (an Oscar favourite), closely followed by John Travolta, Caprice Bourret and Joanna Lumley. Mariella Frostrup would bend down to shake his hand; Richard Bacon would give him a hug. He was on first-name terms with George Clooney.

Once the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo accidentally stole one of Oscar's toys, prompting him to chase Ronaldo into the hotel and grab the toy back. The Brazilian, notoriously scared of animals, yelped before scuttling away, deeply embarrassed.

With few exceptions, Oscar would charm his way into the hearts of those who posed with him. "He was the most gentle, warm, kind and loving person I've ever met," said Mr Gill, who was bought several cameras by the News of the World and has since made a career as a professional photographer. "He just loved people. Old ladies adored him, young people were never frightened of him – even little kittens asked him for a cuddle."

Mr Gill, who was brought up in Doncaster but moved between London and Connecticut in the United States for several years before settling in the capital in 1991, took Oscar to South Yorkshire yesterday to be buried in the family home.

"I never made a single penny out of him, we weren't commercial partners," Mr Gill said. "He was quite simply the best companion I could ever have had. I gave him a chance to live properly, and he gave me the same. A long-term girlfriend of mine recently said to me, 'It's me or the dog'. I told her it was no contest, and told her to shut the door behind her. She's not the only one who's come second best too."

Oscar the Dog died in Mr Gill's arms at 3.30pm on Sunday after a long battle with cancer of the spleen and lung. He is survived by his adopted son, Valentine, also a German Shepherd puppy.