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Dog trainer Joel Silverman worked with Bear ("Dreyfuss") during the show's first four seasons. In this interview with Empty Nest Online, Joel shares how he came to be part of the show, what it was like working with the cast and crew, and the time Bear fell asleep during a scene.
Empty Nest Online: Joel, I've been doing the site for 17 years, and there's one question I've gotten more than any other, so if you could provide the definitive answer: What breed of dog was Dreyfuss?
Joel: There is a TV show called Father Murphy, and on the show was a Golden Retriever mix named Boomer. They bred that dog to a St. Bernard, and in those puppies was Bear.
ENO: How did you become part of Empty Nest, and how did Bear get cast?
Joel: I was working on Steel Magnolias in Louisiana at the time this job came up. They cast dogs just like people, and they said, “Hey, we want you to do this show with our dog.” The company has 8 or 10 trainers, and we all have dogs that we work with. The guy that was training Bear had to go on to something else, so I took over. I did the pilot with him, and then he took off and entered the series, so I ended up working with the dog on the show.
ENO: Bear wasn't actually the only dog to play the role, was he?
Joel: He had a brother named Julio who doubled for Dreyfuss. Julio is actually in the opening the first couple seasons. There is a part where the dog is pulling Richard Mulligan inside the house; that's Julio. He was more of a high-action dog. Also, Bear had a puppy that I named Banjo. He looked a lot like Bear, and I used him at the end of one of the episodes.
ENO: Was Bear an easy dog to work with?
Joel: Yeah. He was a really mellow dog, a very big dog. Everything was based on visual cues, and every once in a while, there were some scenes where we had a lot of moves and he had to do a lot of things. Sometimes you’d have to wait a while until his cue at the end of a scene to maybe get up and walk away. We did have one time where I went to get his attention - and of course I can’t talk at all - so I went to get his attention and he had fallen asleep. So we had to stop because, “Hey, the dog is asleep!”
ENO: He sort of developed some trademark moves, didn't he?
Joel: We learned that if I put his head down, and I had one trainer on one side and I was on the other, and we just made subtle moves, his eyebrows would go back and forth. So in the script, they started writing in “Bear does his eyebrow thing.” What a lot of people don't realize is the simplest things get the best reaction. For instance, I trained him to pop his head up for a reaction to a line, and we would do it on cue. We did that a lot because it got such a good laugh.
ENO: Dreyfuss really emerged as a popular character, with some articles even referring to Empty Nest as "the show with the dog." Was there ever any jealousy at all the attention the dog was getting?
Joel: He did. Bear was on the cover of TV Guide three times in a year and a half. And Dinah Manoff would joke around, sort of tongue in cheek, so it was funny. But everybody was cool. What was really cool about that show was everybody involved were really stable people. They know it’s a dog, and that’s it. The truth is, the bigger the dog is, the better it is for everybody. The bigger Richard is, the bigger the show is. The bigger Dinah is, and so on. It’s really a team effort and everybody knew that.
ENO: What was a typical day like on set?
Joel: I became very close with the cast members and all the crew. When we’re shooting a show like that, we work five days a week, but the cameras only came in on Mondays. They did a run-through with the cameras, and then on Tuesday night we would shoot. We used to do two tapings in front of a live audience, so the adrenaline was going. On Wednesday, we would get a script, rehearse Thursday and Friday, and do it that way. So Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, it was just the cast, the director, myself and the prop guy. That was basically it. So it was a really small, family thing.
ENO: What was it like working with the cast and crew?
Joel: They were all great. Richard was just such a good guy. He won the Emmy Award, and he thanked everybody. He even thanked me and the dog. That just goes to show you what type of person he was. He was the absolute nicest guy. Park Overall was constantly roller skating, because she was trying to quit smoking I think, and it was helping her quit smoking or something like that. Everything in life revolves around the people at the top. The producers - Paul Witt, Tony Thomas and Susan Harris - are just nice people. And when you have nice people like that, they’re going to bring in people under them that are nice people. And that’s kind of the story. It was a really cool experience. Some of the best years of my life.
ENO: Any scenes or episodes you consider favorites?
Joel: We did an episode called “The Dog Who Knew Too Much,” written by Gary Jacobs, and in it everybody told the dog about their lives. In that show, he had to go different places, and you have to show him what to do in each scene, because the next scene is something different. Bear did a great job. That was a real tough one. In one scene, we had 30 moves, and I couldn’t talk at all. So you just rehearse with the cast all week and program him almost like a computer.
ENO: You were with the show the first four years?
Joel: Yes, I left after season four. The dog was owned by another company, Birds and Animals Unlimited, so somebody else took over the show.
ENO: You've worked steadily on TV and written several books. What all have you been up to since the show?
Joel: Well, I worked with Bear in front of the audience on Empty Nest while they were doing wardrobe changes and things, like a live show type of thing, answering questions and such. And someobody was in the audience once, and afterwards said, "We’re doing this video and we want you in it." It was called the Hollywood Dog Training Program. We shot that in 1989 with Bear. I never would’ve done that if I hadn’t been doing my thing between takes on Empty Nest. Then, 10 years later, Animal Planet called me to host a show called Good Dog U. I also more recently did a series called What Color Is Your Dog?
My first book was also called What Color Is Your Dog? My second book was Take Two: Training Solutions for Rescued Dogs and my third book was Bond With Your Heart, Train With Your Brain. My fourth book, More What Color Is Your Dog?, was released September 2015.
ENO: You're also featured in the new Chase Mastery campaign from Chase Bank. Tell me about that.
Joel: They called me in October 2014 and said, "We are doing this campaign, looking for people we think have mastered their careers, and we’d like to do a commercial with you." One of the dogs in the commercial, the one that grabs my receipt in the end, is my dog, Duchess. Most of the dogs are movie dogs. The Goldendoodle is actually the CEO of Chase Bank’s dog. So I went to their house in New York and trained the dog for about a week prior to filming.
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