In a wide-ranging interview with the BBC, the lion who starred in Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams reflects on the highs and lows of his career in Hollywood.
“When Africa Screams came out, I was the biggest non-human actor in the world,” said the lion. “Bigger than Lassie, bigger than Bonzo, bigger than Mighty Joe Young. I was the king of the Hollywood jungle. That movie took a lion just looking to make a living in Hollywood and made him a superstar," he said, referring to himself in the third person.
He recalls auditioning for that role.
“In the casting call, they didn’t specify that they were looking for a lion, per se, they simply said they were looking for “ferocious beasts,” recalled the lion. “All kinds of different ‘beasts’ showed up for the cattle call, including apes, alligators, hippos, tigers, leopards, even cattle.”
The lion said he nailed his audition by not overplaying it.
“I used nuance, which the casting director really appreciated,” he said. “Instead of trying to roar the loudest, I took a more passive aggressive approach to the material. I always say, as an actor, you have to have respect for your audience. Don’t beat them over the head when you can really make a connection with them.”
He called his co-star Bud Abbott, the tall one, a real pro.
“Bud was great. He really took an interest in my craft. Remember, I was just three years old at the time of filming. I was just a scared little cub who had never left the pride,” said the lion. Abbott not only coached the lion, but also was comfortable enough as an actor to seek out help from the young lion.
“Here he is, Bud Abbott, huge Hollywood star, asking me for acting tips,” said the lion, referring to the scene where Abbott wore a costume and pretended to be a lion. “He wanted to know what he needed to do to make the audience believe he was a lion. Wow. Just wow.”
Costello was a different story.
“Let me just say this first: Lou Costello was a comic genius. People say he’s just a Curly Howard wannabe, but this guy was the real deal. Genius,” said the lion. “That said, he was really difficult to work with.”
There was a lot of tension on the set because of Costello.
“Remember that scene when Lou and I were stuck in the cage? That was a nightmare. We did something like 20 different takes because he didn’t think I was being menacing enough. But I told him, ‘You do you, Lou, I’ll do me,” said the lion. “This did not go over well with Mr. Costello. He stormed off the set and we had to suspend filming as he went on a three day bender with the alligator from the film."
After the success of that film, the lion went on to be the first president of SAAG – the Screen Animal Actors Guild. He made some incredible gains for animal actors, including securing raw meat at all Craft Services meals.
There were low lights for the lion, too. His career hit the skids in the 1970s when he got addicted to tranquilizers, but after a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic he got clean and revived his career. The highlight of his comeback was working on Broadway as an acting consultant for the musical, Cats!
“For a kid who grew up on the savanna eating wildebeests, it’s been a pretty damn good life.”