When it comes to cat culture, nobody scratches deeper beneath the surface than Dr. Paul Koudounaris. The author, photographer and L.A. music scene legend has made a name for himself authoring books about death and ghosts, but his lectures about furry creatures have also made for fascinating events over the years, melding deep academic dives into history with a fantastical gift for story-telling.
Paul K (as he’s known in local circles) has now brought the compelling and creative chronicles of his in-person presentations to A Cat’s Tale, his new book with writing partner (we won’t call her a pet!) Baba the Cat. The domestic shorthair tabby, as the book’s press materials state, intends to “finally set the record straight and expose the reality of feline greatness” with her narrative voice, as told here to Dr. K. The pair share an exclusive excerpt from the book, which should make for a -yes, we’ll say it- purr-fect gift for the kitty-crazed person in your life.
“How d’ya get a break in this town?” Hollywood’s cats were left to ask, and then answered the questions themselves. With talent, that’s how, as some of the greatest feline actors in film history came along during the 1950s and ‘60s to finally prove the pundits wrong. And in true American fashion, they did not carry the pedigree of expensive breeders. In fact, the first cat to be cast in a starring role in a feature film, and to this day history’s most prolific feline actor was an orange tabby discovered…under a bush.
A big, fierce tomcat, he was a stray who had camped out in the yard of a woman named Agnes Murray in the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks. To Mrs. Murray’s chagrin, he showed no signs of leaving, and she certainly couldn’t have guessed that he was destined to become the Marlon Brando of cats. This was in 1950, and it so happened that Paramount Studios was casting a film called Rhubarb, the quirky story of a street cat who inherits a major league baseball team when its eccentric owner dies. The studio had a problem, however. They couldn’t fill the starring role! Trainers kept bringing them nice cats. But Paramount wanted a tough customer as their leading man, a rough-hewn feline who possessed the wisdom that came with street life. In desperation they placed a fateful casting call. Wanted for starring role in film: a mean, scar-faced cat.
Mrs. Murray looked at the orange brute under the bush in her yard. He sure fit the bill, she reckoned, and wrestling him into a box (no easy feat, to be sure), she drove down to Hollywood. And the reaction at the Paramount lot? “That’s our cat!” It turned out that Orangey, as they decided to name him, could act, and he was awarded the largest film contract ever given to a feline. And he could do a lot of other things in addition: a street cat through and through he could scratch and bite like none anyone had ever seen, and his run-ins with the cast and crew were legendary. But the starring role in Rhubarb earned Orangey a PATSY Award in 1952, given out at the time as the animal equivalent of an Oscar. From street cat to award-winning actor? Impressive indeed, and even more so in being the first cat to ever be so honored.
His career spanned the next fifteen years, with so many appearances that his trainer said he had lost count at around two hundred. As Hollywood’s go-to cat, they included television spots in Mission Impossible and Bewitched, and a plethora of films such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Village of the Giants. But the most memorable of all? I’ll guess you’ve heard of a film called Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Yup, that’s him! That orange tabby starring alongside Audrey Hepburn is none other than the big, mean tomcat found under a bush in Sherman Oaks. And for that role, a decade after becoming the first cat to win a PATSY Award, Orangey became the only cat to win a second. Quite a feat. And quite a cat! To the end, he still bit and scratched his costars, hissed at studio executives, and caused productions to be shut down when he would run off and hide. In other words…he was a consummate Hollywood professional!
Excerpt from A Cat Tale- A Journey Through Feline History (courtesy Henry Holt & Co. publishing)