Nita Lelyveld March 31, 2012
Poor Vito Vincent, who came to Hollywood chasing a dream. He's been in L.A. for nearly a year without landing a single acting gig. Once he was homeless in New York. But before he came West last May, Vito was living a Cinderella story there. His career was taking off. He'd appeared in print and TV ads. He'd been on a pilot, guest-starred on The Colbert Report and scored a small spot on 30 Rock. Even now, emails arrive with offers on the other coast. But here, nothing - and not for lack of trying.
People all over town have Vito Vincent's head shots. When shoppers at The Grove spy him sitting on a patio or going up the glass steps at the Apple store, they inevitably stop what they're doing to gaze, snap mobile phone photos, try to touch him. Still, Vito Vincent doesn't have an agent. He can't even get an audition. Vito's biggest acting role to date is Christiane Aman-purr. He played the feline version of the famed foreign correspondent on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report last year.
Stephen Colbert lifted him onto his desk and questioned him for two minutes. The lights were bright. The live audience of 150 was loud. People kept laughing as Colbert urged Vito to take a stand on the protests in Egypt. Colbert pushed the cat to choose between two bowls of food - one marked ''Democratic Uprising,'' the other ''Islamic Power Grab''. He tossed some food at the animal, jiggled a laser pointer and waved around a colourful feathery toy.
Vito didn't flinch.
Try that with your average cat, says his stage father, Michael LeCrichia, who crouched under Colbert's desk.
Vito is a certified pet therapy animal, calm enough to visit with, and be held by, ailing strangers, LeCrichia said.
But he also has great range - for a cat.
He walks confidently - and rapidly - on a leash. On command, he can come, spring from the ground to a higher spot and move or jump from Point A to Point B. He also knows how to ride an escalator.
He wasn't born knowing, LeCrichia says. Just teaching him to walk on a leash took a year. One day LeCrichia read an article about pets getting into movies and on TV shows. LeCrichia thought a serene cat would stand out. He began calling and writing, and finally got a face to face.
The women at All-Tame Animals on the Upper West Side were blunt. Vito was overweight. He also needed to expand his skills by learning to come and to stay on a mark.
Once he did, said All-Tame's office manager Sharon Halley, the tabby worked steadily. He has a look that is popular in ads, she said, and when she sent out his photos, he almost always was hired. Basic jobs, without a lot of extras, pay about $500 a day plus expenses.
Need a cat or a dog for a movie shoot in L.A.? Chances are you'll go to one of fewer than a dozen big outfits. Most have large spreads, mini-zoos and in-house animal trainers, said Steve Dayan, business agent for Teamsters Local 399, which represents 140 animal handlers, trainers and wranglers.
''There are companies that handle exotic animals like alligators and lions down to dogs and cats and even squirrels and skunks,'' Dayan said. ''Someone with just a cat is kind of limiting his desirability.'' The studios know who to contact, he said. ''It's not like they'll usually do a casting call for an animal.'' What with animatronics, computer-generated imagery and the decline of the Western, there are fewer spots for animals and their trainers, he said.
Birds and Animals Unlimited operations manager Jennifer Henderson worked on Hugo and We Bought a Zoo, and provided Crystal, the capuchin monkey for The Hangover II. When one company doesn't have an animal, it asks the others, she said. Henderson has met Vito. ''He's a really good cat. But generally it's not really a personal pet kind of thing.''
In Los Angeles, there is always, of course, the dream of being discovered.
On a recent morning at The Grove, Vito kept turning heads as he visited boutiques, skulking under displays of designer purses, bras and books. Small crowds formed, cameras clicked and a paparazzo scanning for stars got curious. ''So the cat's famous, huh?'' asked Jose Reyes. ''Well, he's working on it,'' LeCrichia said.