Who was your favourite Little House on the Prairie TV show character? Was it Laura? Or Mary? Or maybe it was nasty Nellie Oleson? In answering this question, do you consider the animals as Little House characters in their own right?
I know Sharon Lewis Evans does.
As a professional animal trainer and wrangler, Sharon worked on NBC’s Little House on the Prairie TV series as the show’s Dog Trainer from 1976 to 1978. During this time, she was responsible for creating the memorable performances of Laura’s dog, Jack (played by Jack and Barney) and Bandit (played by Jeff). Sharon and I recently caught up to discuss her time working on the show and how she got started working in Hollywood. After more than 3 hours of chatter, laughing and sharing, it became clear that Sharon Evans is one of those people who make you feel as though you’ve known them for years, despite only having just met. After working with some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities (think Elizabeth Taylor), she would have every right to be at least a little bit hoity-toity (snip). But no, Sharon is about as grounded as you can get. Here’s what she had to say.
TCT: Was being an animal trainer something you always wanted to do?
SE: Not at first, but when I was in high school, I knew my love of animals was really strong. I loved dogs, and I especially wanted a horse, but couldn’t have one because my family lived in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. As you can imagine, there wasn’t enough space for horses in small residential backyards. But regardless of not being able to have a horse as a pet, I would draw pictures of them and other animals constantly and eventually became an art major in high school. I thought I might pursue a career in art or something similar. At the time, I never really knew that training animals was something a person could do professionally.
My best friend and I rode horses regularly and we even participated in a riding academy at a rental stable for a while. We rode with McClellan saddles and we had uniforms and ranks and it was sort of like being in the U.S. Calvary. We did drill work on horseback and we would perform and compete with other posts and divisions. One of the teachers at my High School was also a counselor for a camp that had a dedicated horse program. He got us job interviews at the camp and we were successful in getting work there. It was our first job after we graduated High School. We got to be Head Wranglers of the horses and kids riding program. It was like heaven for us.
TCT: How did you get your professional start in the industry?
SE: I was given a school assignment that required me to go out into the business world and find a company that “helped people”. We were to interview an employee and find out more about their work. I chose the “International Guiding Eyes” of North Hollywood and spoke with the only licensed woman trainer in the United States. On the day of my interview, the trainer was scheduled to undertake the final performance testing of two German Shepherd dogs, to see if they were suitable for working in the next class of blind students. She gave me the opportunity to participate in the testing by blindfolding me and getting me to work the two dogs. It was an amazing and exhilarating experience. While blindfolded, she gave me instructions on how to command one of the dogs, so it could lead me from North Hollywood to Burbank. She worked the other dog (while sighted) behind me and watched to see if the dog was doing the right things. Then we switched dogs and I worked the other dog (while I was blindfolded), back to the school.
At first I was very tentative about it. I didn’t want to run into anything! I found myself holding back and the trainer just told me to relax and “go with it”. She explained that I needed to trust the dog and guess what? The dogs both passed with flying colors. This meant they were ready to be matched up with a blind person in the next class at the school. After that experience, I knew that training Guide Dogs for the blind was what I wanted to do. There was never any doubt in my mind. That was the career I wanted. My intention of being a professional artist disappeared.
Unfortunately, when I came back from summer camp to apply for an apprentice position at International Guiding Eyes, the director of the school told me they were not hiring women at that time and Lee was no longer working there. I was devastated and didn’t know what I was going to do for my career. But I knew I wanted to train dogs. So, I got a job at a boarding / training kennel in Burbank, which involved some cleaning, learning how to train boarded dogs and also providing private and group training lessons in the park. I discovered from my boss about working with animals in TV and movies. That’s when knew I had found my calling to become one of the first female animal trainers in the film industry. I was not going to hear that I could not do this job and I was determined to make it happen. But no one told me it was a field dominated by men!
Frank Inn was my first boss in the film industry. He was one of the largest providers of animals in the business. I started working for him in November 1968. I paid my dues working in the kennel for a year before he finally asked me to go to the studio the next day and work with him on Petticoat Junction with Higgins, who played the character of “Dog”. Frank sponsored me as an animal trainer into the Teamsters Union Local #399 and was a great mentor for me. He owned and trained all the Benji dogs and his animals starred in many TV shows, including the Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and My Three Sons. I became a 3rd trainer, then a 2nd trainer and finally a number 1 trainer, which meant I could be the head trainer of my own jobs and had other trainers working with me. I was one of three women in this very prestigious business. It never entered my mind that I couldn’t do it. I persevered until I was a top trainer in my field, working with wild animals, dogs, cats, livestock and even exotic birds.
TCT: Tell us about your first day on the Little House on the Prairie set.
SE: When I got the call from the owners of Jack and Barney (Peggy and Hal Driscoll), I never thought I would be asked to become the new trainer on Little House on the Prairie. I already loved the show and had been watching it for two seasons. So, of course I said a big “yes” when the opportunity presented itself.
I started working on the show during Season 3 in 1976. Jack and Barney (who together played Jack) had been placed into my care prior to me starting, so when I arrived at Paramount Studios for my first day at work, I had them with me. The animals used on the show were never kept on the lot. They always went home with their trainer. I also brought my own dog, Cobber with me. The three dogs got along famously. I initially checked-in with the 1st Assistant Director, Maury Dexter – who introduced me to Michael Landon as the new trainer. What Maury didn’t know was that I had already met Michael during the couple of times I had worked on Bonanza.
My first impression of Michael Landon was that he was very funny. On Bonanza, Michael and Dan Blocker would goof off sometimes. One day, in between scenes, Michael was sleeping in a hammock and Dan tip-toed over and pushed the hammock upside down and Michael fell onto the ground with a big thump. Being awoken so suddenly, Michael sprang up on his feet and was ready to fight – but Dan was in stitches and of course, recognizing Dan’s joke, Michael cracked up, too.
Working on Little House was incredibly special. The cast and crew became like family. And although Michael Landon was my boss, he was also my friend.
TCT: Why was Jack on the TV show not a brindle bulldog, like Laura Ingalls Wilder described in her books?
SE: I never heard it directly from Michael – because I didn’t ask him. But having been in the business for so long and knowing Michael so well – I am almost certain about the reason. You see, a brindle bulldog would not have had the “cute” look that I think Michael wanted. He was all about pulling at people’s heartstrings. It was always his intention to give the show that homey feel. This meant that Jack needed to be cute and soft and friendly looking – and I suspect this is why a shaggy dog was selected in preference to a bulldog. It was simply a friendlier look and feel. He wanted viewers to fall in love with the dog – and they did! The shaggy dog was also very popular in those days. A few TV shows of that era used them, including, “The Partridge Family” (Simone the dog) and “My Three Sons” (Tramp the dog). I worked with both Tramp and Simone on those shows.
TCT: In Season 4, Jack dies and Charles brings home a stray border collie, named Bandit. How different were the dogs to work with?
SE: That’s a really good question, because they were totally different – not only because they were different breeds, but because they were trained for entirely different purposes using different techniques.
Jack and Barney were specifically trained as movie dogs and were experienced working on a TV set. During the time I worked them on the TV series, they lived at home with me and as a result, I had a very close relationship with them. They always responded well to my commands and they didn’t expect treats for doing the things I asked of them. Jeff (who played Bandit) on the other hand, was completely different. He came from the Animal Actors show at Universal Studios and the commands he responded to were for routine performances. So Jeff was rewarded with treats during and after the show for performing in a routine act. After responding to a command, Jeff would look at me and wait for a food treat, which is a big no-no in film trained dogs, because the goal is to have the animal interact with the other actors, not stare off set at their trainer. So getting Jeff settled into a TV environment took some time and it was difficult at first. After a lot of rehearsing with him at Universal Studios on their western set, he and I became more of a working team by the time I had to do his first episode. Both dogs were great, though.
Of course, in real life, Laura Ingalls Wilder never owned a border collie named Bandit, and nor did she describe such a character in her Little House books. Bandit was created purely for the TV series by Michael Landon.
TCT: Do any of the cast or crew stand out in your memories?
Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon probably stand out the most in my memories.
Melissa and I became really good friends. She loved animals and because I looked after the dogs and most of my scenes were with the Ingalls family, we naturally became quite close. Melissa and her brother Jonathan (who played Willie Oleson) would come out to my ranch for BBQ trail rides. I compiled some of the photos I took from those visits into a scrapbook recently, which I gave to Melissa when Little House on the Prairie – The Musical was in Sacramento.
Michael Landon also stands out to me because we worked so closely together. He and I would sit down with the scripts, when he was directing an episode, and go through the parts in detail and he would tell me what he wanted from the dogs in each scene. I enjoyed working with Michael. Even though he was funny and could play pranks and joke around sometimes, he had a very serious side to him and he knew what he wanted. We were all expected to perform at a high level.
TCT: Apart from Little House and Bonanza, what other projects have you worked on?
I’ve worked on many commercials, TV shows and movies over the years, which are too numerous to list here. In 1978, I was the first female animal trainer to ever work with Rudd Weatherwax and Lassie on the movie, “The Magic of Lassie”, which starred Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Stewart. Rudd asked me to do the cat work on that movie. I was then asked by Rudd to be his 3rd trainer for the next movie with Lassie in the pilot for a new series, “The New Beginning”.
In 1973, I was awarded the prestigious AHA Award of “Picture Animal Top Star of the Year” (PATSY), which is the animal equivalent of an OSCAR for my work with Midnight the cat on “Mannix and Barnaby Jones”. This AHA PATSY award was presented to me by Betty White, as she was hosting the show with her then husband Allen Luden. I was also the dog trainer on “Love Comes Softly”, a period drama based on one of Janette Oke’s books. Coincidently, it was directed by Michael Landon Jr. and he hired my dog Cujo to play the part of Buddy.
TCT: What are you doing now?
I live with my husband, Ron, in northern California and run Crystal Hill Ranch. We supply antique cars and trucks for weddings, parties and special events. I also provide private dog training lessons and horse riding lessons. We have one beautiful daughter, who is a hair stylist and lives away from home. At the ranch, we have 5 horses, 3 dogs, and 2 kitties. I still keep myself available for film work with animals. I was hired in 2011 as a trainer to provide cats and horses for the movie, “Hemingway & Gellhorn”, which starred Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen. A movie I did in 2006 is still in post-production, which required scenes with rats. It is called “Road to Red” and is a thriller starring Sean Gray and Chris Blasman.
I have also partnered up with a writer and have a long term plan to write a book about my 47 years of experience working in Hollywood as a trainer as well as my other animal related work. I just finished a really nice chapter for my book on my experiences working on Little House!
Speaking of Little House on the Prairie, keep a look out for several interviews with me that will be featured in upcoming special features of the newly re-mastered Blu-ray and HD DVDs that are being released.
TCT: Thank you for joining us Sharon and best of luck for your book project and your future TV and movie projects.