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Animal trainer Bill Berloni dishes on nearly 4 decades of Sandy from 'Annie'

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Annie
Barry Wetcher

A lot about the updated version of Annie that opens Friday will be unfamiliar to those familiar with the musical that opened on Broadway in 1977. Many of the songs have changed, for instance, and some have been excised completely for new pop tunes. But there’s at least one constant behind the scenes: Bill Berloni, the animal trainer, who, in his words, “created the role of Sandy.”

Berloni was an apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut when Annie had its world premiere back in 1976. As Berloni explained to EW, The Goodspeed’s executive director, Michael Price, needed “someone he could trick into training the dog, preferably for nothing.” After Price offered Berloni his Equity Card and a chance to be in a production, Berloni took the gig—and adopted the original Sandy for $7 at a shelter the day before the dog was to be euthanized.

When the show was headed to Broadway, Berloni got a call from the office of the late Mike Nichols—a producer of the original Broadway production—asking if he’d train Sandy again. Berloni said yes—and when the musical opened in April of 1977, Berloni suddenly found himself a world-famous animal trainer at the tender age of 20.

Nearly 40 years later, he’s still training Sandys. The latest: The canine star of the Quvenzhané Wallis movie, an 8-year-old mix (likely of Golden Retriever and Chow) named Marti. Berloni talked with EW about training “40 scruffy mutts over the last three decades” for the role and how he came to the latest movie.

The original Sandy was patient with Berloni 

The original Sandy—who went by the name of, well, Sandy—lived to be 16 years old, and Berloni described the dog as his “best friend” for the first half of his young adult life. Both of them were new to their jobs. “He would be very patient with my mistakes,” Berloni explained. “If I had to teach him something new and he wasn’t getting it, he would just sort of look at me.”

In 1982, the Tony Awards asked if Sandy would come and present the award for Best Choreography, requiring the dog to give an envelope to Ben Vereen. Since Sandy was a terrier rather than a retriever, Berloni suggested that a piece of string be tied around the envelope so Sandy could hold it in his mouth. They practiced and practiced, but Sandy just wasn’t nailing it. “He was probably getting it right half the time,” Berloni said. “In that moment I was like, do I really want to go on national TV in front of my peers and fail?

“I put him in the wings on stage right,” he continued, “and I said, ‘Sandy, please just do this for me.’ I was sort of just saying a silent prayer. And he did it. He carried it out amidst cheers and an orchestra and all of that stuff.”

But everything didn’t always go smoothly

According to Berloni, a dog’s performance is often more reliable than a human performance. “The dog’s performances are ultimately much more consistent, because if they know what they are doing, they know there’s a treat at the end. Why make a mistake?” he explains. Still, some mishaps happen. (The New York Times reported that during a rehearsal for Sandy’s aforementioned Tony gig, Sandy became “restless” because a King Charles Spaniel was in the theater.)

In one memorable instance, the original Sandy vomited on stage. “I was on my fourth Annie of the original production, Allison Smith, and Sandy came out. She started singing ‘Tomorrow’ and he sat up,” Berloni said. “She knew to hold on to his collar, and I saw him heaving. I was trying to get her attention from the wings to say “let him go,” but she was thinking, “whatever he does I have to hold on.” She didn’t recognize the signs of what was coming. So she held him, and he vomited right there.”

Berloni didn’t do the other two Annie movies

Though he explained that he came close in both instances, Berloni did not work on either the 1982 John Huston Annie movie or the 1999 version Rob Marshall directed for television. Berloni’s Mike Nichols connection, though did help him land his role on the recent film.

Berloni worked on Nichols’s film Charlie Wilson‘s War. “He told the producer of Charlie Wilson’s War, Celia Costas, to hire me,” he explained. “At first she was reluctant to bring a New York trainer out to Hollywood, and then once I came out and we worked together she was very fond of my work. So when Celia was given Annie, I was the top trainer on her list for it.”

Berloni was thrilled to finally get the chance to help bring Sandy to the screen, and he liked the way that the new version took on the story. “Being a purist, I was not fond of the first two versions of the movie because they took our play and made changes to make it better,” he said. “But when I read this script, I loved it because it’s the essence of our story. It’s like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet—taking a classic Shakespeare play and turning it into an updated [version].”

Berloni’s history with the show caught up with him when he was holding Marti for her cue when they were filming the end of “Tomorrow.” (In the stage play, Annie sings the song to the dog; the sequence plays out differently in the new film version.) “They had locked off the street, but it was crowded, and they started the playback. Here I was in Harlem in 2014, and I’m listening to the crowd sing this song from 1977. [I] realized that this piece had become part of Americana, part of collective social conscience in all sorts of economic strata,” Berloni said. “It made me so proud I started to cry. It really was for me a wonderful way to feel like I’ve continued bringing this story forward.”

For the new movie, Sandy got a new look…and a new gender

Will Gluck, the director of the new film, told Berloni that he wanted Sandy to look different than past Sandys. But there is continuity to Marti’s look. “Marti was like the 16th dog that I showed him. She actually closely resembles the original comic strip,” Berloni said. “If you go back to the Chicago Tribune the dog was orange in color with pointy ears. He sort of liked that. It was actually our director’s decision what the look was going to be, but it took us a while to find it.”

Berloni named Marti after Martin Charnin, the musical’s lyricist and original director. Marti, however, is female, and Gluck decided to make the character female as well, a departure from the original. Marti’s personality also sets her apart from past Sandys. “When she just looks at you, her face is in a continual smile,” Berloni said. “Our original Sandys were kind of sad looking. We were going for a little bit of sympathy. This Sandy’s a little more heroic. She gets away. She’s smart like Annie. They bond together to take care of one another.”

Marti and Quvenzhané truly bonded

Anyone who followed Quvenzhané Wallis’s Oscar campaign knows she loves dogs, based on her puppy purses alone. (Annie‘s star, a dog owner herself, recently told the AP she hopes to become a vet.) “When I said to her, this is going to be your dog, she just grabbed the leash and took over,” Berloni said. “That’s very unusual on a film set, for an actress or actor to do that. So when you see the film what you’re seeing is a real relationship between the kid and the dog.”

Berloni also saw parallels there with his first Annie experience. “I got a kid—just like with Andrea McArdle, the original Annie—who went, ‘I love this dog, what do we have to do?'” he said. Marti now even comes to New York to visit Wallis when she’s in the city.