From the Raleigh News & Observer, March 22, 2000

Gracie is BellSouth nobility  

SANFORD, March 22, 2000

If "steady acting" is an oxymoron for people, plum parts for dogs are very rare beasts. But in her two-year acting career, Gracie, a 4-year-old border collie from Sanford, has proved an early exception to this rule.

You probably know her better as a him - namely as Ralph, BellSouth Mobility DCS's television spokesdog. Gracie has filmed 18 commercials as Ralph. Her most recent ad will begin airing in April.

In case you've somehow managed to miss them, the ads feature Gracie - a black-and-white workaholic with a court-jester face - with a guy named Dave. While Dave gets all the lines, Gracie steals the scenes with an arsenal of clever tricks (dead faints, repeated rolls, leaps into the horizon and howls at the moon) and clownish outfits (including a bat costume, reindeer antlers, swimming goggles and football uniform). Gracie's success has surprised even her owner and trainer, Bonnie Buchanan, who thought Gracie was the least likely of the four dogs she brought to an audition two years ago to land the role. Buchanan didn't think Gracie looked like a "Ralph." The collie had never seen a TV camera and had only mastered the roll-over trick required for the commercial days before.

But the border collie had the right Ralph stuff and was promptly hired.

"Gracie had an unusual look to her that was really neat," says Mike Fox, director of client services at Long, Haymes & Carr, the agency that made the ads for BellSouth. "You can talk about why a particular actor gets picked for a job, but mostly it's some magic that happens at the moment," Fox says. Gracie's co-star in the commercials, David Silverman, says the ads juxtapose "a very memorable dog" with "me not being at all memorable."

For whatever reason, the dog spots sell, and Gracie's spell has held.

Lights, camera, action

During her reign as Ralph, Gracie has become something of a BellSouth brand icon. Along with TV spots, she graces billboards and posters, and makes personal appearances at BellSouth stores and corporate meetings, where she performs for her public and "pawographs" Ralph postcards. And last fall, Ralph's likeness was immortalized in polyester and PVC pellets as BellSouth's Ralph beanbag toy.

Buchanan says the scripts that challenge Gracie with new stunts and lots of activity are the most fun to work with. "She'll sit there and stay, if she has to, but she'd much rather be busy and moving," Buchanan says. Gracie's most recent commercial for BellSouth kept her body busy and her mind engaged. The ad was filmed at the Kluttz Piano Co. in Salisbury and features Dave, Ralph, store owner Ray Kluttz and son Jonathan, and a gag that keys on the Kluttz family name. Gracie plays the part of a klutz when she pulls a tarp off a piano and backs into a lamp to make it fall over. The sequence requires perfect timing and precise footwork - uh, paw placement. Gracie's stunt involves six linked concepts - stay, turn, take it, pull, back up and release. Though Buchanan has worked with Gracie since she was a pup, the trainer can't always predict how her friend will react to a shoot. While unfazed by football helmets and flapping bat's wings, Gracie was initially startled by the loud clapper that signals filming. Buchanan used one around the house until Gracie got used to it.

And there is the occasional unscripted event. During the filming of a Christmas commercial, the red rubber reindeer nose that Gracie was wearing popped off. The ad's producers kept it in the final commercial.

Expanding repertoire

Other actors might rest on the laurels of their own beanie toy and successful commercial series, but Gracie and Buchanan show no signs of slowing. They would like to move up in the showbiz ladder one day with a part in a TV series or movie. Away from the cameras, Gracie is active in agility competitions and as a therapy dog.

Fortunately, young canine stars seem to handle early fame better than child stars. Capering through her Sanford home filled with eight other dogs and baskets of toys, Gracie seems down-to-earth. She drags a toy across the carpet, races around the sofa, and flops over on her back for a belly scratch. No temperamental actors here.

But being a border collie, Gracie is hard-wired to work, and interacting with her human is what she clearly lives for. When Buchanan lets her out in a front yard filled with agility equipment, Gracie crouches on her haunches, eyes locked on Buchanan. Her body demands a command. "Gracie, tunnel," is all Buchanan has to say. With a flash of white fluff, Gracie is off, under and through the agility tunnel. Then she waits in the sunlight, poised for her next cue.

Though Gracie hasn't turned into a spoiled star, after the constant activity and attention, she is a little like a human actor who is always "on." Whenever a camera starts clicking or a crowd claps, Buchanan says, Gracie thinks she's supposed to be out in front.

Take Gracie's appearance last month at a telethon in Spartanburg, S.C., to raise money for the Greenville Humane Society. After performing in front of the live audience, she and Buchanan took a break backstage. But the audience began clapping, Buchanan realized her dog had gone back for an unplanned encore. "Gracie raced back to the stage to sit on her hind legs, wave at the audience and howl," Buchanan says. "She was convinced the clapping had to be for her."

"She really does love the work," Buchanan says. "And lives up to her name, Amazing Grace."


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