I’ve been reading a lot lately about discrepancies between personal and social identity. The most moving text I found on this subject was from a surprising source — a retired animal actor. She gave the following speech at an annual Conference of Animal Workers in Denver in 1983. It was passed around for decades and only recently published in a collection of essays called, Animal Wit, Wisdom and Folly.
Hi. My name is Midnight Thunderstomp, better known as “Stormy” from the dramatic series of the same name.
I wasn’t cast in the lead role because I was the smartest or the best-looking horse at the audition. I didn’t get the part because I was the best actor. I was cast because I would do anything for sugar cubes. Anything.
But this isn’t a story about my years of obediently taking direction, aka “acting.” This is a story of what happened when the show was canceled and how I learned to be myself and not “Stormy.”
Nothing prepared me for the shock of retirement. My new home was a gentleman’s ranch outside of Pasadena. I didn’t leave my stall for a week. I was embarrassed at not knowing how to do normal horse things: eat grass from the ground, rub my head against posts, trot, canter, whinny spontaneously. Every time a kid under the age of 10 came in the barn I thought he was going to shout at me about a brush fire or someone trapped in a well. I was a mess.
The other horses snickered at me. They mistook my shyness for snobbery. The first time the stable manager came in with a handful of carrots I began stomping my hoof. She didn’t understand that this was a conditioned response, something I’d been trained to do in order to give the illusion of knowing math.
“Look who thinks she owns the barn! Well, miss prima donna, these horses are just as important as you. You’ll get your carrot when everyone else does.” This egalitarianism didn’t prevent her from sneaking me off to a Radio Shack franchise opening the moment my new owners were out of town. Other openings followed.
I should clarify: I went willingly. I was desperate for the stage, the cameras. It was the only time I felt like a coherent horse. Everything else felt like one big anticlimax.
I hit bottom about six months later when I overheard some people talking about a 5K charity run at Dodger Stadium. That day I jumped a fence and made my way onto the interstate. A truck swerved to avoid hitting me and jackknifed, causing a huge traffic jam. Next thing I knew, helicopters were buzzing over me as I galloped along the shoulder. That was a first too. Galloping.
I was so crazy I actually thought I could still get to Dodger Stadium. I felt a sharp sting in my left haunch and then all was darkness.
I woke up on the floor of a stall in a quiet, climate-controlled stable. A friendly looking chestnut colored horse with a white stripe on his forehead gazed down at me.
“Christ. What’d you do?” he asked.
The pun-laden news report on the radio told him everything he needed to know. He rolled his eyes and introduced himself. His name was Bamboo Harvester. That’s right. There I was drugged and struggling to my feet in a futuristic Los Angeles animal hospital, alone with the most famous horse actor of all time, “Mr. Ed.”
I’ll never forget his kindness that day. He spoke with a weary familiarity but his eyes were merry. It was the perfect tone to take if you wanted to soothe a younger horse who thought her life was over. I think about that a lot. That it was he who comforted me.
“Rather be tied to a millstone than be retired eh?” He chuckled at this. “I’ve been there. Maybe work a jousting tournament at a Renn-Faire? I know.”
“Have you ever made a fool of yourself on national television?” I asked.
“You mean you haven’t seen my show?” he asked.
I hung my head.
“Bah, the world will forget! It’s only you who’ll believe the world remembers. Let me tell you something, Midnight. I used to have to bite leather every time some idiot called me “Mr. Ed.” Finally I had to ask myself, is it worth it? What matters is whether or not the oats taste good. Am I wrong?”
This was a little hard to hear while I was bracing myself to become late-night talk show fodder. But some of it got in.
“Consider yourself lucky. You might have spent your whole life fighting it.”
I nodded. He nuzzled me.
“It won’t matter, though, since I’m going to be assassinated by the Radical Animals.”
At this, Harvester was quiet for a moment.
“I have a lot of respect for what Penthius Winterbottom’s done. He gave up acting at the peak of his career, changed his name, denounced pants. He’s helped a lot of animals. But let me ask you something. Do you think he’s better than you? Stronger? More ‘pure?’”
“He has… integrity,” I said.
The doors swished open at the end of the barn and two gowned veterinary assistants wearing masks walked up to Harvester’s stall.
“Does running down the interstate mean you don’t?” he asked.
As they led him away, I called out, “Hey, Harvester, What are you in for?”
Without missing a beat and without turning around he called back to me, “I forgot my lines.”
Four days later, I learned he’d died from kidney failure.
His funeral was a who’s who of animal actors: the reclusive has-beens sitting quietly, the desperate ones, their muzzled dyed, still trying to work the room, the superstars, like Bart the Bear, and a band of Radical Animals made up of diaper-less chimps, unkempt ponies and the wise old quarter horse Penthius Winterbottom.
And then, something happened that totally eclipsed my own humiliating incident. As a high school student stepped up to the podium and began singing “The Rose,” a pony named Dusty Roads defecated. It was an instant, national scandal. Dusty retreated to a farm in an undisclosed location and has not been heard of since.
I’d like to say a word in Dusty’s defense. The prevailing interpretation has always been that it was an act of protest against the television industry and Harvester himself, for selling out. This is absolutely untrue. At that point in his life, Dusty was beyond any sort of militancy. He’d achieved what most of us only dream of. He’d managed to reach back into his original nature and find that holy grail we all long for, his inner animal.
I remember the moment clearly. The gentle thud, the steaming pile. I say again, Dusty meant no disrespect. In fact, what he did was an act of love. No, it’s okay. You can laugh, I understand. But think about what it meant. It was a total acceptance of who he was, without self-consciousness. Bamboo Harvester would have delighted at the innocence of it. He would have neighed!
After Harvester’s funeral I began to build a life for myself. I have to say, being disgraced gives you a certain power. You can’t be blackmailed. Very few things make you afraid. You have nothing to lose. In the coming years I helped create “Lassie’s Law,” where not just the original animal but all subsequent actors playing that same role are legally entitled to receive royalties. I founded CounterProductive, a rehab center for post-career horses addicted to solving math problems. I found out I liked historical novels, baking and jumping over stuff.
I’ll never forget Bamboo Harvester’s attitude about being called, “Mr. Ed.” No one had it worse than him. If you watch the show, check out the credits. On one side it says MR. ED and on the other side, where the actors real names are listed, it says only HIMSELF. In an interview with Barbara Walters, Harvester admitted there were times during the peak of his career when he forgot his real name and “Who I’d ever been.”
He was an incredible horse, not because of the show Mr. Ed, but in spite of it. Of course, he’d never say that. But it’s true. Even Dusty Roads can’t touch that because Harvester did the most difficult thing of all. He stayed in the world.
Before he died, he specified in his will what he wanted to have written on his tombstone. There are those who see it as sardonic. There are those that see it as evidence of his having merged with his role. Not a bit of it. This was the final act of a horse who was free:
Here Lies Mister Ed