The Problem Einstein Couldn’t Solve

I recently read an article by a fellow who had interviewed many famous celebrities during his radio career. It got me to thinking about my own experience meeting a genuine Hollywood celebrity while I was working for the air pollution control agency in Los Angeles.

Back in the 1990s, a major Hollywood movie studio ran afoul of our air pollution regulations. That wasn’t uncommon in an industry that might occasionally have to recreate the hell fires of Kuwait for an adventure film. At any rate, they settled the case by agreeing to produce a TV Public Service Announcement promoting things people could do to improve air quality. The script involved a group of grade-school kids performing a school play. Each kid would say a few words of wisdom while demonstrating an activity that could reduce air pollution. Not exactly Spielberg, but what the heck. It was free.

The studio provided all the cast, crew and equipment required to produce the 60-second PSA. Some of the children already had experience working in front of cameras. But most were complete novices whose stage-door mothers hoped that being seen in this PSA would launch their children into lucrative careers in movies or TV. Just appearing in a nationwide TV commercial could bring in hundreds of dollars in residuals every time it aired. I don’t know about the kids, but these were a bunch of highly motivated mothers. 

As far as I knew, none of the kids had what I would call “celebrity” status. But I found out there was one cast member who was a genuine professional movie star with three popular movies under his belt. He wasn’t one of the children. His name was Einstein. No, not that Einstein. This Einstein was the Catalan Sheepdog who played the trusty canine companion of the nutty professor in the Back to the Future movies. This pooch had worked paw-in-glove with the likes of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

In our PSA, Einstein would play the pet dog of a cute little girl who would walk toward the camera as she recited her line, “Walk or ride your bike?”  That wouldn’t be much of a challenge for Einstein. In Back to the Future, he had learned to play the test pilot of the supercharged DeLorean sports car that could travel through time. Compared to that, his role in this PSA would be a walk in the park, literally.

Things got off to a shaky start when we noticed that the eight-year-old girl was a little overwhelmed by all the lights and cameras. She also was a bit wary of the big shaggy dog she was expected to control. To begin their scene, Einstein would be sitting patiently at her side waiting for their cue. With the call for “action,” the girl was supposed to start walking the dog toward the camera while saying her line.

The problem was that the girl would just say her line but forget to walk the dog. This went on for several retakes. Einstein’s trainer had a suggestion. On cue, he could signal Einstein to stand up, which should remind the girl to start walking him. But, to no avail. Take after take, the girl would stand stark still and blurt out her line.

By now, the girl was getting flustered. It didn’t help having a gaggle of stage-door mothers in the peanut gallery becoming more and more impatient because the filming of their own little darlings was being delayed. The pressure was on.

Einstein’s trainer had one more trick up his sleeve. On cue, he could signal the dog to start walking toward the camera, pulling the girl along so she’d already be walking as she said her line. Einstein performed his part flawlessly. But the girl got startled when the dog began pulling her, and forgot to say her line. Take after take, this girl just couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. By now, she was in tears. Not even her mother could console her. Sadly, this little girl was just not ready for prime time.

One of the crew joked that we should just forget about the girl and have the dog say the line. But, alas, speaking English was beyond Einstein’s pay grade. I don’t think even Rin-Tin-Tin ever spoke English in a movie. Of course, that may be because he was German. Lassie, coming from Scotland, might have fared better. But she probably would have had a thick Scottish accent that would be unintelligible to American audiences. As far as I know, even Tarzan’s sidekick chimpanzee never graduated above grunting a few “oohs” and “aahs.” Come to think of it, Tarzan himself wasn’t particularly eloquent.

Another little girl got the part. The PSA got made. It didn’t win any awards, or pay any residuals. As far as I know, none of the kids got discovered or hit the big time.

Over the years, I’ve often thought about how we might have handled that problem better. I’ve decided it shouldn’t have taken an Einstein to solve it. If I ever get the chance to climb into that supercharged DeLorean time machine and fly back to that Hollywood studio, I’d probably leave Einstein on the curb. In his place, I’d bring along a more suitable animal celebrity—the talking parrot from Pirates of the Caribbean. Oh, and I would definitely not bring along the parrot’s mother.

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Larry Kolczak
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