By Brad Dison
From the moment he came into the world, people were drawn to Skippy. The youngster was put up for adoption immediately after he was born. Whether Skippy was the name his biological parents had given him or just a nickname remains a mystery. Information on his parentage was either sealed or lost. One day, Henry East met two-week-old Skippy by chance. He and his wife, Gale, were not looking to adopt but there was something special about Skippy. The other youngsters of similar age paid no attention to Henry, but all of Skippy’s attention was on Henry. Within a short time, all of the paperwork was arranged. Henry and his wife adopted Skippy.
Luck was on Skippy’s side. The Easts had Hollywood connections. Henry East worked in the special effects department of MGM, and Gale East was a veteran actress. With proper training, Skippy was sure to eventually work in the film industry. Skippy got his first film role in the 1932 film entitled “The Half-Naked Truth.” Reviews for the young actor were positive, which led to a steady stream of small film roles.
His breakthrough role came in the 1934 film “The Thin Man,” a comedy whodunit featuring personable alcoholic crime-solvers Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Skippy almost lost his big break “by a hair.” Henry had submitted a photo of Skippy to his boss at MGM for a small part in the upcoming film. As a personal favor, his boss agreed to give Skippy a screen test. On the day Henry got the call from MGM, Skippy’s barber was just finishing cutting his hair at the East’s home. The Easts had planned to leave their home as soon as the barber finished. Henry learned later that had they missed the call, MGM would have offered the small role to another young actor.
Skippy’s screen test went better than anyone, especially the director, had expected. Skippy got the part and filming soon began. Skippy was athletic, a natural comedian with boundless energy, and his rough and wiry hair stood out on the silver screen. Even during scenes in which he was just supposed to be a fixture in the background, he was so charismatic and charming on screen that the audience’s attention was drawn away from the lead characters and onto him. Skippy quickly earned a reputation as a scene stealer. Actors and actresses usually saw scene stealers as a threat, but not William Powell or Myrna Loy. Powell was so captivated by the young actor that he tried to adopt Skippy from Henry and Gale East. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood.
Although Skippy was not a veteran actor, he took his cues like a true professional and did most of his scenes in a single take. It was usually the other actors and actresses who flubbed their lines or missed their cues that required multiple takes. Most directors cringed at the thought of working with children or pets, but no one complained about working with Skippy. Even though he was not cast in the starring roles, he got his own dressing room and earned a large salary.
In 1937, Skippy reprised his role in “Another Thin Man,” to much success. Newspaper columnist Harriet Parsons of the San Francisco Examiner opined that Skippy “darn near stole the picture from Loy and Powell.” Skippy’s part, which studio executives originally feared they had miscast, “won the hearts of millions of fans.” When fans saw Skippy in public, they no longer referred to him by his real name but by his most popular onscreen name. Skippy soon became typecast, which most actors and actresses desperately try to avoid. But not Skippy. Like Bela Lugosi following his portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 classic “Dracula” (Lugosi so loved the character that he was buried dressed as Dracula), Skippy relished his connection to the character.
Skippy worked with some of the top-billed actors of the 1930s and 1940s, and charmed them all. He appeared in a total of 22 films before he retired from acting. During that time, he shared the screen with such notables as Mary Astor, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Ian Hunter, Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara O’Neil, and a host of others.
Following the successful 1944 film entitled “The Thin Man Goes Home,” Skippy retired from acting. Little is known about his life after 1944. Even his death remains a mystery. When he died, there were no accolades in newspapers, magazines, radio, or television. No obituary appeared in newspapers and no death certificate exists for the actor whose film career began when he was just one year old. There was no conspiracy to hide the details of his death. You see, Skippy was not human. Skippy was a dog, more particularly a Wire Fox Terrier. His most famous roles were as Asta in the Thin Man film series.
1. The San Francisco Examiner, January 3, 1937, p.22.
2. Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), March 9, 2019, p.E10.
3. American Kennel Club. “Wire Fox Terrier.” Accessed September 17, 2020. akc.org/dog-breeds/wire-fox-terrier/.
4. Internet Movie DataBase. “Asta.” Accessed September 17, 2020. imdb.com/name/nm1208817/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t15.