ST. LOUIS — Even among wonder dogs, he was special.
A silent film star who could leap 12-foot walls, charm Oscar voters and inspire lifelong devotion from obsessed humans, Rin Tin Tin was a war refugee who "never died," says his best-selling biography.
"He was an idea and an ideal — a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner," Susan Orlean writes in "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" (Knopf, 324 pages, $26.99).
Maybe TV celeb Lassie was prettier, but Rin Tin Tin's life began as a real hero's journey, on a World War I battlefield in France. The German shepherd, his mother and littermates were rescued in 1918 from a bombed-out kennel, and the American who found him devoted his life to the dog — seemingly preferring his companionship to two wives (the first left because of the canine competition) and one daughter.
In trying to explain Rin Tin Tin's appeal to her young son, Orlean says she told him: "Well, wouldn't it be amazing if you found out that Scooby-Doo was a real dog?"
Only six silent films survive of the 20-plus Rinty made, helping Warner Bros. prosper. In the 1920s, the dog earned almost eight times what Warner paid human actors, and the studio called him "the mortgage lifter."
Other biographies of the dog actor have been written, but Orlean, 56, spent eight years researching the original animal and his descendants and intertwines his story with how many aspects of 20th-century American culture evolved at the same time — movies, TV, treatment of animals, favorite breeds, publicity stunts and lawsuits over rights to the dog's legacy.
Talking by phone from Los Angeles, Orlean, a New Yorker writer and the author of "The Orchid Thief," paused to order that a dead bird her son found be put outside. ("I have to take the credit or blame for his interest in animals — but all of mine are alive.")
Her family keeps cattle, cats, chickens, ducks, turkeys and a Welsh springer spaniel at their farm in New York. They are living in California while her husband works on a new business.
Orlean is on an extended book tour, but she says she's still enjoying answering questions about the dog she watched on TV as a girl. Here is an edited version of an interview.
Q. What is the main reason for Rin Tin Tin's long appeal?
A. I have a couple of answers for that. He had charisma. You have to assume there is some ineffable quality he had from the beginning that drew people to him. He also had the devotion of not just Lee Duncan (the soldier who found him), but Burt Leonard (a movie producer). He had people devoted to the idea of keeping this story alive. That's unique. There were other dog actors, other dogs that were very popular. But none had people in their lives for whom (the animal) was even more important than their own personal happiness. Lee Duncan felt this dog had a magic that was exceptional.
Q. Why didn't Rin Tin Tin's breed — the German shepherd — count against him during war years?
A. Some people did call them "Alsatian" shepherds. But I think the dog had been so embraced by the American public, and they were the U.S. Army's official dog, that the identity just canceled out the identity of them as "German." The Hollywood version of Rin Tin Tin's origins often skipped delicately over the fact that he was born to a German war dog. The other thing is I think people understand that dogs have no nationality.
Q. Do young kids know who Rin Tin Tin is?
A. Depends. A film came out a few years ago, and there was a TV show in the '80s called "Rin Tin Tin: K-9 Cop."
But I'm not writing a book because the subject is well-known, but because it isn't well-known, and there is something interesting to say about it.
Q. In many recent nonfiction books, the writer often refers to himself or herself and her own research, as you do. What do you think of this trend?
A. It is not a new trend. If you go back to early nonfiction (such as A.J. Liebling) they were very much a first-person presence in their writing. Even if people react to it as a sign of the narcissism of the modern era, it actually is not new.
Whether it's become more widespread — I think it probably has. I think also there is probably an awareness of the appetite readers have for having a better sense of who the writer is as a character and narrator.
Q. The family dog Lassie is arguably better known than the more aggressive action hero Rin Tin Tin. Did you watch "Lassie" as a child?
A. Oh, yes. I loved Lassie. But I think that my sister was such a Lassie person, I had to be a Rin Tin Tin person.
Q. Have the descendants of Rin Tin Tin escaped some of the health issues that plague the breed?
A. They were carefully bred with consciousness of their value. I cannot speak for all of the sold puppies, but the direct line of Rin Tin Tin dogs, as far as I know, was quite healthy. None of the descendants had quite as much charisma as the original. Also none had that connection with Lee.
Q. Why do most recent dog books or movies seem goofy ("Snow Dogs," ''Beethoven," ''Marley & Me," etc.), not necessarily heroic?
A. That is a big change. You don't see that same figure of the dog who is heroic. They are more comic, more playful. They're companions.
A lot of the dogs in pop culture now are naughty dogs, bad dogs. There is some enjoyment in the idea of the naughty dog. We find increasingly that the only heroes are cartoon characters. It's a different world.
The other thing is that technology for film has made the sort of "feats" of a dog less amazing. ... You're sort of marveling more at the accomplishments of technology.