BECAUSE OF MY LINE OF WORK and the company I keep, my six-year-old son, Henry, has met his share of famous Texans, from actor Lukas Haas to singer Don Walser. But I’ve never seen him as starstruck as he was on the spring day he met Wishbone—or rather, the Jack Russell terrier who plays Wishbone on the hit public television show of the same name. We had come to Big Feats! Entertainment in the Dallas suburb of Richardson to tour the ten-acre back lot and 50,000-square-foot studio where the show is filmed. First we walked among the standard clutch of trailers, each of which had a star on the door, just like the old movie cliché. Out into the bright sunlight stepped one, then two, then three teen actors, and Henry grew so quiet I thought he’d been stricken with a fever. Then we went inside the craft services hall, where the cast and crew eat. Henry looked up from our table and spotted the big guy—all fifteen pounds of him—padding across the floor. We’d seen Wishbone in episode after episode, but it was entirely different to actually see him, panting happily, just ten feet away. Henry swooned.
So did I. For the first time since I was in training pants, I’m excited by a TV show for kids. One reason is that Wishbone is the rare show that really is for the whole family. Like Sesame Street, Wishbone has enough adult references and inside jokes to hold the attention of those of us older than ten. Another reason is that dogs make for good TV. This has always been the case, from classics like Lassie to cartoon canines Astro ( The Jetsons ) and Scooby Doo to sitcom pooches Eddie ( Frasier) and Murray ( Mad About You ), but it’s especially true of Wishbone, who is more alive and engaging in any given episode than most small-screen pups are in a whole season.
But the best thing about Wishbone is that it’s a creative, high-quality show with a laudable goal: to get kids to read. If you’ve never seen it, the basic premise is that Wishbone has a penchant for literature. Whenever his owners, a widowed mother and her twelve-year-old son, Joe, leave the house, he nudges one classic or another off the shelf. He then gives a brief synopsis of the story (yes, he can speak, but only we can hear him) and daydreams that he is the protagonist, much like Mr. Magoo did in the popular sixties cartoon series. The daydream segments are interspersed with plot lines in which Joe and his friends wrestle with a moral dilemma that parallels the plot of the classic. In “Fleabitten Bargain,” for example, Wishbone daydreams that he is Goethe’s Faust; meanwhile, Joe learns a modern-day lesson about the pitfalls of temptation when a devilish huckster tries to sell him a bogus virtual-reality helmet. In other episodes Wishbone has played characters from Cyrano de Bergerac to Silas Marner to Quasimodo; in the first show of the new season—“The Legend of Creepy Collars,” which airs in prime time on October 15—he adds Ichabod Crane to his repertoire.
Puns aside, Henry and I like Wishbone because the show’s creators play it straight. None of the humans in the daydream segments seems to notice that Wishbone is a dog: When he plays a romantic part, for instance, the human woman of his dreams looks into his doggie eyes and kisses his doggie nose without missing a beat. Also, the costumes are great. In fact, Wishbone won a Daytime Emmy for costume design in 1996. And, of course, the show’s educational bent is great too, which is why it won the Television Critics Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming in 1996 and 1997 and why media outlets from People magazine to The Tonight Show have given Wishbone the star treatment. Even George W. and Laura Bush are fans: As part of their campaign to fight illiteracy, the governor and the first lady have taped a public service announcement with Wishbone, whom they praise for “doing a terrific job of motivating kids to read by introducing them to classic literature.”
That was precisely Rick Duffield’s intent when he came up with the idea for Wishbone in 1994. The 42-year-old Dallasite, a veteran TV producer, wanted to create a show that would entertain his whole family and inspire children everywhere—including his own—to read. He had fond memories from his own childhood of “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons and Classics Illustrated comics, which transformed fables and works of literature into something fun, but he hadn’t seen anything like them since. “I had wanted to do a show in which the dog was the hero,” Duffield says. “Working on that idea, I came upon a story line very similar to that of Oliver Twist. Then I realized we could have a character who could jump into books and introduce them to kids.”
Duffield decided to film a seven-minute trailer as a pitch to potential investors—but first he had to cast his leading man. At several days of tryouts held in California, more than one hundred dogs of all breeds read (so to speak) in person and on videotape for the part, but none came close to a six-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Soccer. During the audition Soccer impressed casting director Rody Kent not only with his wide array of skills and tricks, such as jumping and rolling over, but also with his incredibly expressive face. Duffield admits he was partial to the breed going in—he has a Jack Russell of his own, Dooley, whom he lovingly refers to as “Wishbone’s fat, slow cousin”—but by all accounts, Soccer won on skill. “I thought he was magic as soon as we saw him,” Duffield later told People.
Casting Soccer, however, was only the beginning. Duffield also had to find the dog’s voice—someone to provide a running commentary during the daydream and modern-day segments of the show. “My agent called