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4 Canine Actors That Made More Money Than Humans

Sure, it pays well to be an Instagram-famous dog today—but these beloved dogs of Old Hollywood also earned some serious coin.

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The movie star dog

Lassie. Toto. Air Bud. You probably know these four-legged icons as well as you might know humans like Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep. And yet it can be rare—especially today—that dogs in films actually out-earn human celebrities, even if they have the biggest “role” in the movie. For instance, the dogs playing the titular character in Marley & Me (there were several, since the dog had to age up!) didn’t earn nearly as much money as Owen Wilson or Jennifer Aniston.

But back in the early days of Hollywood, it was a different story. Individual dogs had more of a chance of making it really, really big onscreen than they do today. While today, a dog might be cast in a single “dog movie” or even snag a franchise or TV role, dogs don’t really become “movie stars,” known by their actual name and taking on multiple different roles. (You’re far more likely to see dogs become Internet-famous!) And, of course, it can be silly to even talk about dogs “getting paid”—the pup certainly isn’t pocketing the money! Generally, the money that onscreen dogs earn is split between the dog’s owner and the talent agency that represents him. And these four canine luminaries of Hollywood yesteryear earned lots—and lots—of money. If these well-paid pooches are a little before your time, find out the most famous movie dog the decade you were born.

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Rin Tin Tin

There’s a reason why people still recognize the name of this famous pooch—nearly a hundred years after he graced the screen. Rin Tin Tin was the original movie star dog. Appearing in 26 silent films throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Rin Tin Tin captured the hearts of thousands of Americans in the way that only a dog can. This German shepherd was found in a WWI war zone, and after his owner realized how trainable he was, he started snagging major film roles. Among his best-known films are 1923’s Where the North Begins and 1926’s The Clash of the Wolves. (In the latter, he played a wolf—now that’s range!)

According to Citizen Canine: Dogs in the Movies by Wendy Mitchell, he was soon out-earning many humans of the time—as much as $6000 per week. According to Hollywood legend, even received more votes for Best Actor at the 1929 Academy Awards than any human! (Unfortunately for him, the Academy decided that the award had to go to a human and gave it to Emil Jannings—but raise your hand if Rin Tin Tin’s name is still more familiar to you than his!) For some more current canine success stories, read about these shelter dogs that got famous.

strongheart dog moviePublic Domain/via Wikipedia

Strongheart

Rin Tin Tin might have become better known across time, but Strongheart, another German shepherd, is widely considered the first major dog movie star! He first appeared on the scene about a year before Rin Tin Tin, with his 1921 film The Silent Call. And though he only appeared in six films, he earned some serious cash, eventually becoming a multi-millionaire—in the 1920s! At one point he was even the highest-grossing star of any species in Hollywood, according to Citizen Canine. Perhaps the reason for his massive stardom is that his fame was more worldwide than Rin Tin Tin’s; he was born in Poland and was a German police dog before a pair of Hollywood big wigs found him. His most famous—and final—film role was in the heist film The Return of Boston Blackie.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn Acting a Scene from Bringing Up BabyJohn Springer Collection/Getty Images

Asta

This Wire Fox Terrier wasn’t the biggest star in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby—he shared the screen with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. He didn’t even have the biggest animal role in that film—that would be the titular leopard, Baby. But Asta, née Skippy, proved to be a charming scene-stealer with his comedic barking timing and other antics—and was well paid for it. His name was changed after his first film role, as a dog named Asta in The Thin Man, which he would reprise in multiple sequels. And according to Citizen Canine, he earned up to $250 a week at his most prolific—while his trainer was earning only $60.

toto wizard of oz movie dogMgm/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Toto/Terry

You knew this was coming! Rather disconcertingly, that oft-repeated tidbit that Toto was paid more for The Wizard of Oz than many of the Munchkins is true. Though she (yes, she!) was later renamed Toto, the Cairn Terrier who played Dorothy’s faithful companion was actually named Terry. And her paycheck for the 1939 blockbuster was enormous. It wasn’t just more than what some Munchkins earned; it was more than double. Terry—or, more accurately, her trainer, Spitz—earned $125 a week on the film, while some of the Munchkins earned as little as $50 a week. The human star of the film out-earned Terry—Judy Garland was paid $500 a week—but that’s still a whole lot of dough for a dog. Read on to find out the movie that made the most money the year you were born.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.