Moose the Dog may have been the most esteemed TV animal actor of the 1990s, but there was another animal actor of the time who was, in every respect, a whole lot bigger: Bart the Bear. With over 20 acting credits including The Great Outdoors, Legends of the Fall and The Edge, the 9′ 7½″ Kodiak bear (said to weigh between 1,500-1,800 pounds) was the most in-demand member of his species in Hollywood for two decades.
Given his formidable size and the notorious brute strength of his species, Bart made for an imposing screen presence. However, as his many screen roles might reflect, Bart was a surprisingly gentle animal and very reliable performer, with The Edge director Lee Tamahori dubbing him “the John Wayne of bears”.
“He’s as intelligent as the great apes”
Born January 19, 1977 in Baltimore Zoo (now known as The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore), Bart was considerably smaller at birth, weighing a mere five pounds. Shortly afterwards he was adopted by animal trainers Doug and Lynne Seus. Raising him on their ranch in Utah, the Seus family are said to have used “a reward and praise system” to domesticate Bart. He made his TV debut whilst still a cub, on late 70s TV series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.
George Seus told the LA Times in 1997, “Bart is my buddy. I play with him every day. There’s a swimming hole in the natural flowing spring on the ranch [in Utah] and that’s where we swim every day. He’s extremely confident and intelligent, as intelligent as the great apes.”
Bart – who had some acting heritage, as his mother had appeared in the 70s horror movies Grizzly and Day of the Animals – brought in a considerable income. After a few big and small screen roles, Bart’s profile rose considerably following his appearance in the 1988 comedy The Great Outdoors, in which he portrayed Jody, the bald-headed bear who terrorises John Candy and Dan Aykroyd.
“The only animal actor that gets residuals”
After Bart’s scenes in The Great Outdoors turned out so well, the camera-friendly Kodiak went on to appear in such successful films as drama The Bear, Ethan Hawke adventure film White Fang, Steven Seagal action thriller On Deadly Ground and Legends of the Fall, the period drama starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.
So great was demand for Bart, he was eventually earning $10,000 a day – on top of which, according to his owner, he was “the only animal [actor] that gets residuals” (ie additional payments from re-releases, home entertainment sales and TV screenings).
Anthony Hopkins became a particular admirer and repeat collaborator with Bart, co-starring with him a second time in 1997 thriller The Edge. This film casts Hopkins and Alec Baldwin as two men trapped in the wilderness and under threat from a belligerent bear. Lynne Seus remarked that “Tony Hopkins was absolutely brilliant with Bart. He acknowledged and respected him like a fellow actor. He would spend hours just looking at Bart and admiring him. He did so many of his own scenes with Bart.”
A $1 million performance
Alec Baldwin, meanwhile, admitted having worried the film wouldn’t work because Bart wouldn’t be frightening enough, because the bear was so friendly in person. The actor remarked afterwards that Bart “should send the film editor a fruit basket every day for making him look so scary”. The Edge’s director, Lee Tamahori, agreed, and took the unusual step of putting a special thanks credit to Bart and his trainers in the film’s last scene.
Tamahori explained, “[Bart]’s such a major part of this picture. The reason we thanked him at the end instead of putting his name in the credits at the beginning is because we didn’t want to tip off [the audience] what a critical part of the film he was. If he wasn’t around, I don’t know what we would have done.” Bart’s fee reflected this, the bear having reportedly earned $1 million for his performance.
Critics also noted Bart’s contribution to The Edge, with one review from Time declaring the bear “deserves a Best Supporting Actor Award for his ferocious work.” Unfortunately Bart did not receive an Academy Award nomination (not surprising, as no animal has been Oscar-nominated), but he did become the only bear to show up at the prestigious awards show.
“What if he goes on a rampage?”
Bart, along with his trainer Doug Seus, appeared at the 1998 Oscars, presenting Mike Myers with the envelope containing the name of the winner of the Sound Effects Editing award. The son of the ceremony’s producer Gil Cates recalls that “people were terrified” about having the bear appear on stage: “What if he goes on a rampage?… they had all sorts of people off to the side waiting in case something went wrong.”
Mike Myers made no secret of his own trepidation, declaring after fetching the envelope from Bart, “I just soiled myself.” The Wayne’s World funnyman’s nerves were understandable, but he needn’t have worried: although some bear actors have at times been violent, this was not the case with Bart, who never harmed his trainers or any of his co-stars.
Sadly, while this 1998 Oscars appearance celebrated Bart’s contribution to film, it also proved to be one of his final appearances. In October of that year, after filming his final role in comedy Meet the Deedles, Bart was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery to remove tumours from his paw, but sadly the treatment proved ineffective, and after living his final days with Doug and Lynne Seus, Bart was euthanised on May 10, 2000, aged 23. (Kodiak bears typically live to around 25.)
“He’s just a good guy”
Not long before his death, Bart’s owners adopted another bear who they named Bart the Bear 2. Despite the moniker, the two bears were not related, but Bart 2 went on to enjoy a successful film and TV career of his own, with appearances in Into the Wild, We Bought a Zoo and TV’s Game of Thrones. In several of these, Bart 2 appeared alongside his sister Honey-Bump and their adoptive brother Tank, also owned by Doug and Lynne Seus. Sadly, Bart the Bear 2 also passed away in November 2021.
Happily, Bart the Bear’s name lives on. In life he was the ‘spokesbear’ for the Vital Ground Foundation, dedicated to conserving the natural habitat of bears in North America, and as Doug Seus told the LA Times in 1997, much of his career earnings went to this cause:
“He’s just a good guy. He gives so much back to his wild brothers, that’s why I don’t mind him working and making this kind of dough… He bought his first piece of land, 260 acres. Last year, he bought another 6,000 acres in the Rocky Mountains. He may be the highest-paid bear but he doesn’t take his job lightly. He gives back in every way.”