By Robert Young, Jr.

Luke (1913-1926)

Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Old Yeller, and their like shine in the history of canine film stars, but in the shadow of a now long forgotten legend only the old vaguely recall and the young know by name if they are fans of silent comedy.

The legend's name was Luke, his breed English pit bull, his intelligence and physical abilities mind-boggling.

It is 1914, hefty Roscoe "Fatty' Arbuckle and his diminutive wife Minta Durfee are thick in the swim of filming slapstick comedies for Mack Sennett at his Keystone Studios.

One sunny morning, Minta was on location with Chester Conklin at the edge of the palisades looking out and down at the surging Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica. The film being shot was Lane, Speed and Thrills. The scene, outlined by director Wilfred Lucas, has her dangling over the cliff edge 300 feet above the narrow highway and pounding surf below. "Minta, I'll give you a nice bonus if you'll hang on to that tree root and let Chester rescue you," Lucas told her.

Thinking beyond the five dollars a day she was being paid, Minta agreed. Secured by a piano wire "safety" line, she bravely swung kicking and screaming from the root while Chester frantically jumped around before finally hauling her up and in. The crew cheered. Lucas was delighted with the shot. "Come over to my place tonight and pick up your bonus," he told her.

Minta was both perlexed and disappointed when the bonus proved not to be cash but a six week-old male English pit bulldog puppy, one of a litter bred by the director. Held by Roscoe, the squiming bundle of fur chewed Minta's finger and won her heart. Smiling, she told Lucas, "Wilfred, because this was all your doing and something I want to remember always, we'll name the bonus, Luke." Giggling, she tucked the puppy under her arm and made for home. Luke went to sleep in her lap.

Within six months, long before World War I gave films Rin Tin Tin, who spawned a dozen imitators, and whose memory is still current, brown and white Luke was a full fledged member of Sennett's Keystone. He made his film debut in January 1915 with 'Roscoe and Mabel Normand in Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day.'

Amazingly fearless, Luke performed a variety of stunts at Roscoe's command including climbing ladders, chasing villains across rooftops, jumping from building to building. He also leapt from great heights, and was once, with split second timing, filmed jumping from one speeding car to another. Always on hand when Arbuckle was working, Luke eventually earned a contract that paid $150 a week year 'round.

Reckoned a veteran, Minta Durfee's stunt bonus lived to be thirteen years old, performing with Roscoe, Al St. John, and, later, Buster Keaton. The circumstances of his death and burial in 1926 are unknown. He survives in his films and in a famous production still in which he sits at Arbuckle's feet unnoticed while the derby-topped comedian whistles for him between his fingers.

SEE Buster Keaton and Luke play 'Roof Tag'

From Keaton's "The Scarecrow," 1920


More photos of Luke

Return to Essays & Arby Links