Tales from the Set - Part 4: How Cesar Survived Hollywood and Spread His Mission Globally
By Bob Aniello
If you asked me a few years ago if I would ever work in Hollywood, I would have said, “Never.” In fact, I spent most of my professional career avoiding Hollywood because I didn’t like the way business worked.
So when my brother Ron suggested I meet with this TV personality named Cesar Millan, star of Dog Whisperer, I was hesitant. But Ron has a special gift for spotting authentic talent. He’s an accomplished record producer who has discovered a lot of top stars, and he said Cesar was going to transform the world one day but needed help.
Two months later, I was working for Cesar. Soon thereafter, I sat down with him one evening at his home in Santa Clarita, California and asked him what he wanted to do and what was most important in his life. His reply shocked me. His priorities were almost the opposite of those whom he had trusted to manage his “business” at the time.
Cesar wanted a TV show, not expecting to become famous or to make a lot of money, but rather, he knew that TV had the largest reach and would have the greatest impact in helping people transform their relationships with their dogs. To Cesar, the dog was simply a secret entrance into people’s lives; their fears, phobias, and “imbalances.” If you’re a psychologist or a priest, you have to wait for people to ask for your help. Then, you have to spend a lot of time figuring out what’s really going on in their head. But when people ask for help with their dog, an invisible door is suddenly flung open — and Cesar steps in, delicately. He always knows more about a person than what they share with him. Cesar says, “The dog tells me the truth about what’s going on while the people only tell me the story.”
Cesar was right about the impact TV would have. Most people don’t realize it, but the US has one of the smallest viewing audiences for the show. Cesar’s TV show is seen in over 110 countries, and his viewing audience tops 38 million people worldwide — 20 million in Asia alone. That’s an incredible achievement for a guy who couldn’t speak English twenty years ago and lived under a freeway overpass for several months after crossing the border illegally. It’s also a testament to the foresight of two unlikely producers — Kay Sumner and Shelia Emery — whose “Tales From the Set” stories are published on Cesarsway.com, and who are credited with winning Cesar’s cooperation for the Dog Whisperer show.
The global popularity of the show is also a testament to how universal dogs are… and how universal our problems are with our dogs. We’ve travelled to many countries and Cesar isn’t surprised by what he sees. To him, it seems approproiate that the animal that is closest to the human — and has been for thousands of years — would suffer the most. Cesar reminds us all that dogs are merely a mirror into our own lives… a secret door that can unlock our problems.
One of my fondest moments with Cesar occurred when we were in Canada in March 2011 doing autograph signings at Canadian Tire stores. Towards the end of a long day after Cesar had signed, taken photos with, and greeted over 300 people, a young man pushed to the front of the line. He shuffled slowly and deliberately towards Cesar. Sensing something odd, I positioned myself to intercept him. He moved in very close to Cesar and, looking eye-to-eye, said, “Cesar, I want you to know I have AIDS and you saved my life.” There was a split second of silence and then Cesar grabbed this guy and gave him the biggest hug I’ve ever seen him give anyone. Later, in the cab ride to the airport, we talked about this young man and how he said he had used some of Cesar’s philosophies in the hospital to get through a period when he didn’t want to live anymore. We both burst into tears. The cab driver must have thought we were crazy. Cesar said, “Bob, how about that… two macho men, an Italian and a Mexican, crying in a cab together. They’ll never put this on TV.“
Of course, they would have never put a lot of things Cesar does on TV. I will always remember the ill-fated UK LIVE Tour. In March 2010, just a few weeks after Daddy passed away, Cesar left for a LIVE tour across the United Kingdom. He was going to be gone for almost six weeks — the longest Cesar had been away from his family, ever. He was hesitant and uneasy about leaving, but his family had agreed to meet him near the end of the tour. About ten days into the trip, Cesar’s wife called and asked for a divorce. The call came shortly before he was to go on stage in Dublin, Ireland before a crowd of 6,000 anxious fans. The news shook his world — but he performed that night. And he continued to perform until he completed his obligations with the tour. The only way he could get through that tour was by working out in hotel gyms at night after the shows. Sometimes he stayed in the gym for three hours, exercising until two a.m. He dropped over twenty-five pounds in two weeks. Cesar was doing what he had taught so many dog owners to do when they encountered problems with their dog — exercise.
With his marriage over, his TV show future uncertain and his beloved Daddy gone, Cesar returned from Europe. He withdrew to his Dog Psychology Center (DPC), a place he always goes when deep soul-searching and problem solving is needed. One morning, during a long walk with his pack, Cesar decided to chart a new direction for his life. He wanted a new TV show. Dog Whisperer was good, but he wanted a show that would address the growing problem of abandoned dogs. He too felt deeply abandoned and this show needed to prove to people that abandoned dogs deserved a second chance. He wanted to erase the stigma that they were ‘damaged’ and unfit. Thus, Leader of the Pack was born and, in six months, Cesar transformed himself from the Dog Whisperer to The Pack Leader. The show takes shelter dogs and rehabs them until they are ready for adoption. Cesar matches the dog with the best suited adopter. The first episodes will begin airing in January, 2013 on NatGeo WILD around the world.
Dog Whisperer represented a new type of reality TV show. There are now many, many similar shows all over the world. Cesar hopes his new show about rescue, rehabilitation and adoption will inspire others across the globe — especially in countries with the worst conditions. He says that only a very few people can become dog whisperers but everyone can be a Pack Leader! Cesar is hopeful that the TV viewing public comes to appreciate rescuers and adopters like they did dog whisperers.
Today, Cesar spends as much time rehabilitating dogs as he does rescuing them. But, as any rescue volunteer or shelter will tell you, the task is daunting. Cesar gets over a thousand requests a month for help from places all over the world. Just this year alone, he was asked to go to Afghanistan to help rehab bomb sniffing dogs; Tanzania to help save dogs who had developed severe aggression after being used by the Masai tribe to locate and protect lions; and every day, requests come in from somewhere in the world to save a pit bull that has been put on death row. He employs several dedicated people who work at the Cesar Millan Foundation to sort through these requests and respond where possible.
After four years of working with him, I can say that Cesar is the hardest working man I have ever known. His day usually starts at 5:30 a.m. with a pack walk and ends around 10 p.m. with interviews or meetings and family dinners. Those closest to him have become equally consumed by his work because his passion is so contagious. He is grooming his youngest son Calvin, 13, to be a Pack Leader. Calvin just signed on for his very first TV show. Of course, it involves dogs.
Hollywood has been good to the Millan family — not in riches or fame — but rather it’s provided Cesar and Calvin with a large platform for reaching millions of people that they use to educate — and now to rescue — dogs.