The Inside Story of ‘Poochinski,’ the Sitcom in Which a Dead Cop Is Resurrected into a Crime-Fighting Bulldog
Stanley Poochinski was a tough New York cop. He was a rude, no-nonsense flatfoot who thumbed his nose at police procedure, while telling the dame over the dispatch line that she had “a real sexy voice.” He was the kind of character you’ve seen on a hundred different cop shows, but there was still something very unique about Poochinski: He was struck down in the line of duty and got resurrected as a talking bulldog.
Starring Peter Boyle as the titular character, Poochinski was a pilot NBC commissioned in 1990, and for what it’s worth, it did offer some promise. First and foremost, Boyle was a master of his craft, and although Stanley Poochinski was a pretty common cop archetype, Boyle immediately made him fun to watch — and listen to once he turned canine. Poochinski also didn’t take itself too seriously. Case in point: When the cop-turned-dog confided his current condition to his former partner, the partner asked him, “What are you going to do now?” To which Poochinski replied, “Well, first I’m gonna try licking myself. Then I’m gonna catch my killer!”
Poochinski was conceived by Lon Diamond, the writer of the 1997 Leave It to Beaver movie and a writer and producer on 2001’s The Tick, as well as David Kirschner, the producer behind the Chucky films, Hocus Pocus and many others. The two of them developed the premise, before Brian Levant, who would go on to direct movies like Jingle All the Way and The Flintstones, came onto the project to help guide it, as he had many years of experience on shows like Happy Days.
“They had the first act in place — where Poochinski is a gruff cop who is struck down and gets reincarnated as an English bulldog — but then Poochinski and his partner went onto their first case,” Levant says about his arrival on the project. “I suggested that the first case they should have is solving Poochinski’s own murder.”
The head of NBC at the time was the legendary Brandon Tartikoff, who Levant says was very excited about Poochinski, while John Ritter served as one of the producers. “Casting was a lot of fun because John Ritter got involved with that,” Diamond tells me. “He was pushing a young Amy Yasbeck, who he later married, and she was great. George Newbern, who played Poochinski’s partner, was delightful.”
As for Poochinski himself, Levant says, “Peter Boyle was our first choice, and he really elevated the project. You didn’t really see Peter Boyle on TV in those days, so he was a get. He was funny as hell, and he liked being the voice of something. I mean, think about it: He did two scenes in the pilot, and he potentially wouldn’t have to appear on camera for the next seven years! It was every actor’s dream job.”
For the star canine, Levant recalls that they found a dog that was young and spry (typical Hollywood). “I didn’t know how we were going to make the dog talk, though,” says Levant. “I asked David, ‘Is it going to be peanut butter in the mouth like Mr. Ed?’ And David said he’d been working with (the highly decorated special effects house) Industrial Light & Magic, and they would build us a completely lifelike animatronic bulldog. So we sent the dog we casted to ILM so they could take all kinds of pictures and measurements of it.”
As they were developing the pilot, they got pictures of the puppet’s development, and it all seemed very promising. “They had three months to build it,” Diamond says. “You’d have thought that would have been enough.”
But Levant recalls his horror when they eventually received the puppet. “Somehow, with all their measurements, ILM had made the dog’s front legs three times longer than a bulldog’s legs — they were like human arms!” To which, Diamond adds, “The eyeballs were kind of poppy, and some people said it looked like a talking pillow.” Unfortunately, there was no time to fix these things either — they needed to have Poochinski done in time for pilot season. “We just didn’t want to admit what a cataclysmic development this was,” Levant tells me. “To this day, I still don’t know how they got it so wrong.”
The problems only compounded from there. Thanks to the puppet’s unnaturally long arms, they could only use it in close-ups. And while Diamond credits cinematographer Lloyd Ahern for bringing a noir sensibility to the pilot, Levant laments that “the best scene in the show we didn’t have time to film.” “Newbern and Poochinski were supposed to have a big fight at the end where he’s running under the bed and all over the apartment with the dog breaking everything,” he tells me. “But they ran out of time, and the fix was that they did it in the bedroom with the door closed and you hear the fight, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. It was no substitute for what it could have been.”
“The final nail in the coffin was when the producers said, ‘We’re gonna screen it for NBC in their screening room,’” Levant continues. “I told them, ‘Guys, you do not want to see that bulldog on a screen that big.’” But they proceeded anyway, and Diamond remembers that everyone involved with the pilot was nervous going into it. “We were all worried about the dog,” says Diamond. “I remember John Ritter cracking dirty jokes just to keep everyone loose.”
It was only a momentary reprieve, however. When the pilot concluded, Tartikoff went up to Levant and said, “I loved it — except every time we cut to the dog, I cringed.” That was it, after months of production, NBC had taken Poochinski out behind the shed and Old Yeller-ed him. The project was dead. “We were so bummed,” Diamond says. “We were so disappointed because we liked the nutty premise, and we loved that cast. Brian and I still talk about it. We stand by the premise to this day.”
Over the years though, Poochinski has developed a bit of a cult following. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched the pilot on YouTube, and it’s received write-ups from the likes of The A.V. Club and Collider. The latter even called for a reboot. “I know Poochinski has a bit of a cult following now, but I’m almost frightened by the fact that people still watch it on YouTube,” Levant says. “Because I’m not sure if they’re watching it to watch a trainwreck, or if, like me, they’re entertained by the concept. The good thing is they’re at least watching it on their phones, which is the right size screen to watch it on.”
Either way, he knows deep down it wasn’t that Poochinski was necessarily a bad boy. It’s just that sometimes the game of fetch doesn’t go your way. Or as Levant puts it, “You think that once you reach a certain stage in your career, you can control everything. But the truth is, you can’t. Success is often a confluence of many lucky things, and similarly, a confluence of unfortunate events can doom something very promising.”