Hollywood Flashback: 1997’s ‘Air Bud’ Proved Golden Retrievers Can Jump

Air Bud — the Disney film about a dog who could play basketball (and which starred Buddy, a golden retriever that could indeed launch the ball into the net with his nose) — first dribbled its way into our hearts 25 years ago.

The idea for Air Bud had been hatched by Canadian brothers Robert and William Vince, who churned out low-budget horror films. When they caught Buddy on Late Show With David Letterman, inspiration struck for a family film. They described the idea to director Charles Martin Smith (who’d go on to direct 2011’s Dolphin Tale and 2019’s A Dog’s Way Home).

“I said, ‘That just sounds horrible,’ ” Smith recalls of their pitch. “This is what I said to them: ‘If you’d let me rewrite it and make it honest — a classic story of a boy and his dog — I’ll be in.’ ”

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He also stipulated that no trickery would be used when it came to Buddy’s athleticism — every basket had to be real. The film shot on a $3 million budget in Vancouver, B.C., with unknown actors pulled from Canadian theater. (The one exception was Michael Jeter, who played Buddy’s abusive party-clown owner, and who had won an Emmy for CBS’ Evening Shade and a Tony for Grand Hotel on Broadway.)

Disney didn’t board Air Bud until well into the editing process. Smith knew a few executives there and sent them a 20-minute sizzle reel, which impressed then-Disney chief Joe Roth. “They wanted to buy it, which was unheard of,” Smith recalls. The studio paid $6 million for the film, which opened Aug. 1, 1997.

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The Hollywood Reporter gave it a muted thumbs-up, noting in its review that it had “plenty of furry footwork and a nose for easy shots at emotional manipulation.”

The silly premise and heartfelt approach clicked with audiences, and the film grossed $25 million at the box office ($65 million today). Buddy died of cancer Feb. 10, 1998, before a dizzying parade of sequels. They include the 1998 theatrical release Air Bud: Golden Receiver (which bombed) and the Air Buddies spinoff movies, featuring Buddy’s “puppies,” which are available to stream on Disney+ and to date have sold over $220 million worth of Disney DVDs.

This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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