Jimmy: the raven who appeared in over 1,000 movies

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Since the Golden Age of Hollywood, animals have blessed our screens, from Clint Eastwood’s horses to Tyler and Chloe, the two Dachshunds who portrayed Odie in Garfield: The Movie. In the modern day, animal roles are increasingly handled by the magic wonders of CGI, putting well-trained animal actors out of work. However, the legendary raven, Jimmy, never knew such woes.

When I think back through televisual and movie history, several animals stand prominent in my memory. Alongside the dogs in Lassie and Old Yeller, I was close to praising the remarkable fly who managed to irritate Walter White for a whole episode of Breaking Bad until I realised it was a CGI job. My heart goes out to the flies on the Insect Actors’ Guild picket line!

Intelligent, easily domesticated animals like chimpanzees, horses and dogs are among the most prolific animal actors. If I were to guess at the most prolific of all time, I would assume the medal goes to some nameless steed of the western genre or a returning Lassie star. However, as it happens, the most capped animal star was Jimmy, who appeared in over 1,000 feature films during his illustrious career.

The bird was often credited as Jimmy the Crow but was actually a Raven, a slightly larger member of the Corvid family. As far as birds go, the raven is remarkably intelligent and will befriend humankind if there’s a good meal in it. As for Jimmy, his It’s a Wonderful Life castmate James Stewart commended him as “the smartest actor on the set” in a 1938 interview with The Coshocton Tribune.

Hollywood animal trainer Curly Twiford stole Jimmy from a nest in the Mojave Desert, where he was born in 1934. Twiford brought Jimmy up and taught him some important acting skills, including letter opening and recognising specific words in the English language. He even taught the bird to ride a miniature bicycle, which came in handy during his comedy performances. Jimmy eventually won a Red Cross gold medal for his services entertaining veterans after World War II.

Jimmy’s first movie appearance came in 1938, when Frank Capra cast him in You Can’t Take It With You. Impressed with the corvid’s intelligence and seamless portrayal of a raven, Capra decided to cast Jimmy in every subsequent movie of his career. Most famously, Jimmy appeared in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as Uncle Billy’s assistant at the Building & Loan offices. He also appeared in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz as the crow that lands on the Scarecrow.

After Jimmy became a household name in Hollywood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer insured him for $10,000. Another policy covered the bird’s $500 a week fee and Twiford’s $200 handler fee in case of illness or failure to perform. As the most sought-after professional in his field, Jimmy had more than 20 lookalikes who would step in as a cheaper alternative during scenes that didn’t require his talents.

Jimmy’s last movie credit was Joseph Pevney’s 3 Ring Circus, a 1954 movie in which he performed a small role alongside Dean Martin. Twiford passed away in April 1956, after which all records of the bird seem to be scattered to the sands of time. Avens rarely live much longer than 30 years in captivity, putting estimates on his death somewhere in the 1960s.

Whatever Jimmy’s fate, we hope he enjoyed a well-earned retirement after such a long and prolific career. Granted, he couldn’t rival Daniel Day-Lewis for range, but I would like to see the My Left Foot star portray a corvid with such accuracy and command.

See Jimmy in a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life below.

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