Throwback Thursday: In 1928, Leo the MGM Lion Survived a Plane Crash

The Kobal Collection


Long before Cecil tragically made headlines, America was obsessed with another lion. Leo, ad man Howard Dietz's brainchild, created a media storm by surviving an airplane crash and roaring on cue, emerging as the most famous brand of any Hollywood studio.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

While Zimbabwe's Cecil the Lion was done in July 6 by a Minnesota dentist with a compound crossbow, MGM's Leo the Lion mascot managed to survive the transition from silent to talking pictures, the studio's multiple bankruptcies and a plane crash in the desert.

MGM's first Leo (of seven) was born in the Dublin Zoo and made his Hollywood debut in 1927, when ad man Howard Dietz took the full-body profile lion trademark he'd come up with nine years earlier for Samuel Goldwyn Pictures and revamped it for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. But it was a second, 350-pound Leo, born in the Sudan, who was sent on a cross-country plane trip that, while a disaster, became a publicist's dream. To hype the new studio, Leo II was placed in a single-engine Ryan Brougham plane (similar to the one Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic four months earlier) with the words M.G.M. LION on its side inside a glass-sided cage. Five hours into the flight, the plane crashed in Arizona. The ensuing media hype over the pilot and Leo surviving four days in the desert did wonders for publicizing the new studio. The first question the MGM execs had when the pilot phoned after his ordeal was: "How's the lion?"

The execs had good reason to be concerned. This Leo roared on cue, and it was his growly performance that arguably became Hollywood's most famous brand. In a call from Kenya, where he now lives, Ralph Helfer, an animal behaviorist who worked with later incarnations of MGM's Leo, says his affection- rather than fear-based animal training worked so well "you could put the lion in the back of my station wagon, and he'd sit in a chair in the producers' office and we'd talk about the scene. The insurance companies loved us because they didn't think anyone would be bit or scratched." Still, says Helfer, 84: "Bengal tigers are better cats to work with. Lions are lazy: They don't want to work; they're big, heavy and temperamental."