By Christina Cheakalos
May 21, 2001 12:00 PM

Gillian Lange is cruising a Los Angeles animal shelter when she spots a doleful Doberman puppy with a broken pelvis. Through a cage he nuzzles her hand. “I’ll take him,” she says. “You can’t say no to this.” Nor would you try. Lange sells Hollywood’s hottest stars their homes, but more often than not, she also convinces them to adopt one of the pets she has saved. Lange says she’d rather hear “I’ll take it!” for a warm puppy than for a cold house key. “My dream,” says Lange, 64, “is that one day no animals will be in shelters.”

If anyone can wrest reality from dreams, it’s Lange. “I am so impressed with her commitment and compassion,” says actress Candice Bergen, 55, host of the cable talk show Exhale with Candice Bergen, who has bought two homes from Lange. “She spends every penny and all her free time on these animals and her organization.” She hasn’t taken a vacation or wanted to since 1974, when she began her mission through her nonprofit Amanda Foundation. In 1993 she started the Lange Foundation, which now runs L.A.’s largest rescue center. In 1980 Lange—former sister-in-law of actress Hope Lange—won the city’s St. Francis of Assisi Award for her work. In all, she has rescued more than 15,000 cats and dogs.

She gets plenty of support from her celebrity friends. “I’m so happy I can help her at her kennel,” says Katie Wagner, 37, host of TV Guide Channel’s Music News and daughter of Lange’s longtime pal Robert “Wagner. Together Katie and her actress sister Natasha Gregson Wagner, 30, daughter of the late Natalie Wood, have taken in three dogs and one cat. “I see how much joy she brings to people every time a pet is adopted,” says Katie. So does Mark Harmon’s sister Kelly, an interior decorator and Lange Foundation board member. “None of us can hold a candle to her kind of dedication,” she says.

That dedication involves weekly excursions to L.A. County’s 26 animal shelters, where she rescues some 20 dogs and cats (cost: about $47 each) that would otherwise be put down within five days. “I feel they know they’re about to be destroyed,” says Lange of animals that aren’t adopted because of age, illness or a cuteness deficiency. “So every visit is quite emotional.” Before placing her rescues with new owners, Lange takes them to her cheerful 3,800-sq.-ft. Halfway Home Kennel, whose $300,000 annual budget is funded by donations and auctions. (During the decade Bergen starred in TV’s Murphy Brown, she raided her wardrobe and jewelry case for Lange.) At the kennel the dogs and cats recline on cushions, chew on squeaky toys and bask in the attention of three full-time employees and dozens of volunteers, who double as agents. “If someone smiles at a dog I’m walking, I immediately tell them he’s available for adoption,” says volunteer Salli Sammut, 57, a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms inspector. “Gillian does this. We all do.”

While growing up in Toronto, Lange and her sister Mclinda, 58, weren’t allowed to have a pet because their mom, Vivian Lewis, 92, was terrified of dogs. “I’m making up for it now,” says Lange, whose late father, John Northway, owned a chain of clothing stores. At 18, she moved to New York City to model and act. Soon after she bought her first dog, a poodle named Corby, whom she taught to play the piano. “He’d plink away with his paws,” Lange recalls proudly.

She moved to L.A. in 1964 and later married movie producer David Lange. After they split in 1974, she found a new career selling real estate and a new home with a St. Bernard, Bonnie. “She was my big comfort,” she says. “But one day when I picked her up at the vet, she was so excited she had a stroke and died. I was devastated.”

That loss inspired Lange. “After Bonnie’s death I found my calling, and I never looked back,” she explains. Finding not-so-humble abodes for the likes of Joan Collins and Uma Thurman is rewarding, she says, but these days, most of her time is spent on rescue work. Even after a long day at the kennel, she often sits in the backyard of the two-bedroom Hollywood home she shares with three pets, writing thank-you notes to her benefactors. These Samaritans help Lange add to her long list of satisfied clients—humans and animals—happy in their new homes. “It’s the compassion of our donors and their faith in what we do that enables us to do our work,” she says. “I couldn’t rescue any animals without them.”

Christina Cheakalos

Ron Arias in Los Angeles