By Tom Gliatto
August 04, 1997 12:00 PM

ON THE PBS CHILDREN’S SERIES Wishbone, a dreamy—and very literate—dog imagines himself the hero of such classic tales as Oliver Twist, The Red Badge of Courage and Don Quixote. But Wishbone’s grandiose fantasies are no grander than the real-life attentions lavished on the series’ star, a 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Soccer (named for his markings as a puppy and a lifelong fondness for miniature soccer balls). At mall appearances during a national promotional tour last year, the 15-pound actor held court in a red armchair surrounded by thousands of young fans. He flew first-class (the seat belt was looped over his carrier cage), stayed in four-star hotels and had guards to accompany him on his appearances. On outside missions to take care of “personal business,” says Sue Furman, the tour’s publicist, “I could hear the security people on their headsets saying, ‘We’ve lost the President,’ when he would disappear behind a tree. Then, ‘We’ve just found the President!’ when he reappeared.”

Seldom has a dog so deserved his day. The weekly half-hour series, blessed with good reviews and numerous awards, graduates to its first nighttime special this October with a Halloween episode in which Wishbone plays superstitious Ichabod Crane from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” And a Wishbone merchandise blitz has begun, including toys, CD-roms, bed-sheets, books, videos and backpacks.

But though he’s on the verge of eclipsing Benji, Soccer takes it all in stride. “He wants to be at work, he wants to please, and he’s very focused,” says his trainer and owner Jackie Kaptan, 45, who also coached the yellow Lab in The River Wild and the Dobermans in True Lies.

Soccer has unwhimperingly worn more than 100 Velcro-fastened (and Emmy-winning) costumes, including molded plastic armor as Odysseus, a white beard as Rip Van Winkle and a plumed hat (but no fake nose) as Cyrano de Bergerac. He nearly always gets a scene right on the first take (at which point Kaptan rewards him with treats). Occasionally he does have trouble getting into character. “When a prop is involved,” says Kaptan, “Soccer might want to play tug-of-war rather than give it to the actor.” His costars overlook such antics. “I give him the respect I’d give another actor,” says Adam Springfield, 15, who plays computer genius David Barnes. “He needs to concentrate too.”

Before discovering this consummate canine, series creator and executive producer Rick Duffield auditioned more than 100 dogs. Then in walked Soccer, former star of commercials for Mighty Dog and Chuck Wagon dog food. “I thought Soccer was magic as soon as we saw him,” says Duffield. “He was so expressive.”

If less than a genius. “Soccer is not any smarter than your average pet,” says Kaptan, who raises and trains about 40 other professional dogs on two ranches, one outside L.A. and the other near Piano, Texas, the Dallas suburb where the show is filmed. But, she adds, “Soccer always wants to try something new.” In the Halloween special, for instance, he bobs for apples—an unexpected trick that developed one afternoon when Kaptan dropped a stone in a bucket of water. Soccer impulsively dunked his head and retrieved it.

Oddly, though, he doesn’t like to swim. For those shots, says Kaptan, “we use a female named Phoebe.” In fact, Soccer has three other doubles: Slugger and Shiner help with stunts, and Bear does publicity stills.

Between scenes, Soccer relaxes in an air-conditioned dressing room with his own kennel crate. At Kaptan’s Dallas ranch he has a whole room to himself (“He doesn’t keep it very clean,” she says). And he stays fit with a steady diet of dry food plus skinless chicken—grilled and lightly seasoned—and regular exercise.

At some point could all this go to Soccer’s head? He has been known to bark when he wants the AC turned on in the car, and he prefers human company to his own kind. “In dog years, he’s 63,” says Larry Brantley, 30, who supplies Wishbone’s inner voice. “I imagine him as this crusty old showbiz hound.” Kaptan thinks a kid in a candy store is more like it. “When production started,” she recalls, “Soccer had $200 to spend on toys and chew-bones to last through the season. He spent it all in three trips to PetsMart!”