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An Oral History of the Time a Dog Ate a Heart on ‘One Tree Hill’

On March 23, 2009, television history changed forever … when the CW teen melodrama aired a scene of a golden retriever eating a replacement heart intended for Dan, the show’s villainous father. We spoke to everyone involved in the making of this momentous event (except for Chad Michael Murray).

The CW/Ringer illustration

What makes a truly memorable television moment? Sometimes it is a poignant and heartfelt scene, like Sam Malone turning off the lights to the bar at the end of Cheers. Other times it is something unexpected and weird, like the little person dancing in reverse in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The closing shot of Seinfeld—with the four main characters unceremoniously conversing in a jail cellis burned into our collective memories because of its divisiveness. And in the case of One Tree Hill, the borderline iconic status of its most lasting image can be attributed to total, dumbfounded amazement. When else in the history of TV has anyone seen a golden retriever pick up a man’s replacement heart off of a hospital floor and scurry away with it?

A little more than eight years after its airing, the “dog heart scene” remains the most discussed moment in One Tree Hill history, even if its importance from a plot standpoint is relatively minimal. The show, centered on two half brothers (James Lafferty and Chad Michael Murray) who share a villainous father (Paul Johansson), featured countless love triangles, murder, an unprecedented four-year time jump from Season 4 to Season 5, and a plotline in which an impostor half brother tries to kill his fake half sister, only to be rescued by the real half brother. Suffice it to say: The entire show was absurd and melodramatic, even before its innovations in the dog-heart space. But that’s not to say it wasn’t adored. The show survived the WB-UPN network merger in 2006, developed a fiercely loyal fan base, and eventually raced past the 100-episode mark. “One hundred episodes is the Hall of Fame,” says One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn. “It may not mean you’re doing something revolutionary, but it certainly means there’s an audience for your show.”

In Season 6, with the added confidence that came from breaking that barrier—and, of course, the need to continue pushing boundaries and keeping an audience engaged—Schwahn and his team of writers set their sights on the long-awaited heart transplant of Dan Scott, the show’s archvillain. Suffering from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Dan had been in need of a transplant for seasons. For several reasons, though (getting hit by a car, getting kidnapped, etc.), he was never able to get one—until “Searching for a Former Clarity,” the 18th episode of Season 6, it seemed. Alas, the minds behind One Tree Hill wanted Dan to suffer even more, to be pushed even closer to the brink, and they weren’t about to do it with some kind of everyday mishap.

Part I: “How Bad Can We Treat Dan?”

Mark Schwahn (creator, One Tree Hill; writer, “Searching for a Former Clarity”): Paul Johansson came to me and said, “When are we going to redeem my character?” And I said, “Just go with it.”

Paul Johansson (Dan Scott): Dan was being put through so much. Like—how bad can we treat Dan? [I thought] I’d never be allowed on an airplane again or something, you know? And it kept going. I think in a way, they wanted me to be treated so badly that the audience would just go, “Oh man, he’s really had a hard life.”

Zachary Haynes (script coordinator, seasons 3-5): There were just a lot of over-the-top pitches when it came to Dan.

John A. Norris (writer, 2005-11): What you should know first about that writers’ room: It was a joke-heavy room. Just to paint you a picture of the types of joke pitches that were in this room, someone had a pitch in Season 1—back when it was still a basketball show and the two brothers [Nathan and Lucas] hated each other—that there was a nuclear bomb in the town and you couldn’t get close to it, but the off button was in the middle, so the town had to vote which brother shot a basketball to turn it off. It was a lot of joke pitches, you know? You’re in a room all day, you get a little stir-crazy, and you come up with jokes.

Schwahn: Now, my mother will tell you that Dan was her favorite character and she felt sorry for him. I just felt like, we don’t want Dan’s redemption to be too easy. We don’t want him to get a heart transplant and have it be too conventional. We want to take him to the edge of hope and then see what he’s made of. I just thought, “What’s an absurd way of this guy getting really close to getting this heart transplant and not getting it?”

Norris: One of the writers, Bill Brown, was talking about his dog. He said that his dog, if you dropped food anywhere on the ground, it would just eat it up.

Bryan Gracia (script coordinator, seasons 6-7): He had an English bulldog named Gromit. He used to sneak it through security to bring him into the writers’ room every once in awhile. But yeah, Gromit would eat anything.

Norris: It was just an absolute, laughing joke pitch of: What if the heart fell in front of a dog in the lobby and the dog ate it? Everyone cracked up.

Gracia: In the writers’ room, I remember a long pause. Like … “The dog eats the heart?”

Norris: But I mean, it was never gonna happen.

Schwahn: I just started thinking about it, and I thought, you know, we’d all heard stories about someone getting their animal stoned or whatever. So I thought, this guy is stoned, his dog gets into his stash. He’s not making good decisions at this point because he’s high, and he loves his dog so he takes the dog to the hospital. And of course the receptionist is lecturing him: “Sit your stupid ass down and I’ll call you a veterinarian.” So he sits down; the dog’s leash is there. … The dog’s stoned so he’s hungry. And he wants a snack.

Johansson: Why couldn’t this happen? Why not?

Eugene Storozynsky, MD, PhD (director of Cardio-Oncology Clinic, University of Rochester Medical Center): I mean, there would be absolutely no way that a cat or a dog or any other animal would ever be found inside a hospital.

Joe Davola (director, “Searching for a Former Clarity”): Schwahn likes to push it. He’d write bigger-than-life things, and people were always—not questioning—but like, “What is this gonna come out like?” Everyone trusted him, but we would just go, “OK, Mark’s at it again.”

Haynes: I think that he was just emboldened by years of working with the same staff and consistently, day after day, pushing—and then he decided to hit on one and go with it. And it was a big one.

Norris: The next day, we were all in the writers’ room and Joe Davola came into the room and he’s like, “We’re doing the dog eatin’ the heart.” There was just this big laugh and he’s like, “We’re doing it. It’s in the episode.” It was very surreal.

Greg Prange (executive producer): Crazy Joe Davola.

Johansson: Oh yeah, Joe Davola. “Paulie! Paulie! I got somethin’ for ya!” Joe Davola is like Joe Pesci on steroids.

Gracia: That’s why they really call him “Crazy Joe Davola.”

Haynes: Lore has it that Joe Davola is the inspiration for Crazy Joe Davola from Seinfeld. He’s kind of like a New York godfather. He started as an MTV producer in the early days. He’s got a bit of a brusque attitude, but he’s also kind of a teddy bear.

James Lafferty (Nathan): He’s a larger-than-life character. He was so enthusiastic and invigorated every time he came to set. He just wanted to make the best episode possible. We always knew we were in good hands.

Schwahn: I was thrilled that Joe got that episode. Joe may have been stoned once or twice, so I felt like he could work from a historical perspective as a director.

Davola: It was my third One Tree Hill episode directing. One was when all the girls were stuck in the library [“For Tonight You’re Only Here to Know”]. My second episode [“We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)”] was Chad [Michael Murray’s], which took us back to the ’40s, like a fantasy episode.

Davola: Pretty challenging. And then the next episode, I’m fucking dealing with a dog heart? How am I gonna fucking pull that off? I said, OK, here we go.

Gracia: I remember very clearly thinking, “OK, this is one of those moments, right?” I just wanted to see it on screen. Because it was so cool.

Part II: Freakin’ Catfish

It was in the script—Dan’s heart was going to be eaten by a dog. After the shock of that fact faded away, the One Tree Hill cast—and the crew on set in Wilmington, North Carolina—had to make it happen, keeping in mind the scene’s two most important factors: the heart and the dog.

Davola: We started doing research.

Gracia: Part of my job was doing all of this really in-depth research, talking to these doctors. They were super excited. It was actually really, really earnest. And Joe’s just like, “Graci! Graci! Graci! Did ya find out about the heart transplant stuff?”

Davola: Usually when we do stunts, we storyboard them or something like that. The heart thing, it was more like, what kind of heart are we gonna use? We did the research and we found out—that’s a pig’s heart.

Storozynsky: Well, the closest animal would be a monkey or an ape, but we do—in cardiology—use valves from a pig as a replacement for any diseased valves humans may have. So there is definitely similarity in some of the structures. And in terms of size, the size [of a human heart] may be comparable to a pig’s.

Prange: From a visual reality, we were told that [a pig heart] would be close. We weren’t going to kill an ape.

Schwahn: I suppose they had X amount of pig hearts.

Davola: There were so many farms in North Carolina, it wasn’t a hard thing to get. We had a couple extras ready to go.

Prange: I think the biggest thing in this case was just trying to find a dog. We tested a lot of dogs trying to see if we could get one we could train not to eat it—just to pick it up and kind of move with it. The [first dog we got] was from somewhere in the Wilmington area. I can’t remember what her name was.

Schwahn: Catfish.

Norris: Catfish!

Davola: The dog’s name was Catfish. He was sort of a mongrel. Like a mixed dog, you know what I’m saying?

Schwahn: He wouldn’t go and pick up the heart. He had no interest. And I remember—Joe’s got this big New York accent, and I remember him standing behind the camera, and the dog staring at the heart with zero interest in picking it up, and Joe was saying, “The freakin’ heart’s right there, Catfish. Pick it up! Get it, Catfish!”

Davola: “Catfish! Catfish! Get the freakin’ heart.” The dog wouldn’t do it. The dog would not do it.

Schwahn: We were all laughing hysterically at this dog. Completely disinterested in the scene in front of her. To this day, you call any writer at One Tree Hill Season 6 and say, “Tell me about Catfish,” they will quote you—

Norris: All you could hear was Joe Davola: “Catfish! Eat the treat, Catfish!” He has a really strong accent so it’s really funny. And it was just, we were rolling.

Davola: So I was a little discouraged. I got the whole crew saying this is not gonna work, the dog’s not gonna get the heart. We had to figure something out.

Schwahn: So what happened was Catfish got fired. But we ended up putting Catfish in a different scene on the beach. After the scene when Dan’s yelling at God on the beach, one of our prop guys runs by and he’s got Catfish on a leash.

Schwahn: It worked out for Catfish.

Johansson: I heard that Catfish had gone vegetarian and was moving to California.

Schwahn: So we ended up using a different dog, a retriever from Florida.

Davola: Retrievers retrieve, so then it was no problem.

Part III: “We Gotta Commit!”

With the dog and the props figured out, it was time to shoot the scene. And thus one of the most exciting days on the One Tree Hill set began.

Lafferty: It was one of the few moments I can remember where everybody was talking about it. Like, when you walked into the makeup trailer, or you know, even a transportation driver has read it and you’re talking about it with them. Pretty much the first person you saw, it was the main topic of conversation.

Prange: I was on set when they shot that. Sometimes, you’ve just got to be on set.

Johansson: There was a lot of giggling. People who weren’t on the main cast hadn’t really read it, so when they were listening and saw it, there was a lot of giggling and silliness.

Deena Beasley (hospital receptionist, “Searching for a Former Clarity”): I had never read anything like that. And then when I saw it I was like, Oh my God, that’s kind of crazy.

Davola: The process was a little crazy. We had a lot of movement in it, you know? We had a helicopter, we had music; we had the guy that drugged up his dog, there’s the guy who trips over [the leash]. All this choreography.

Johansson: [Davola] talked us through it: Here’s how we’re gonna start the scene, and this is where you’re coming in with hope, and the wheelchair is pushed here, and here comes the heart in a bucket—that’s your salvation in there—and here’s this dog on a leash, and the guy gets tripped and the bucket falls …

Prange: When you have [this kind of a scene] in the script you go, “OK, how are we going to do this?” But Joe Davola is very determined in what he’s trying to get to happen. And it was great. The knocking over of the styrofoam ice container and stuff, that worked great. Everything worked great—with stuff just coming into lens and things like that.

Schwahn: I just went back and looked at the scene and was disappointed at the fake ice cubes. They look a little fake when the heart spills out.

Davola: Just me as a director looking at it, I would have liked a bigger spread of ice.

Storozynsky: That ice looks a bit like ice you would buy in a convenience store, but aside from that, it’s not [especially unrealistic].

Prange: The dog worked great.

Davola: The shot of the dog actually picking up the heart? The going for the heart, picking it up, and going away with it—one take. We went in with three cameras because who knew how many times the dog was gonna do it? But we did that in one take.

Beasley: That was really amazing, because you can’t dictate what a dog is going to do.

Davola: I was relieved! And then I said to myself, “Now I got to get Chad’s reaction.” That was probably the bigger challenge.

Schwahn: I remember somebody, it was probably Chad, saying, “Are we really doing this? Are you just fucking with us?” And I said, “Chad, if I used the show to fuck with you guys, there wouldn’t be a show.”

Davola: I remember Chad that day going, “What do I do?” I said, “You read it, what did you think?” He goes, “I can’t fucking believe this is happening.” And I said, “That’s exactly how you have to react.” And that’s the reaction I got out of him.

[Chad Michael Murray declined to comment for this article.]

Norris: I really love the reaction from Dan. We have this scene that is so clearly absurd but played serious because this guy’s really not getting his heart. The reaction is funnier to me than the dog eating the heart, just because it’s played so serious.

Lafferty: You never knew what Johansson was going to do.

Johansson: I was just like, “We gotta commit!” If you half-ass the moment for something like that, it can come across pretty bad. It’s like when you’re little and you’re playing Cowboys and Indians with your friends. If you’re not committed to someone shooting you and falling down and dying, you’re not having fun. But if you fully commit, you can completely convince yourself that you are a guy who needs a heart transplant who just saw your last hope get eaten by a dog.

Haynes: The funniest thing is, nobody in the scene makes an attempt to get the heart back.

Part IV: “Holy Shit—How Did That Happen?”

“Searching for a Former Clarity” aired on March 23, 2009. It didn’t take long for the scene to turn into a water-cooler moment, and suddenly One Tree Hill was the greatest and worst show on television, depending on who you asked.

Schwahn: When I would hear laughter in the writers’ room, it usually annoyed me because it meant something had gone wrong. But this time, it was pleasant because I poked my head in and they said, “You gotta see this; it’s awesome.” And I went in and I watched what they had cut together and I was really pleased with it. It was exactly how I envisioned it.

Davola: I was very happy with how the whole thing turned out.

Prange: It was one of those, you go, “I have no idea how this is going to work,” but then you get done and you go, “That was pretty cool.”

Schwahn: Other than the shitty ice cubes, it was great.

Prange: It made its point—the heart was not given to Dan. And I think it’s one of those where the audience went, “Holy moly.”

Gracia: Tracing the comments on the boards—the boards were a big deal back then—was funny.

Schwahn: So, so many of the boards immediately were like, “The show has jumped the shark.” First of all, we were more than 100 episodes in. Second of all, we jumped the shark in, like, Episode 2. Nathan and Haley got married in high school.

Norris: My parents watched the show and they would always write me or call me and say, “Great episode.” And they did point out that [the dog] was an interesting way to go. I don’t remember their exact words but I could tell by their tone that they were like, “Why’d you do that?”

Haynes: I was off the show by Season 6, but somebody brought it to my attention and I immediately called or texted the guys who were still on the show like, “Holy shit. How did that happen?”

Norris: That’s what we were going for. You don’t do a dog eating a heart unless you expect that stuff.

Johansson: I think it was a mixture of people in disbelief that we actually went through with it. I think people got very—there was fun in it. Even though it was a very serious thing for my character, there was a lot of fun in that. And the show needed that balance.

Prange: That was the fun for us—periodically trying to stay grounded but blow people’s minds at the same time, a little bit.

Mike Schur (executive producer, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place): It’s the undisputed champion of out-of-context TV scenes. Why is there a dog in the waiting room? Why, when the heart comes tumbling out onto the floor, does literally nobody move? And why, in the name of all that is holy, does [Chad Michael Murray] look at [Paul Johansson] with a look on his face that seems to say, “I told you so”?

Norris: So it aired, and then just kept coming up and coming up and coming up. There were articles, and then there was The Soup. The Soup loved, loved, loved making fun of us.

Joel McHale (host, The Soup): We had always paid attention to One Tree Hill, but nothing prepared us for that. That was unique. And it makes no sense in the context of that show! It’s like if on Game of Thrones some guy showed up in a food truck selling kobe beef.

Lafferty: We became a consistent fixture on The Soup after that. They were paying attention to us.

Norris: The Soup named us the worst moment in television history or something; the most outrageous moment in television history.

McHale: It’s one of the most perfect scenes in television history. One of the top-five clips we ever showed.

Via ‘The Soup’

Davola: It’s been written up in magazines as one of the craziest things that’s happened, one of the top-10 things to happen on a TV show. I remember reading about it in magazines … the crazy thing is, when the dog goes to get the heart, my name pops up on the screen.

Haynes: That’s not by accident—that’s a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” moment.

Davola: They were busting my balls. And I’m like, “Those motherfuckers in post.”

Davola: It’s all good. I look at it like, we did it!

Part V: “It Lives On”

Schwahn: I always thought that One Tree Hill was people being people, even if it was messy. It was somewhat absurd, that moment. But it was human, in the sense that everyone made mistakes. And listen, I understood that the joke was gonna rub some people the wrong way, but I felt like this show should rub people the wrong way every once in awhile. To have someone go, “Meh, it’s all right,” is the kiss of death, you know?

Gracia: I always tell people: If we had done this super-earnest version [of that story], no one would be talking about it all these years later. To this day, everyone says, “Oh, you worked on One Tree Hill? That’s where that dog ate Dan’s heart, right?”

Haynes: It lives on.

Schur: We started watching it in the Parks and Rec writers’ room. Then we brought it to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now The Good Place. I’d say we watch it once a week, at least.

Norris: I have not had one job interview since that when One Tree Hill comes up they didn’t say, “Were you there for the dog eating the heart? Tell me about the dog eating the heart.”

Lafferty: I probably get asked about the dog more than almost anything else.

Johansson: I’ll still get pulled by random people and they’ll say, “Can I take a picture? I grew up on your show.” And then, “Oh! That time that dog ate your heart! That was so great!”

Prange: I’m not [surprised], because it’s one of those scenes that has a bit of absurdist reality to it.

Storozynsky: It’s more egregious than anything that’s ever happened on Grey’s Anatomy.

Prange: That was the fun of it for me, and the biggest thing is we were able to accomplish it. Whether it was funny or over the top, the gag worked.

Norris: My response whenever I’m in a meeting and they bring it up, the first thing I say is, we made a lot of really good episodes, and I’m proud.

Schwahn: People responded very viscerally to it, either for better or worse—probably, for the most part, worse in this case. But that didn’t bother me. It put everybody where we wanted them to be. It pushed Dan to the brink. And it was funny and interesting and it amused me, and I stood by it. I still do.

Ringer interns Jordan Coley, Charlotte Goddu, Danny Heifetz, and Shaker Samman provided transcription assistance for this piece.

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