“That show owned a generation of, particularly, girls, you know?” Nick Bakay, the original voice of snarky black cat Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, recently told Vanity Fair. “It’s the wish fulfillment of this talking cat. What teenager doesn’t want that hanging out in their room? A cat you can confide in?”
As someone who named my childhood black cat Salem after the show’s furry star, I was definitely one of those girls. While Salem is a silent, demonic cat in the rebooted new series, it’s easy to miss the clumsy wit of the cat in the original sitcom, and thankfully Vanity Fair has a long deep-dive into how the original Salem came to be.
It includes such tidbits as the fact that ABC absolutely hated the animatronic puppet version of Salem, of which there were two:
“ABC did not love the animatronic cat,” said Bakay. “And I get it: it’s not like it was going to fool anyone. But I think that it was part of the charm of the show—quaint, old-school practical magic and weird cat puppets. And for some reason, it kind of worked.”
Three real cats played Salem when he needed to do some insane stunts, which they were surprisingly good at:
...the cats would do pretty much anything they were called upon to do, from turning on a record player to riding an elephant to “driving” a toy Ferrari. One stunt that particularly impressed the cast and crew was Salem, wearing a fireman’s hat and coat, driving from one set to the other in a fire truck (“This is Red Eagle to squad leader,” he says) and climbing up the truck’s ladder to the kitchen counter before positioning himself before an open flame.
Salem was so popular that he even stole some thunder from his human co-stars:
The character was the recipient of piles of adoring viewer fan mail and three consecutive Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards for favorite animal star. Melissa Joan Hart, who played Sabrina and co-produced the show, considered keeping a black sock in her pocket to wield as a puppet when fielding endless Salem-related enquiries in public. One crew member conveyed his impression that one of the show’s human stars was jealous of the attention lavished on the cat.
Hmm, which human co-star could that be?
In 2013, Melissa Joan Hart said she didn’t like working with cats on the set. “Being around that Salem cat too much... the set was covered in cat food,” she said. “So yeah, I can’t do cats anymore.”