How shocking do you think it must have been back in the day to see a Rough Collie — popularly known as the "Lassie Dog" — capture the imagination of millions of people across the country? In today's world, it's not really surprising anymore to see that just about anyone can become famous — and we're not just talking about people with the names Duggar or Kardashian. But a dog that became a star? Well, that was something special.
Introduced in 1938 in the form of a short story turned novel two years later, before being adapted to the big screen, Lassie — the best friend a boy or girl could have — became a true phenomenon. She (although played by male pooch) managed to span from books, movies, television, to radio (!), and much more, and a couple of generations of viewers never got tired of her. And if you ever heard someone use the expression, "Timmy fell in the well, girl?"... well, now you'll know what it's referring to. Although, and we're sorry to burst anyone's bubble about this, young Timmy never actually did fall in a well.
As Jon Provost, who played Timmy on the Classic TV series, related to dogster.com, "Timmy has fallen off cliffs, into rivers, quicksand, and even mine shafts, but never into a well." A little tidbit for you.
So how did this dog end up becoming such a beloved character after all? Sit back and enjoy this little trip we're about to go on, back to a more innocent time, to the world of all things Lassie.
Then came Lassie: The Novel and her journey into books began.
Author Eric Knight wrote a 1938 short story for The Saturday Evening Post called "Lassie-Come Home", which, two years later, he expanded into a novel with the same name. Set during Depression-era England, the story has Lassie tracking down her master, whose family was forced to sell their home and move, across a great distance.
Over the years, Lassie has been featured in no less than 50 books designed for readers of different ages. Some are novels, some are more picture books, but all told it’s pretty impressive considering the authors are telling the adventures of a dog.
Meet Pal, the first screen Lassie, and the rest of the fam.
Enjoying a long life of 18 years (spanning from 1940 to 1958), Pal is the Rough Collie who played Lassie in seven feature films and two TV pilots. In between, he became a major draw for crowds at shows, fairs, and rodeos around America. Few dogs enjoyed a career with such longevity. When Pal died in June of 1958, he was privately buried on Rudd’s ranch, so don’t make plans on visiting Lassie’s grave anytime soon.
Keeping things in the family, Pal's son Lassie Junior played the part until 1959, but then retired due to being afflicted with cancer. His son, Spook, briefly played the part, although he was never comfortable on the set. Rudd got him to power through, though, while his brother, Baby, was being trained to take over. And Baby did so, working the show for six years, but dying at the age of eight (all the other Lassies lived to be at least 17). Mire took over from 1966-71, with Hey Hey coming in for 1971-73.
So who trained Lassie? That would be Rudd Weatherwax.
Not only did he train Pal, who we know played Lassie in a string of films from the 1940s to the early '50s, he also trained collies for the 20-year run of a Lassie television series. And as if that wasn't enough, he trained the dog Spike for Disney's Old Yeller (1957). What was an amazing stroke of luck is that when the seventh Lassie film, The Painted Hills, was released, MGM made it clear there were no intentions of producing anymore. With the studio owing Rudd $40,000 in back pay, he, instead, said he would accept all rights to the Lassie name and trademark. Thinking they were betting the better deal, the studio went for it. Hah!
As to the photo above, Rudd did such a great job with Pal, that he could make public appearances like any other celebrity, such as encountering the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Lassie finally comes to television.
With the film series played out, but sensing that there was still a lot of love out there for Lassie, the decision was made to bring her adventures to the small screen. The show remains the fourth-longest running primetime show in US history, behind The Simpsons, Gunsmoke and Law & Order. Lassie ran from 1954 to 1973 on CBS and then moved to first-run syndication from 1971-73. During that time, the first 10 seasons were filmed in black and white, the remaining nine in color.
What's interesting is that occasionally, a potential TV series will get a second pilot in the hopes of selling a show when the network has rejected the first (Star Trek is a perfect example). What was unusual about Lassie is that two pilots were intended from the beginning. The first showcased the bond between and a boy and his dog, while the second was designed to give a look at what a typical episode would be like. It worked, and CBS placed the show on its 1954 schedule, premiering on September 12th at 7:00 p.m. — where it would remain for 17 years.