Every generation can be inspired by the endearing rough border collie Lassie who was a movie star, a television star and an icon. The tale of a loyal, brave and lovable dog came from many sources including a nineteenth century novel and a World War I true heroic tale. The story of a lovable rough border collie that saves the day became popular in film, radio, books and television. “Lassie” was one of the longest running primetime television series from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Lassie continues to be a popular character in movies and animated features. The character of Lassie is one of the most well known animals in the world. Here are 20 fun facts you didn’t know about Lassie.
The Half Brothers
Certainly the short story The Half Brothers is an inspiration for the character of Lassie. The Half Brothers was written by British author Elizabeth Gaskell in 1859. It is the story of a dog female rough border collie named Lassie. Lassie is owned by a young man who has a younger half brother. The two brothers become lost in a terrible snow storm. With his younger half brother near death, the older brother ties his bandana around the neck of his trusted dog and tells the dog to find help. When help finally arrives, the young brother is saved from death although his older brother perishes. The idea that a dog would be so loyal and save travel through horrible conditions to find help for her owner is a story that touches everyone’s heart and is as inspiring as it is endearing. Certainly the story of a dog named Lassie in the short story The Half Brothers served as inspiration for the beloved character who would become iconic a century later.
A true story from World War I also served as inspiration for the stories that would be about a dog named Lassie. During World War I the British naval ship, Formidable, was torpedoed by a U-Boat on New Years Day in 1915 off the coast of Devon, England just as a terrible storm hit. 500 sailors lost their lives in the bombing. A life boat washed ashore at Lyme Regis filled with deceased naval men. A local pub owner opened up his cellar to use as a makeshift mortuary. The pub owner’s dog, a border collie crossbreed, was in the cellar when the sailors were brought in. The dog found one sailor that it kept licking before settling in near his body for a long time. Eventually, the sailor stirred. He was not dead and the dog’s warmth had stirred him back to conscience. The naval man, John Cowen, recovered and returned to the pub to thank the dog. Naval officers were so amazed by the dog’s reaction that they told every reporter they could about the miraculous incident. The story soon spread world wide and touched and inspired all who heard it. It certainly is one true incident that inspired the stories of Lassie, the rough border collie who would use her instincts to save those in need.
Eric Knight’s book was turned into the movie “Lassie Come Home” in 1943. The commercial and critical hit was produced by MGM Studios. A dog named Pal played the role of Lassie in movies that would follow for the next decade. Pal’s offspring would continue the role through the television series that would follow the popular films. It starred Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor. Perhaps during war years, the story of the lovable and loyal dog that would stop at nothing to return to its boy owner was what people needed to see. The successful movie was followed up with 1945’s “Son of Lassie” starring Peter Lawford and June Lockhart (who would star in the primetime television series “Lassie”). The following year Elizabeth Taylor starred in “Courage for Lassie”. Pal continued to appear in Lassie films including 1948’s “Hills of Home”, 1949’s “The Sun Comes Up” and “Challenge to Lassie”. “The Painted Hills” was released in 1951. Lassie’s film success continued. In 1963 “Lassie’s Great Adventure” was released as a television film. It consisted of a compilation of several Lassie episodes. In 1978 Pal’s offspring Boy appeared in the movie “The Magic of Lassie”. The magic of Lassie would continue for decades. The movie “Lassie” was released in 1994 starring Howard. Another film titled “Lassie” was released in 2005. Lassie was played by a dog named Mason while action shots were performed by a dog named DR Dakota. Both Mason and DR Dakota were not related to the original Pal, Lassie. These 2 dogs were bred in America.
Inspired by The Half Brother and the tale of the saved World War I British sailor, English American author Eric Knight wrote a short story about a rough border collie named Lassie. The story took place in Depression Era England. A Yorkshire English family is forced to sell their beloved family pet to survive leaving Lassie’s master, a young boy, devastated. Lassie does not rest and finds her way back to her family. The family is reunited. Knight’s short story was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1938. Knight developed the story into a novel. Lassie Come Home was published in 1940 and was a top selling book. The story would become the inspiration for films, a radio series and eventually the long running prime time television series about Lassie, the dog who saves the day.
A dog named Pal was the first Lassie. Pal, a rough border collie, was born in California in June 1940. The talented dog caught the attention of Hollywood animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax. Weatherwax trained Pal to play the role of Lassie in the Lassie films. Pal appeared in the pilot episode of the television series. Because of age (Pal passed away in 1958), Pal was replaced by his offspring. Lassie Jr. played the role from 1954 through 1959. Spook played Lassie in 1960. Pal’s grandson, Baby, played the role of Lassie the longest, from 1960 through 1966. Baby was the longest running Lassie but only lived for eight years. Mire took over the role in 1966 with Hey Hey playing Lassie when the show went into syndication in 1971.
Why did males play Lassie?
It should be noted that the Lassie character was played by male dogs and not female despite the character of Lassie is a male. Pal made an excellent Lassie and the tradition continued with his male offspring. Males made better Lassies for other reasons as well. When Lassie first aired on television during the 1950’s, spaying was not common practice. Female dogs, including rough border collies, shed a lot during each heat cycle while males only shed seasonally. Also, male dogs are bigger and more impressive looking on film.
The success of the first Lassie films caught the attention of the world. Eric Knight’s original story of the dog named Lassie was brought to radio. The radio program was created more heroic and inspiring stories about the beloved family pet Lassie. The radio series was wholesome and exciting. Families tuned in to listen to the next tale about the brave dog, each tale leaving the family members on the edge of their seats. The series ran on ABC Radio from 1947 to 1948. NBC Radio picked up the exciting series and ran it from 1948 through 1950 before the series was transferred to the popular, long running primetime television series “Lassie”.
Lassie’s stories were developed into a television series in 1954. The show was developed by producer Robert Maxwell and Lassie’s (Pal’s) trainer Rudd Weatherwax. The show ran from 1954 through 1973. It aired on CBS for seventeen years and then in syndication for two more years. “Lassie” is the fourth longest running primetime television series after “The Simpsons”, “Gunsmoke” and “Law and Order”. The first three seasons of “Lassie”, the dog played the family pet of Jeff Miller, his mother and his grandfather who lived in a small farming community. Eleven year old Jeff was played by Tommy Rettig. Jeff’s mother, a war widow, was played by Jan Clayton. His “Gramps” was played by George Cleveland. Jeff’s friend “Porky” was played by Joey D. Vieira.
United States Forest Ranger
Much like his predecessor, Tommy Rettig, Jon Provost began to feel too old for the role of Lassie’s boy owner. Rumors also persisted that Provost was asking for money in his contract renewal. Nevertheless, the television series Lassie made another transition in its eleventh season. Lassie went to live with the United States Forest Ranger agency. For the next several seasons, from 1964 through 1970, Lassie lived with United States Forest Rangers in the wilderness. The main rangers who took care of Lassie included Forest Ranger Corey Staurt (Robert Bray), Forest Ranger Bob Erickson (Jack De Mave) and Forest Ranger Scott Turner (Jed Allan). Lassie became the beloved pet of the rangers and helped them keep the wilderness safe
Seasons 4 through 10
As Tommy Rettig began to age, he thought playing the role of naïve Jeff Miller at 15 years old was becoming unbelievable. It was the teenager’s idea to leave the role, so the producers of Lassie decided the entire cast should be changed. The transition away from the original cast may also have been due to Jan Clayton’s wish to leave the series to pursue musical theater. The transition from Tommy to Timmy Martin was gradually done, but George Cleveland’s death sped up the process. In the fourth season Lassie’s ownership was transferred from Jeff to 7 year old foster child Timmy Martin (Jon Provost). The transfer of ownership was filmed for the television series in a touching scene. Timmy was adopted and lived on a farm with his adoptive mother Ruth and adoptive father Paul. The roles of Timmy’s adoptive parents were played by Cloris Leachman and Jon Shepodd the first season, but the two abruptly left the series and were replaced by June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly. Paul’s Uncle Petrie J. Martin (George Chandler) came to live with the family, and Timmy’s best friend Ralph “Boomer” Bates (Todd Ferrell) became a regular cast member. Boomer also had a dog, Mike, who joined the cast. A neighbor Cully Wilson (Andy Clyde) also became a regular on “Lassie”.
Final Seasons of “Lassie” television series
During the 1970-1971 season, “Lassie” went through another change. Lassie was on her own. With no human lead characters, the show remained a popular Sunday night family hit television series. Lassie traveled the United States meeting and helping people along the way. The final 2 seasons of “Lassie” the dog settled down on the Holden Ranch. These final seasons of the television series “Lassie” were syndicated. The Holden Ranch was an orphanage, and Lassie quickly became the children’s loving companion and helper. The Ranch was run by Garth Holden (Ron Hayes). Garth’s brother Keith (Larry Pennell) also worked at the Ranch. Garth’s son Ron (Skip Burton) and his friend Dale Mitchell (Larry Wilcox) also helped out at the Holden Ranch. Another main character was Lucy Baker (Pamelyn Ferdin). Lucy was a deaf child who lived at the Holden Ranch and relied on her companion Lassie.
What the show inspired
The character of Lassie is beloved by all generations who watched the iconic dog save people while remaining loving and loyal to her masters. The television series was a success in part to the fact that it was a wholesome show that resolved an issue displayed a moral in each episode. The show “Lassie” touched on social issues including race, ethnicity, aging and disability. The dog loved no matter what. Lassie’s heroics and loyalty trumped everything else in the world. “Lassie” Christmas specials were especially beloved. Two “Lassie” episodes promoted UNICEF. A children’s savings bond program featured the Lone Ranger and Lassie in advertisements. Campbell’s Soup sponsored the “Lassie” television series throughout its run and used the image of Lassie to promote the wholesomeness of family.
Lassie’s image is iconic and has been used in marketing and merchandising since the film and television series began. Lassie’s stories have been told in many book series aimed at young readers. Inspiring a love of reading in young people, the stories of Lassie have been turned into books published by Golden Books, Whitman Novels, Seafarer Books, Tell-a-Tale Books, and Tip Top Books. Lassie’s image has been used to market clothing, toys, Halloween costumes and other items. Campbell’s Soup ran several advertising campaigns using the image of Lassie. The soup company gave away Lassie rings and Lassie wallets to thousands of fans of the program. Of course, Lassie was used to market a healthy pet food brand. Lassie was also featured in the American educational PBS series “Lassie’s Pet Vet”.
The Lassie television series was nominated for several prestigious awards and won some. June Lockhart and Jan Clayton were nominated for Emmy Awards. The show was won the 1955 Primetime Emmy for Best Children’s Program. The following year, the television won again for Best Children’s Series. The show also won the 2003 TV Land Award for best Pet-Human Relationship for Lassie and master Timmy’s relationship. Lassie was also the longest running consistent time-slotted television series at the time. Lassie only went into syndication during its last 3 years. The only programming to bump Lassie from its Sunday evening timeslot was the annual showing of “Gone With the Wind” on CBS.
Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
Lassie is one of 3 animals to have received a Star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. The famous homage to film and television celebrities is an honor. Lassie received her Star on February 8, 1960. The only other animals to receive the prestigious honor are film German Shepherd stars Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart.
100 Icons of the Century
Variety, the entertainment magazine creates a special 100 Icons of the Century. Those named are the results of a pole taken by members of the entertainment community. The qualifications of those named include creativity, commercial and social impact, and international recognizability. Lassie was named on the list of “100 Icons of the Century” by Variety Magazine in 2005. The character is the only animal on that list.
Even after the television series ended, Lassie was featured in several films and animated series. Lassie has also appeared in cameo roles on many popular television shows. In 1980 Lassie appeared on the popular sitcom “Taxi”. She appeared on “The Simpsons” and “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast” in 1995. In 2001 Lassie made a guest appearance on “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?”. It’s a testament to the iconic nature of Lassie that she could show up across generations and across genres.
Timmy was never stuck in a well
Despite the common phrase “Help! Timmy’s trapped in a well”, the character of Timmy was never trapped in a well. The phrase was even used on the classic sitcom “Seinfeld”. Lassie always came to the rescue of Timmy, his family and his friends. Lassie saved the day in every episode of the television series. Yet, Timmy never had the scenario of being trapped in a well.
Over the decades Lassie has been updated and rebooted. In the 1980’s a new Lassie television show ran. From 1997 through 1999 Canadian production company Cinar, Inc. ran a new Lassie television series which could be seen on Animal Planet. In 1996 “Lassie Come Home” was remade by a production company in the United Kingdom. The movie starred Peter O’Toole and Samantha Morton.
Lassie is such a iconic character that she remains popular today. TV Ontario recently produced an animated series based on the beloved heroic and loyal dog. The series was animated and followed the adventures of Lassie and her family, the Parkers, who live in a national park. “The New Adventures of Lassie” ran from 2013 through 2016.