From its earliest days, television has numbered animal performers among its most memorable and beloved stars. Buttermilk, Trigger, and Rin Tin Tin are only a few of the many that come to mind. But one would be hard pressed to name a more famous TV animal star than Lassie, a rough collie who was the central character of a long running television series which aired from September 1954 to March 1973..
Novel and Film.
Lassie first appeared in 1938 as a character in a short story written by Eric Knight for The Saturday Evening Post
. Knight's tale of a collie traveling hundreds of miles to be reunited with her master was widely popular. The author expanded the story to a full length novel and published the work as Lassie Come Home
in 1940. MGM executives recognized the novel's potential as a feature film and Lassie Come Home
was released in 1943. The film starred Roddy McDowall, Elizabeth Taylor, and Pal, a collie owned and trained by Rudd Weatherwax. Pal starred in six more MGM Lassie films before Weatherwax, in lieu of back pay, received the rights to the Lassie name and the Lassie trademark.
After completing the MGM Lassie films, Weatherwax left Hollywood and toured America with Pal for several years. Pal performed as "Lassie" in a variety of venues to great acclaim. Television producer Robert Maxwell was present at one of Pal's performances and persuaded Weatherwax that the dog's future lay in television. Lassie
went into production and the show debuted on CBS Sunday September 12, 1954.
Television producers chose the American Midwest for the show's setting rather than the British countryside of the novel and films. On a weatherbeaten farm lying on the outskirts of the fictional town of Calverton, Lassie became the protectress and companion of first, 11 year old Jeff Miller (played by Tommy Rettig) and, in the fourth season, 7 year old Timmy Martin (played by Jon Provost).
The show's timeless theme of a boy and his dog found fans across America. Week after week, audiences tuned in to enjoy the show's simple but satisfying formula: get the boy in trouble, have the dog save the boy, and let the boy learn a moral lesson from the experience. Scripts ranged from rib-tickling comedy ("The Lion
" 01x08) to deeply felt sorrow and heartbreak ("Cully's Revenge
featured minorities at a time when America was being torn with racial conflicts and transformed by civil rights legislation; Olympic champion Rafer Johnson and baseball great Roy Campanella made notable appearances. Asian and Hispanic characters also appeared on the show. In its earliest Miller Family seasons, Lassie
was ahead of its time in depicting a single parent household.
The boy and his dog theme remained a constant for the series' first ten years. In the eleventh season however new vistas opened for Lassie. Where her adventures in the first ten seasons had occurred within the coziness and safety of a small farming community, her future adventures would involve far flung wilderness travels in conjunction with the USDA Forestry Service. Lassie would no longer be the protectress of boys but the companion of men.
can best be appreciated by dividing its 19 year run into five distinct periods: the Miller Years, the Martin Years, the Ranger Years, the Lassie Alone Year, and the Holden Ranch Years.
The Miller Years (1954-1957).
The first three seasons of Lassie
chronicled the lives and adventures of the Millers, a poor farm family living on the outskirts of the fictional Midwestern town of Calverton. Ellen Miller was a young widow raising an 11 year old son named Jeff with the help of her father-in-law George "Gramps" Miller. In the premiere episode of the series, Jeff received an adult collie named Lassie as a bequest from a neighbor.("The Inheritance
" 01x01). Stories during the Miller Years related Jeff's adventures with Lassie on the farm, at school, and in Calverton.
Some of the semi-regular characters during the Miller years included Jeff's buddy Sylvester "Porky" Brockway, Porky's father Matt Brockway, Jenny, the telephone operator, Miller family neighbor Jim Teal, and Clay Horton, a constable.
The Martin Years (1957-1964).
At the beginning of the fourth season (1957), a waif-like runaway named Timmy was found hiding in the Miller barn. The Millers took a liking to the boy. Ellen contacted a social worker as well as Timmy's elderly and ailing guardians to discuss Timmy's situation. It was agreed by all that Timmy would benefit from a temporary sojourn on the Miller farm and Timmy was welcomed into the Miller household for the summer("The Runaway
As summer came to a close, "Gramps" died and Ellen decided to sell the farm to Paul and Ruth Martin. The childless Martins adored Timmy and adopted him. Jeff made a gift of Lassie to Timmy and she remained on the farm. The Millers moved to Capitol City ("Transition
" 04x27). Late in the fourth season, Paul's uncle Petrie Martin arrived on the farm to help with the work ("The Ring
" 04x20). It was thus that the popular and well loved "Timmy and Lassie" years began.
The Martin Years were the only time during the show's entire run that Lassie was a member of a traditional father-mother-child family and stories early in the Martin Years focused on Timmy's growing pains ("The Bike
" 04x15) and his adventures with Lassie ("Bessie
" 07x27). As the show moved into the early 1960s, environmental awareness, preservation, and conservation became a theme in many of the episodes ("Operation Woodland
Semi-regular characters during the Martin years included Timmy's friends Scott Richards and Boomer Bates, neighbor girl Wilhelmina "Willy" Brewster, (played by producers' Jack and Bonita Granville Wrathers' daughter Linda), Jenny, the telephone operator, veterinarian Doc Weaver, Timmy's schoolteacher Amy Hazlit, hardware store owner and Fire Chief Ed Washburne, Sheriff Miller, and eccentric, nature loving farmer Cully Wilson.
The Ranger Years (1964-1969).
When the eleventh season opened, Timmy was a teenager and Lassie's role as protectress of a boy strained credulity -- many felt Timmy was old enough to take care of himself and no longer needed a nursemaid. It was decided by the powers that be that the Martins would emigrate to Australia and Lassie would be forced to remain in The States as a result of Australia's strict quarantine regulations. In a painful three-part story, Timmy transferred ownership of Lassie to his elderly friend Cully Wilson. The Martins departed for Australia and Cully, after suffering a debilitating heart attack, transferred ownership of Lassie to Ranger Corey Stuart, a member of the U.S. Forest Service ("The Wayfarers
Over the next few years Lassie enjoyed a variety of outdoor adventures with her owner Ranger Stuart but early in the fifteenth season (1968), Stuart suffered severe burns fighting a forest fire. His injuries would take months to heal. Two of Corey's fellow rangers -- bachelors Bob Erickson and Scott Turner -- became Lassie's "godfathers" during Corey's lengthy hospitalization ("The Holocaust
" 15x03-04). The wilderness adventure themes of the Corey Stuart episodes were continued through the two Scott and Bob years. Joining the stout hearted rangers as a semi-regular character was an Aleut youth named Neeka.
The Lassie Alone Year (1970-1971).
When the seventeenth season opened, Lassie was on her own with no explanation offered as to the whereabouts of rangers Erickson, Turner, or Stuart. The men had simply been dropped without ceremony from the series.The good dog wandered from place to place helping needy humans and animals. Poor Lassie had become, in essence, a stray. This was the series' last network season; Lassie
would enter syndication the following year.
The Holden Ranch Years (1971-1972).
In the syndicated eighteenth and nineteenth seasons, Lassie found a place on the Holden Ranch, a foster home for boys run by Garth Holden. The Holden Ranch Years opened with Lassie still travelling about alone and helping needy animals. In the first episode of the syndicated years, Lassie was swept away in a torrent. Two young men associated with the Holden Ranch spotted her in the waters and rescued her. Her life thereafter was involved with the boys on the Holden Ranch and their neighbors in nearby Solvang, California. A blind girl and her mother living near the Holden Ranch had prominent roles in the story as well as a female veterinarian working in a nearby park for abandoned and abused animals. The syndicated series held the potential for a new lease on life for the show but a change in America's cultural winds brought Lassie
to a close.
In the early 1970s, America entered an age of cynicism. The country had suffered a decade of unrest, of scandals high and low, assassinations, college protests, civil rights demonstrations, the introduction of the pill, women's lib, challenges to prevailing mores, and the war in Vietnam. America had been shaken to its core. The apple pie wholesomeness of Lassie
appeared dated and ironic to a nation innundated nightly with tv news programs exposing the underbelly of American life. Brash, in-your-face sitcoms like All in the Family
and Good Times
were the order of the day. Lassie,
one of the best and most loved shows in tv history, came to a dignified close at the end of its 19th season in 1973.
is an integral part of television history and can be seen occasionally in reruns. Selected episodes are available on DVD. Lassie
has never been "off the air". The show is timeless in its content and appeal; it's a genuine television classic that will continue to attract viewers and create new fans in the years to come.
Lassie Notes and Trivia
debuted on CBS Sunday, September 12, 1954 in the 7:00 PM (EST) time slot and remained in the 7:00 PM time slot on CBS for 17 years.
* Lassie was portrayed by 6 different but related dogs through the 19 year run of the series. All Lassies were male dogs and the last five Lassies were descendants of Pal, the first Lassie. Pal, the Lassie of the MGM films, played Lassie in the premiere episode "The Inheritance" (01x01) and "The Well" (01x24). Both episodes were the first filmed. Pal then retired and the role of Lassie was passed to his son Lassie, Jr. (aka Junior).
won two Emmys for Best Children's Series (1954, 1955) and was one of the longest running series in television history with 19 happy, productive seasons.
* Campbell's Soup Company sponsored Lassie
for the show's entire run and insisted their products be displayed on the set. Countless bowls of soup were served at mealtimes in the Martin kitchen.
* The Lassie "Whistle" Theme
was used as the Main and End Title music during the Martin Years (1957-1964). Muzzy Marcellino whistled the tune and Les Baxter is credited with its composition.
* Joey D. Vieira played "Porky" Brockway in Lassie
under the stage name Donald Keeler. Vieira was the nephew of dancer and film star Ruby Keeler and took his stage surname from his aunt.
* The show's theme music from its first few seasons was also used in Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda
* Leave It to Beaver
players Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers, Ken Osmond, Richard Correll, Stephen Talbot, Tiger Fafara, and Madge Blake all made guest appearances on Lassie
* The exact location of the Miller/Martin farm was never disclosed. Early in the series it appeared to be a temperate Midwestern state like Iowa or Indiana. During the Martin years a dry southwestern location in California was strongly suggested. In one episode, Timmy wears a Cub Scout uniform with shoulder patches that appear to read "California" and in yet another episode Ruth, Timmy, and Lassie drive to the Grand Canyon.
* Timmy's checkered shirts were custom made and several were always available during filming. One of his checkered shirts is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution next to Archie Bunker's chair. Timmy's sneakers were black high tops.
* When Hugh Reilly was fired from Lassie
, he was offered the role of The Professor in Gilligan's Island.
He didn't want to return to full time work immediately and turned the offer down.
* Lassie made TV guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show
and The Donna Reed Show.
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