Question: Please settle something that's bugged me since I was a kid. Was there one Lassie or several? Thanks you for your time and for your column, which I enjoy. — Barry W., Joliet, Ill.
Televisionary: Since the first Lassie movie, Lassie Come Home, came out in 1943 and the original series ceased being syndicated in 1974, Barry, I'll assume you know they weren't using a 30-something dog towards the end and are really asking if more than one collie was used at any one time. While I can't tell you the exact number of doggies used over the property's run, I can say for sure that when Lassie debuted on CBS in September 1954, trainer Rudd Weatherwax was using five dogs. And, incidentally, they were all males.
It all started in 1938 when Englishman Eric Knight, in an attempt to keep his young daughter entertained, made up the story of a loyal collie who trudged from Scotland to England to rejoin her family. MGM B-movie producer Sam Marx purchased the theatrical rights to the resultant book, developed a script and cast a young Roddy McDowall as the film's star. But then he had a heck of a time finding a pure-bred collie that could do the required work. (The finest specimens have long, narrow noses, but also tend to be high strung, and Marx went through 300 dogs trying to find a suitable one.) Trainer Weatherwax, who had recently started a kennel, accepted a scruffy, short-nosed collie which was the runt of its litter in lieu of a $10 debt and auditioned the dog for Marx, only to be turned down over and over.
But when a nearby river overflowed its banks and Marx realized he could shoot lots of cheap footage of an exhausted Lassie fighting her way out of a raging river to be reunited with her young master, he needed a collie right away and hired Weatherwax's dog, Pal, for the part. The dog proved to be a revelation, able to follow all sorts of commands, and Pal became moviedom's Lassie.
By the time the series rolled around, however, Pal was rather long in the tooth and his four sons helped out with the work, each with his own speciality: close-ups, water work, stunts, fights and jumps. (Pal himself was excellent in the water, but with an estimated worth of $100,000 he was deemed way too valuable to risk.) And so it went over the course of the series, with various Lassies rotating in to do the job.
The tag-team Lassies may come as a surprise to casual fans, but the merry-go-round treatment of the pooch's companion humans was there for all to see. Lassie's first boy pal, Jeff, bought the farm (well, left it, really) in 1957 when actor Tommy Rettig outgrew the boy-and-his-dog formula. Wee orphan Timmy (Jon Provost) came on board to replace him. Jan Clayton, who played Jeff's mom, decided to move on and George Cleveland, who played Gramps, passed away. ("I'm just as glad I'm leaving," Clayton said shortly before her departure. "One look at little Jon on this show and nobody is going to see anybody else.")
Anybody other than Lassie, she should've said. Ruth and Paul Martin (Cloris Leachman, Jon Shepodd) stepped in as the new caretakers for Timmy and Lassie and nobody seemed to mind. Nor did they mind when Uncle Petrie Martin (George Chandler) came on board to usurp Ruth and Paul's parental duties or when Leachman and Reilly were ousted from the show and June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly took over their characters. ("[L]et's face it, it was never right," Leachman told TV Guide in 1958. "The writers never bothered to find out what Jon Shepodd and I were like.... [T]he scripts had Timmy constantly running to [Uncle Petrie] because his foster parents were too busy doing other things. We became heavies.").
Things went swimmingly with Lockhart and Reilly from 1958-64. (Well, except for the time the actress gave an interview in which she admitted to occasionally enjoying a scotch, getting a kick out of practical jokes and cussing from time to time, prompting sponsor Campbell's Soup to call her on the carpet for not being Lassie-like.) But by '64 the producers fully understood that humans mattered little to Lassie fans and, determining that the stories were no longer fresh, sent the Martins and Timmy off to Australia and handed Lassie off to friendly ranger Corey Stuart (Robert Bray), whose life provided bigger adventures than could be found on the farm.
"In six sexless years of playing a country wife and mother, I was hardly ever allowed to kiss Hugh Reilly on the cheek," Lockhart said after leaving the show. "Now I'm ready to go back to playing all those tramps and neurotic and alcoholic women. They're good fun. But motherhood pays off better in the long run." That it did — she went on to have the same wholesome fun in Lost In Space and Petticoat Junction, so long as you count those nubile Bradley gals bathing in the Shady Rest water tower as fitting that definition. Reilly, for his part, blew away his squeaky clean Lassie rep at the wrap party — he was seen leaving "many drinks later," according to TV Guide, driving off in his convertible with a Beatles wig on his head.
How did the loss of Timmy and the Martins affect the show's loyal fans? "At first we got quite a few letters from mothers of little-boy viewers, wondering what had happened to the family and whether or not they would be back," said Alice Hawkins, who fielded mail for the show. "But now Robert Bray is going like gangbusters — nobody inquires about the family anymore."
I'll just assume the fan reaction was the same in the show's final season on CBS (1970-71), when Lassie had no steady human companions at all. Ditto for when she rejoined humanity for the syndicated years (1971-74) and when she hooked up with the adult Provost and a new clan for The New Lassie, an updated syndicated version which ran from 1989-91.