After seven successful films, Pal the dog was ready to save the day weekly as Lassie on television. The series ran for 19 seasons, and it first aired on this day in 1954 on CBS.
In the pilot episode, “The Inheritance,” the young, rambunctious Jeff Miller inherits Lassie from her departed owner. In a room full of impatient, hopeful inheritors, Jeff embraces the old girl and proclaims, “Lassie!” He keeps the pooch until a move to the city in the fourth season forces Jeff to leave her with the new lead boy, Timmy.
Pal only played the courageous canine for the first two episodes, though. Afterwards, he retired from show business for good. Pal’s descendants took up the role until the show ended in 1973. In Ace Collins’ book Lassie: A Dog’s Life, actor Tommy Rettig (Jeff Miller) said Pal, in retirement deemed The Old Man, would still come to the set every day with his pup, Lassie, Jr.: “When Rudd would ask Lassie, Jr. to do something, if you were behind the set, you could see The Old Man get up from his bed and go through the routine back there.”
The Lassie franchise started with a short story, “Lassie Come-Home” by Eric Knight, first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1938. The ensuing novel spawned the film career of Pal the Rough Collie and his owner and trainer, Rudd Weatherwax. The Post’s 1949 article, “Lassie Did Come Home — Rich,” tells about Pal’s lucrative thespian career — the dog was making $25,000 per year. Ironically, Weatherwax had only paid ten bucks for Pal when he got him as a pup, and the runt didn’t have any pedigree papers to speak of.
Pal’s legacy was unquestioned after the movies’ tremendous successes. He had received around 30,000 fan letters in 1949, and his progeny were going for up to $300.
At the end of Lassie’s pilot, the pooch saves the day by rescuing a $2,000 inheritance from the dastardly farmhand Matt Willis. In reality, the doggy female impersonator was fetching much more than that on a monthly basis. In the final scene, Jeff anxiously gazes at Lassie, wondering if she will decide to accept her new home. After some pacing — during which it appears the dog is actually considering whether to stay with Jeff or run free — Lassie bounds into the boy’s arms, prompting Gramps to claim, “She’s all yours, now. She’s done ‘er decidin’.”