The Saga of Lassie

Cover for the Saturday Evening Post's "Dogs" Special IssueThis article originally appeared in the October 3, 1964, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It and other stories can be found in the Post‘s Special Collector’s Edition, A Celebration of Dogs!

Quiet! Quiet on the set!” the assistant director shouted. “This is a take.” Director William Beaudine, an old-timer who once directed Mary Pickford, nodded approval and called out, “Okay, bring on the meat hound!”

Silence engulfed the Lassie set. No one talks that way about Lassie; not within earshot of Rudd Weatherwax, the collie’s taciturn owner-trainer. Stiffly, with a command to Lassie, dog and master marched out of Desilu studios and stayed away two weeks.

This little behind-the-scenes drama brought home a point. Lassie is the only television animal who is treated with the deference accorded human stars — and for a very good reason. Having earned some $100 million for a variety of movie and television entrepreneurs, Lassie is unmistakably the most valuable animal performer in show-business history, Rin-Tin-Tin included.

The dog’s every move is calculated as carefully as the promotion of Ann-Margaret. The Lassie image has been created by a brain trust comprised of the Campbell Soup Co., the BBD&O advertising agency, CBS-TV, and 46-year-old Texas oil millionaire Jack Wrather — collectively a syndicate whose function is to present Lassie as the best of man’s best friends.

“Lassie was great, but my God, you were playing fifth banana to a dog. I’m a Phi Beta Kappa, but the dog was smarter on the screen than I was.”

That Lassie is big business is evident in the nearly $7 million Campbell paid for the series last season. The company’s sales zoomed almost 70 percent in the decade Lassie has been televised. For these reasons, the trust plays down Lassie’s ­secret life as a female impersonator. It refuses to acknowledge that one Lassie died of cancer and another was fired for a nervous disorder — that actually there have been four Lassies.

It all began in 1938 when the late Eric Knight wrote a dog story for his young daughter. It was published as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post and later expanded into a children’s book titled Lassie Come Home. MGM studios bought film rights from Knight in 1941 for less than $10,000. Knight never received another penny.

To find a star, producer Sam Marx and director Fred Wilcox held a mass audition at the old Hollywood Stars baseball park. Of the 300 dogs brought to the park, half were mongrels. Every collie was disqualified, including a scruffy specimen belonging to Rudd Weatherwax, an established trainer of movie dogs. Weatherwax, it happened, had been stuck with a collie pup two years earlier in exchange for an unpaid $10 kennel bill. His name was Pal, and he chased motorcycles. When Pal appeared at the ball park, his unpatrician appearance eliminated him from the running without a second glance.

“Then the San Joaquin River in Northern California flooded its banks and gave us a great opportunity for some spectacular footage,” Marx recalls. “We needed a collie fast. As a last resort, we signed with Weatherwax for one scene, using Pal to swim the flooded river. What the hell, all wet collies look alike. We figured we could match long shots of Pal with close-ups of the dog we eventually picked.”

“Pal swam through the water, climbed out on the bank with his tail between his legs, and dropped down directly in front of the camera,” Weatherwax says. “He put his head between his outstretched paws and slowly closed his eyes.”

Marx adds, “He had that dog so well trained that he didn’t even shake himself when he came out of the river. It would have ruined the scene, because the dog was supposed to be so exhausted he could barely breathe.”

Pal gave the performance of his life and was signed for the starring role. Old hands at MGM quote director Wilcox as saying, “Pal jumped into that river, but it was Lassie who climbed out.”

Lassie Come Home was budgeted as a B picture with a cast of standard English character actors (plus, oddly enough, a youngster named Elizabeth Taylor who was making her movie debut).

Marx says crusty old Louis B. Mayer wept at the preview and increased the budget for additional scenes before the picture was released. One of the studio’s hits of 1943, it inspired six sequels before wearing out its popularity. In 1952, the Lassie movie series was shelved. To settle an uncompleted contract, MGM gave the name Lassie to Weatherwax.

Lassie with some puppies in a field

Less than a year later, Weatherwax sold his interest in Lassie to Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman TV series, for a projected TV show. Weatherwax was to be paid $1,500 per show and 10 percent of the net profits.

Once the show was sold, Pal was replaced by Lassie II, a look-alike collie winnowed from scores of Pal’s puppies. Because a year or more had passed since the last Lassie movie, viewers failed to note the switch.

Despite being plunked into the desolate 7 o’clock Sunday-night slot, Lassie won immediate popularity and earned Emmy awards for the best children’s show of 1954 and 1955. From the beginning, surveys revealed more adults were watching than children.

In the middle of the third year, Maxwell, convinced he had exhausted script possibilities, offered to sell Lassie back to MGM for $2 million. The company blew a second chance at the golden collie. Maxwell finally sold out to Wrather for $3.25 million, and agreed to stay on for a year as producer. Weatherwax went along, selling his 10 percent of the profits to the new management. Like MGM and Maxwell, he underestimated the collie’s extraordinary staying power.

“The families on the show changed faster than the weather in Chicago,” says character actor George Chandler, who played Uncle Petrie in one family for two seasons. “Lassie was great, but my God, you were playing fifth banana to a dog. I’m a Phi Beta Kappa, but the dog was smarter on the screen than I was.”

“They had to find reasons for us to be morons so the dog could outsmart us,” says Cloris Leachman, who portrayed the mother but was dropped after 26 weeks because she occasionally played the show for laughs. “I can’t say I miss the dog. We never were that close.”

Lassie swimming in a river with fellow actor Robert Bray
On location for the TV series, Lassie swims with actor Robert Bray, who will play a forest ranger on the show.

Then, in 1959, tragedy and panic struck the series when Lassie II died of cancer. A third collie, bred and hurriedly trained by Weatherwax, was rushed into the show. This time viewers did notice the difference in dogs, and several thousand wrote asking what happened.

But this was only the beginning of the show’s troubles. Lassie III was a high-strung collie who jumped out of his skin at the sound of gunshots (an integral part of the show). He swooned when arc lights exploded on the set. In 1961, after two uneasy years as a star, Lassie III departed, trembling, into fitful retirement, to be succeeded by the fourth and current Lassie. Crew members and cast agree that Lassie IV is the brightest, best natured, and most beautiful of all the dogs. Wrather says the collie looks as if he’s thinking — possibly about more money.

Lassie IV, almost five years old, does have a definite canine charm. He is friendly with the crew, aloof with strangers, and appears to sense he is a cut above other dogs. When he completes a demanding scene, the stagehands applaud, as they did last year when Lassie, obeying shouted commands from Weatherwax, jumped through flaming underbrush in a forest-fire scene and emerged with smoke curling from his singed coat.

Because Lassie is better trained than his doubles, he does almost all of his own stunts. Two years ago, Lassie was almost crushed to death between logs in a millpond sequence, but escaped injury by ducking underwater and climbing to safety when the logs sloshed apart.

“All the Lassies have had a sense of humor,” says Weatherwax. “This one knows what the director means by ‘cut,’ and he stops whatever he’s doing to relax. The first TV Lassie had to carry a live snake in his mouth for a scene. When he got out of camera range, he dropped the damned thing into the lap of an associate producer. She hated snakes, and Lassie knew it.”

On the sound stage Lassie greets visitors with a sedate lick on the hand, leaving the lickee with a distinct feeling that he has met a star. When not working, the star rests undisturbed on a green baize platform, a foot off the ground, to prevent crew members from accidentally stepping on him.

Resting is the dog’s favorite pastime in the San Fernando Valley ranch-style home he shares with Weatherwax and his wife. Lassie’s boudoir is a standard-sized bedroom with a king-sized bed and chest of drawers. A persimmon carpet matches the bedspread, and an oil portrait of Lassie IV (painted on black velvet) hangs on one wall. A hi-fi set throbs soft Hawaiian music to keep the dog tranquilized.

Closeup of Lassie
The Lassie acting dynasty goes back to 1942. Pictured is Lassie IV.

The collie even has his own pet dog, a hero-worshipping Australian silky named “Silky,” who prances adoringly after the star. “He plays with that little dog for hours sometimes,” Weatherwax says. “It’s good relaxation for him.”

A half-dozen other dogs, collie-breeding stock, prowl the yard and kennels. Weatherwax identifies one shy female as “Girlie,” Lassie’s wife. Girlie and other white females are bred with Lassie with the idea of producing an additional supply of male puppies with white blazes on their faces — the distinguishing characteristic of any dog destined to play Lassie.

Crew members and cast agree that Lassie IV is the brightest, best natured, and most beautiful of all the dogs. Wrather says the collie looks as if he’s thinking — possibly about more money.

“If Lassie dropped dead now, it would be like losing a human star,” the trainer says. “The series would have to close down, because I haven’t got another dog ready to take his place — not yet, ­anyhow.”

When not working or making personal appearances, Lassie sometimes gets into mischief. There are times when he raids the large kitchen refrigerator by opening the latch with his teeth. Special locks have been installed on doors leading to the yard to prevent Lassie from opening the house to other dogs.

Lassie’s once-a-day meal is a stew concocted of beef chuck, carrots, onions, celery, green beans, and garlic, supplemented by cottage cheese and vitamins. Bottled water and ground beef are taken along when the dog goes on the road.

This fall, Lassie’s current family will be eased out of the series when they pack off to Australia, where quarantine laws make it almost impossible to import a dog. The collie will remain behind to take up with a forest ranger, played by Robert Bray, who appeared in the series last season.

The new format is the result of a Wrather experiment the past two seasons with episodes which isolated Lassie from farm and family. The ratings showed that the dog — and only the dog — was the star of the show. As one member of the cast puts it, “All that show really needs is a collie and a camera.”

—“The Saga of Lassie,” October 3, 1964

Featured image credit: Lawrence J. Schiller, © SEPS