Lassie, a dog, is a fictional character that has starred in, or been the subject of, many radio shows, movies, TV shows, and books, entertaining generations of children around the world from 1938 to the present.
In Knight's story set in Depression-era England, a young Yorkshire boy owns an exceptionally beautiful and loyal collie (described as mahogany and sable in color), but when the family faces severe economic hardship, the dog is sold to a wealthy nobleman. Both boy and dog grieve over the separation, made worse when the new owner transports Lassie hundreds of miles away to his estate in Scotland. However, the collie's instinct and courage cause her to escape, and the book follows Lassie's desperate efforts to return to the boy she loves.
In 1943, the book was made into the first Lassie movie, Lassie Come Home, which generally followed the plot of the book, and which starred Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor. The movie was a hit and enjoyed favorable critical response.
MGM followed its success with more movies in the 1940s featuring the canine hero: In 1945, Son of Lassie premiered, starring Peter Lawford and June Lockhart. The next year, 1946, Courage of Lassie premiered (with Elizabeth Taylor, from the first film), and the "Lassie Radio Show" began (aired until 1949).
Between 1954-1973, the television series, Lassie was broadcast in the U.S. Unlike the novel and films which were set in Britain, the American television series brought Lassie to a weatherbeaten farm in the American midwest and teamed her for the show's first ten seasons with boys and then for its following seasons with adult forestry workers and finally, with the juvenile inmates of a home for troubled children. The long running series was the recipient of two Emmy Awards. Rudd Weatherwax (who had trained Pal for the six MGM films), also trained the several portrayers of Lassie for the television series.
Eventually, other series followed in the 1980s and 1990s from different production companies. In 1997, a Canadian production company, Cinar Inc. (now Cookie Jar Entertainment), produced a third Lassie television series (1997–1999) for the Animal Planet network in the U.S. and YTV in Canada.
The various series had different casts, with some tying back to the original series and others being new concepts. All included the basic theme of Lassie being a highly intelligent collie frequently helping her owners get out of trouble, making the Lassie concept one of the longest running of any collective series.
In 2005, a remake of the original Lassie Come Home movie was produced in the United Kingdom. Starring Peter O'Toole and Samantha Morton, Lassie was released in 2006. It was warmly received by critics such as Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who called the acting "splendid" and "excellent".
The copyrights to the films and series are split because so many production companies picked up the story (and changed its characters and focus) over the years. The rights to the trademark of "Lassie" and TV series are held by Classic Media; however, Warner Bros./Turner Entertainment holds the rights to the "Lassie" films originally made by MGM.
Many of the movies and TV episodes are widely available on VHS and DVD, and are still aired on television. The 1954 – 1957 episodes of the Lassie TV show were later syndicated as Jeff's Collie and televised on the Animal Planet channel, along with the later seasons of the series which retained their original title of "Lassie." The later seasons' programs featuring Jon Provost and Robert Bray continue to be rerun in many countries.
Lassie is one of only three animals (and one of very few fictional characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny) to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – the others being silent-film stars Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart. In 2005, the show business journal Variety named Lassie one of the "100 Icons of all time" – the only animal star on the list.
The first dog to star as Lassie in the 1943 movie Lassie Come Home was "Pal", originally from Glamis Collies of California. The original owner could not train the dog and hired Studio Dog Training School to do the job. When the owner could not pay the bill, Pal was acquired and trained by brothers Rudd Weatherwax and Frank Weatherwax. Also assisting with training on the MGM studio lot was Frank Freeman (a.k.a. Frank Inn), who later went on to fame as the trainer of Higgins, the dog who played Benji in a series of 1970s films.In 1950, Rudd Weatherwax co-wrote a book, "The story of Lassie, his discovery and training from puppyhood to stardom", recounting Pal's rise to an international icon.
Pal was bred with a number of female dogs to ensure the Lassie look could be continued. The Lassie looks of sable coat with a white blaze, large white collar, and four white paws is legally trademarked. The collies are also intentionally bred oversized so that the males selected can work with older child stars.
All collies to play Lassie have been male because male collies retain a thicker summer coat than females which "looks better on television Also, the male is larger and a child actor can play opposite the dog for longer before outgrowing him.
Eight generations of Pal and his descendants portrayed the beloved collie in more than ten movies and two television series, until the late 1990s. All of the canines starring in those movies and TV series were owned and trained by Frank and Rudd Weatherwax and later by Rudd's son, Robert Weatherwax.
This tradition continued in 1997, when Cinar began shooting the third Lassie television series for the Animal Planet network. In the first season (1997–1998), Lassie was played by "Howard", an eighth generation collie descended from Pal.
Midway through production, Cinar replaced Howard with a non-Pal descended dog. Lassie fans objected, arguing that only a dog in the Pal bloodline could be considered an "authentic" Lassie. They protested to Cinar and Animal Planet, along with Golden Books Family Entertainment (which had licensing rights at the time to the Lassie image). In response, "Hey Hey II", a ninth-generation direct descendant of Pal owned and trained by Carol Riggins, was brought in to assume the role of Lassie for the final thirteen episodes of the show in 1999.
Following Animal Planet's cancellation of the TV show, Classic Media subsequently acquired the Lassie trademark from the Weatherwax family in 2000. In 2003, Classic Media ended its contract with Weatherwax to supply Pal-bloodline collies to portray the Lassie character. In the 2005–2006 remake of the original Lassie movie, a non-Pal bloodline collie named "Mason" was used in the title role. Although Mason was praised as "photogenic" by Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington, Lassie devotees objected to the movie's use of a non-Pal bloodline collie.
In late 2005, following the shooting of the movie, Classic Media contracted with Carol Riggins to supply "Hey Hey II", as the ninth generation Lassie in the Pal bloodline. More recently, Robert Weatherwax has disputed the use of collies other than his as authentic Pal-bloodline "Lassies", which has received some news media attention and comment on Lassie fan websites.
In 2006, Lassie returned to TV in the PBS series "Lassie's Pet Vet" with veternarian Dr. Jeff Werber.
In January 2008, the legacy of line dogs continued with the premiere of Lassie 10 (aka Rockie), the 10th generation direct genetic descendant of the original Lassie. On hand for the premiere of Lassie 10 was Jon Provost (Timmy).
Lassie was a special surprise guest on National Geographic Channel's "Cesar Millan, Dog Whisperer" on September 19, 2008 when Cesar celebrated his 100th episode. Cesar's childhood heros were Lassie and Rin Tin Tin and one of his dreams coming to America was to meet them.
Big Little Books
The New Lassie
Lassie inspired a number of similar "heroic dog" characters, including: