Title screen of Lassie, seasons 1–10
|Also known as||Jeff's Collie
Timmy and Lassie (episodes 116–352)
|Created by||Robert Maxwell|
Jack De Mave
|Theme music composer||Les Baxter|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||19|
|No. of episodes||588 (List of episodes)|
|Executive producer(s)||Jack Wrather
Sherman A. Harris
|Running time||26 minutes|
|Picture format||Black-and-white film (seasons 1–10)
Color film (seasons 11–19)
|Audio format||Monaural sound|
|Original run||September 12, 1954 – March 24, 1973|
|Related shows||The New Lassie|
Lassie is an American television series that follows the adventures of a female rough collie named Lassie and her companions, human and animal. The show was the creation of producer Robert Maxwell and animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax and was televised from Sunday September 12, 1954, to Sunday March 24, 1973. One of the longest running dramatic series on television, the show chalked up seventeen seasons on CBS before entering first-run syndication for its final two seasons. Initially filmed in black and white, the show transitioned to color during the 1960s.
The show's first ten seasons follow Lassie's adventures in a small farming community. Fictional eleven-year-old Jeff Miller, his mother, and his grandfather are Lassie's first human companions until seven-year-old Timmy Martin and his adoptive parents take over in the fourth season. When Lassie's exploits on the farm end in the eleventh season, she finds new adventures in the wilderness with a succession of United States Forestry Service workers. After traveling without human leads for a year, Lassie finally settles at a children's home for her final two syndicated seasons.
Lassie found critical favor from its début and won two Emmy awards in its first years. Stars Jan Clayton and June Lockhart were nominated for Emmys. Merchandise produced during the show's run included books, a Halloween costume, clothing, toys, and other items. Campbell's Soup, the show's life-long sponsor, offered two premiums (a ring and a wallet), and distributed thousands to fans. A multi-part episode was edited into the feature film, Lassie's Great Adventure and released in August 1963. In 1989, the television series The New Lassie brought Lassie star Jon Provost back to television as Steve McCullough. Selected episodes have been released to DVD.
Between 1943 and 1951, the fictional collie, Lassie, was the inspiration for seven MGM feature films. With completion of the seventh film in 1951, the studio planned no further films for the Lassie character or Pal, the dog actor who portrayed the fictional canine. In lieu of $40,000 back pay owed him by MGM, Pal's owner and trainer Rudd Weatherwax took all rights to the Lassie trademark and name, and hit the road with Pal to perform at fairs, rodeos, and other venues.
Needing material for the relatively new medium of television, producer Robert Maxwell sold Weatherwax on the concept of a Lassie television series with a boy and his dog theme. Weatherwax liked the idea and the two men developed a scenario about a struggling war widow, her young son, and her father-in-law set on a weather-beaten, modern day American farm. Two pilots were filmed in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with the first telling the story of the bond forged between boy and dog, and the second filmed to give potential sponsors and network buyers an idea of a typical episode. After viewing the pilots, CBS put the show on its fall 1954 schedule. Campbell's Soup Company signed on early as the show's sole sponsor and remained so for the show's entire run.[note 1] Filming for the series began in the summer of 1954, and Lassie made its début Sunday, September 12, 1954 at 7:00 P.M. EST, a time slot the show would call home on CBS for the next seventeen years.
In 1957, Jack Wrather, owner of the hit television series The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon purchased all rights to the Lassie television show for $3.25 million, and guided the show through its next several seasons. As 1964 and the show's eleventh season approached, the decision was made to completely rework the show; the boy and his dog theme was dropped and Lassie was teamed with a succession of United States Forestry Service workers. The show focused on conservation and environmentalism, but its relevance in a time of social change was questioned. The show began a steady decline in ratings. In 1971, new rulings regarding prime time were handed down from the Federal Communications Commission, and CBS canceled the show. Lassie then entered syndication for a few seasons before televising its last first-run episode on Sunday March 24, 1973.
The show's titular character is portrayed in the two pilots by Pal, the MGM film Lassie. Thereafter, five of his male descendants played the role. His son Lassie Junior performed through the Jeff years and first two Timmy years before retiring in 1959 to battle cancer. Though he recovered, Lassie Junior never worked the show again.
His son Spook was rushed into the series while his brother Baby was in training for the role. Spook was inadequately prepared and never became comfortable on the set after an overhead light crashed to the floor on his first day. Weatherwax, however, coaxed a natural and seemingly confident performance from the frightened dog, and, for some, Spook's portrayal represents Weatherwax's finest work. Spook played the role in the spring and fall of 1960.
Baby, son of Lassie Junior and brother to Spook, worked the show for six years. He appeared in the last Timmy years, and two of the Forest Service seasons. Baby died at eight years of age, the only Lassie not to live at least seventeen years. He was followed in the role by Mire who played Lassie for five years. Hey Hey portrayed the fictional collie in the syndicated seasons.
Broadway star and quiz show panelist Jan Clayton was hired to play farm widow Ellen Miller with septuagenarian George Cleveland playing her father-in-law, George "Gramps" Miller. Child actor Tommy Rettig was hired to portray Ellen’s eleven-year-old son Jeff Miller,[note 2] and Donald Keeler (the professional name used at the time by Joey D. Vieira) was cast as Jeff's friend, Sylvester "Porky" Brockway. Porky's basset hound Pokey became a recurring animal character through the first several seasons.
In 1957, Clayton and Rettig wanted to leave the show. Producers decided to find a new boy and ease the Miller family out of the show. After interviewing two hundred boys, six-year-old film veteran Jon Provost was hired and made his début as Timmy in the fourth season opener, "The Runaway."
In July 1957, George Cleveland died unexpectedly, and producers were forced to overhaul the show. The plot was extensively reworked and Clayton and Rettig were dropped. Cloris Leachman and Jon Shepodd were quickly hired as Timmy’s adoptive parents Ruth and Paul Martin.[note 3] Film veteran June Lockhart and Broadway stage star Hugh Reilly replaced the two at the top of the fifth season. George Chandler was hired to play Petrie Martin, Paul's uncle, but was later dropped. Todd Ferrell played Timmy's friend Ralph "Boomer" Bates with his dog Mike a recurring character but both were dropped in 1958. Former Keystone Kop Andy Clyde became a regular in 1958 as neighbor Cully Wilson. Guest stars during the Timmy years included 'The Lone Ranger', Roy Campanella, Olympian Rafer Johnson, Stacy Keach, Marie Windsor, Dick Foran, Tod Griffin, Jane Darwell, Denver Pyle, Fuzzy Knight, Harry Carey, Jr., William Schallert, and Karl Swenson.
In 1964, Provost declined to renew his contract. Producers decided to broaden the show's demographics to appeal to older viewers, and, to that end, dropped the boy and his dog theme for a plot featuring a Forest Service worker. Robert Bray, a former Marine and Gary Cooper look-alike was cast as Corey Stuart. During Bray's first year, the show transitioned to color filming and spectacular scenic locations across America were exploited as settings for the show. Eventually, Bray's alcoholism forced him from the show, and Jack De Mave and Jed Allan were hired to replace him. Guest stars during the ranger years included Ken Osmond, Paul Petersen, Suzanne Sommers, Victor French, and Morgan Brittany. When the Forest Service years came to an end, Lassie wandered alone for a season then settled at the Holden ranch for her final two syndicated seasons with costars Ron Hayes, Larry Pennell, Skip Burton, Larry Wilcox, Sherry Boucher, and Pamelyn Ferdin.
Some scripts were produced by writers blacklisted during the heyday of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee. These writers included Robert Lees (as J. E. Selby) and Adrian Scott, one of the Hollywood Ten who went to prison for contempt of the United States Congress. His wife, writing as Joanne Court, attended story conferences and gave her husband notes so he could do rewrites.
The show's first studio was Stage One of KTTV in Los Angeles, California, with the production moving to Desilu in 1957. Franklin Canyon Reservoir and Vasquez Rocks saw location shootings. During the Timmy seasons, episodes were filmed at the Grand Canyon and in the High Sierras, and, during the Forest Service seasons, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior offered Alaska, Puerto Rico, the Washington Monument and other sites for location shoots.
Fifteen pages were filmed per day, six days a week, with three shows completed per week. Shooting in order was not possible. Several barn segments might be filmed at a particular time with the crew then moving on to film an equal number of kitchen scenes. The shots may have then been used in four or five different episodes. Rettig was allowed to bond with the dog and often groomed the dog at the studio or spent weekends at Weatherwax's home playing with the animal. The bond translated to film, making the boy and dog scenes more believable, but, eventually the dog developed divided loyalties (looking to Rettig for direction rather than Weatherwax) and the trainer was forced to curtail the amount of time boy and dog spent together.
Typically, there were two dog trainers on the set, each teetering on a stepladder only Lassie could see and waving a chunk of meat at the dog. "It would look as though Lassie was looking at Jon (Provost), but he was really looking past Jon at the piece of beef," Lockhart recalled in 2004. When Provost delivered his line, the trainer behind Lockhart would whisper "Lassie!" and wave another piece of meat. Lassie's head would turn to Lockhart who would deliver her line. Then the trainer behind Provost would get Lassie's attention again, and Provost would deliver his next line. "The sound editor would cut out all that," Lockhart said, "You finally got to where you never heard the trainers. Often, if the scene had gone well, and maybe we hadn't gotten the dialogue quite right, if the dog was right, they'd print it." In addition to the main Lassie, three other Lassies might be involved in an episode shoot: a stand-in for rehearsals, a stunt double, and a "fighter" for scenes involving battles with other animals.
Lassie used several pieces of theme music during its long broadcast history. For the first season, "Secret of the Silent Hills (Theme from the Lassie TV Series)," is used for both the opening and ending theme. Composed by William Lava, the orchestral theme was originally created for the 1940 radio show The Courageous Dr. Christian.
For the second and third season, a variation of this theme, titled simply "Lassie Main & End Title", was used for the opening and ending theme. Raoul Kraushaar, the music director for the series, is the listed composer for the theme, however the changes he made to the original are so slight that only a trained ear can tell the difference. The third theme used for the series is an orchestral rendition of the aria, "Dio Possente" (Even Bravest Hearts May Swell) from Charles Gounod's opera, Faust. The exact time this theme started being used is uncertain due to conflicting records, however it is agreed that it was the third series, and used for at least part of season four for the change of ownership of Lassie.
The most famous of the Lassie theme songs, appeared at the start of the fifth season. Copyrighted as "Lassie Main & End Title", the song was created by Les Baxter, with the whistling itself performed by Muzzy Marcellino. Nicknamed "Whistle," it remained the series theme for the rest of the Martin Years. With the coming of the Ranger Years, the opening and ending theme was changed to Nathan Scott's arrangement of the traditional folk tune Greensleeves. An orchestral "Whistle" returned for the series theme during the thirteenth season for the seven-part "Voyager" episode, and would remain the series theme for the rest of its run..
Campbell's Soup Company sponsored the entire nineteen-year run of Lassie. The company asked that their products be visible on the set and so, in episode after episode, Campbell's products are seen in background shots. Campbell's also contractually required the show's stars to avoid appearing in any film or theatrical production that undermined their All-American images.
In 1956, the company held a "Name Lassie's Puppies" contest with the grand prizes being Lassie's pups and $2,000. Company executives hand-delivered puppies to the winner's homes. In 1958, for twenty-five cents and a label from a Swanson's frozen dinner, viewers could receive a Lassie portrait friendship ring based on the one Uncle Petrie fashions for Timmy. The company mailed 77,715 rings to viewers. In 1959, the company offered a wallet "made of rich brown plastic" emblazoned with a picture of Lassie; 1,343,509 wallets were mailed to viewers who sent in five different labels from Campbell products. The labels represented 6.5 million cans of Campbell's products sold. Campbell's paid the Wrather Company $7 million a year to air its commercials. The soup company's profits rose seventy percent over its pre-Lassie days.
Lassie was spokesdog for Recipe Dog Food, a Campbell's product introduced in 1969, which was reportedly based on the homemade stew mixture Weatherwax prepared for Lassie. Printed advertisements for the product announced, "Now all dogs can come home to the dinner Lassie comes home to." In its first year, Recipe earned $10 million for Campbell's, and, in its third year, $40 million. To help boost sales, Campbell's paid Weatherwax to write a dog-training manual called The Lassie Method which the company used as a premium offer.
Plots during the first ten "boy and his dog" seasons were similar: the boy got into some sort of trouble, usually with a wild or misunderstood animal. Lassie then dashed off to get help or rushed in to save her master's life herself. After being reunited with family and breathing a sigh of relief, the boy received a light lecture on why he shouldn't have done what he had done. In 2004, June Lockhart described the show as "...a fairy tale about people on a farm in which the dog solves all the problems in 22 minutes, in time for the last commercial."
Two Timmy and Lassie episodes launched Campbell's Soup premiums while two others promoted a UNICEF Halloween project and the Peace Patrol, a children's savings bond program spearheaded by Lassie and The Lone Ranger. The same seasons saw several Christmas episodes while conservation and environmentalism were brought center stage. Some scripts dealt with race and ethnicity with both Jeff and Timmy championing Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. Aging Americans were presented in a positive light during the years when Andy Clyde was a cast member. Color filming was exploited during the Ranger Years with Lassie and her friends sent to exotic locations such as Sequoia National Forest and Monument Valley, creating miniature travelogues for viewers. In the seventeenth season, Lassie wandered alone, with some episodes being animals-only. In her final seasons, Lassie found a domestic setting reminiscent of the early years of the show yet enjoyed rugged outdoor adventures recalling her wilderness years.
Lassie themes explored the relationship between boys and their dogs with the show helping to shape the viewer's understanding of mid-twentieth century American boyhood. Lassie was associated with the wholesome family values of its period but some parents' groups monitoring television content found cliffhanger plots showing children in danger too intense for very young viewers and objected to some of Timmy's actions which were believed to encourage children to disobey parents. Lassie, however, was consistently depicted as caring, nurturing, and responsible with a commitment to family and community, often rescuing those in peril and righting wrongs. She was the perfect 'mother' within the American ideology of the 1950s and 1960s.
First-run Lassie was televised September 12, 1954 to March 24, 1973 with its first seventeen seasons airing on CBS Sunday evenings 7:00 P.M. EST. In 1971, in order to promote community-related programming among local affiliates, the Federal Communications Commission moved primetime Sundays to 8:00 P.M. EST with the institution of the Prime Time Access Rule. CBS executives felt Lassie would not be well received in a time slot other than its seventeen-year held 7:00 P.M. slot, and, with the network's other family programs set, the show was canceled. (Lassie was among several shows that CBS canceled during this time period as part of a change in its target demographics.) Lassie then entered first-run syndication with Jack Wrather and Campbell's Soup still on board, and remained on the air for another two years Sundays 7:30 P.M. EST with its final episode airing March 24, 1973. The Miller years were sold into syndication in 1958 as Jeff's Collie. In rerun syndication, the Martin family episodes aired under Timmy and Lassie. Classic Media currently owns the rights to the entire Lassie television series, as well as the Lassie trademark.
The original TV series had no direct spinoffs. However, a few subsequent productions cashed-in on the Lassie character and her enduring popularity. In 1973, ABC created a Saturday-morning animated program called Lassie's Rescue Rangers. Rudd Weatherwax described the series as "trash". In 1989, The New Lassie, starring Jon Provost as Steve McCullough, aired in first-run syndication. In its seventh episode, June Lockhart reprized her Ruth Martin role when Steve McCullough is revealed to be Timmy Martin. The viewer learns Timmy was never properly adopted by the Martins and consequently forced to remain in the States when the couple emigrated to Australia. Timmy was then adopted by the McCulloughs and began using his middle name, Steven.
Tommy Rettig made guest appearances as professor and computer specialist, Jeff Miller. In 1997, another series called Lassie aired. The show was filmed in Canada, set in Vermont and briefly employed Weatherwax dogs and trainers. While maintaining the "boy and his dog" theme of the original, the series was criticized for relegating Lassie to the background.
During Thanksgiving week 1962, a five-part color episode was filmed in the High Sierras called "The Journey". First telecast in February and March 1963, the episode follows Timmy and Lassie as the two are swept away in a carnival hot air balloon that eventually comes to rest in the Canadian wilderness. The voyagers face many perils before being rescued by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Richard Simmons, star of another Jack Wrather property, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, made an appearance, while Lassie star, Jon Provost, performed his own whitewater stunts. Lassie sponsor Campbell's Soup objected to multi-part episodes, believing viewers would not want to tune in week after week to find out what happened from one segment to the next, but three of the five segments from "The Journey" hit the top-ten for the weeks in which they aired. The five segments were edited into a feature length film and released in August 1963 through Twentieth Century Fox as Lassie's Great Adventure.
|DVD Name||# Ep||Release Date|
|Lassie's Great Adventure||5||June 26, 2001|
|Lassie: Best of the Lassie Show||3||November 25, 2003|
|Lassie: Lassie's Christmas Stories||3||November 25, 2003|
|Lassie: Best of Jeff's Collie||3||November 25, 2003|
|Lassie: Lassie's Birthday Surprise||3||November 25, 2003|
|Lassie: Lassie's Gift of Love||3||November 25, 2003|
|Lassie: 50th Anniversary Collection||24||September 14, 2004|
|Lassie: Flight of the Cougar||3||March 6, 2006|
|Lassie: A Mother's Love||4||May 1, 2007|
Every year of its seventeen year run on CBS, Lassie placed first in its time slot, Sunday 7:00 P.M. EST, and often ranked among the top 25 shows on television. The show's highest ranking years in the Nielsen ratings were the Martin years when the show placed #24 in 1957, #22 in 1958, #15 in 1959, #15 in 1961, #21 in 1962, #13 in 1963, and #17 in 1964. The only Martin year Lassie did not climb into the top twenty-five was 1960, when it ran opposite Walt Disney Presents on ABC and Shirley Temple Theater on NBC. With the advent of the Forest Service seasons, the show began a steady decline in ratings.
Lassie won Emmy Awards for Best Children's Program in 1955 and for Best Children's Series in 1956. Jan Clayton was nominated for two Emmys in 1957 and 1958 for her portrayal of Ellen Miller, while June Lockhart was nominated for an Emmy in 1959 for her role as Ruth Martin. The show received another Emmy nomination in 1960 for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Children's Programming.
The show was awarded a Peabody Award in 1956. Honors for the show were also received from the PTA, the National Association for Better Radio and Television, Gold Star, and Billboard. In 2003, Jon Provost was nominated for TV Land's Favorite Pet-Human Relationship Award (Timmy and Lassie).
In 1960, the Lassie character became one of only three animal characters to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jon Provost's Keds sneakers are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Lassie and the show's stars have appeared on the covers of Parade, Life, Look, and TV Guide.
Ancillary merchandise produced during the show's first-run includes Halloween costumes, Viewmaster reels, comic books, and other items. In 2005, Karen Pfeiffer released The Legacy of Lassie: An Unauthorized Information and Price Guide on Lassie Collectibles (ISBN 978-0975887066).
In 1967, in conjunction with Lassie's unofficial role with the United States Forest Service and her perception by many Americans as an environmental activist, Lassie was welcomed to the White House by Lady Bird Johnson. In January 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into a law a bill that targeted soil and water pollution unofficially called by many "the Lassie program". Lassie was honored with a luncheon in the Senate Dining Room on March 19, 1968 when a plaque recognizing her commitment to environmentalism was presented her by senators Edmund Muskie and George Murphy.
The catch phrase "Timmy's in the Well!" (in response to a dog barking) was used by Jon Provost as the title of his autobiography. He points out that Timmy fell into abandoned mine shafts, off cliffs, into rivers, lakes and quicksand, but never fell into a well.