We are finishing our series Life with Pets. Although the shows we have looked at so far this month have featured some unusual pets, I knew that we had to include man’s best friend at some point, and really, how could you have a blog series about pets without Lassie who was a very unusual dog?
Except for The Hathaways, the other shows we learned about this month were based on a movie, which was often based on a book. Lassie is no exception. English author Eric Knight wrote a book in 1940 called Lassie Come Home. Several films were produced between 1943 and 1951 about Lassie. Once the seventh and final film was completed, Lassie’s (or Pal as he is known in his real life), owner Rudd Weatherwax was given all rights to the Lassie trademark and name. Weatherwax began taking Pal to local fairs and rodeos.
Robert Maxwell convinced him to feature Pal in a weekly television show. The men developed the story of Lassie who lived with a young boy named Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig), age 11; his widowed mother Ellen (Jan Clayton); and her father-in-law (George Cleveland) who all lived on a farm. The show was approved, Campbell’s Soup agreed to sponsor the first year of shows, and the series debuted in 1954 on Sunday nights at 7 pm EST.
Campbell’s would continue its role as sponsor for 19 more years, which totaled 591 episodes. The company asked to have their products featured on the set, so you will see them in background shots. The soup company held a contest in 1956 to name Lassie’s puppies. Grand prizes included $2,000 and ownership of the pups which were hand-delivered by executives. In 1958, viewers could send in 25 cents and a label from a Swanson’s TV dinner to get a friendship ring; the company mailed 77,715 of them to fans. In 1959, fans could send in five labels from Campbell’s products and receive a wallet with a photo of Lassie. More than 1.3 million were mailed and Campbell’s profits rose 70% after its sponsorship began.
In 1957, Jack Wrather who owned The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon purchased the show for $3.25 million. In 1958 Lassie received new owners. Both Clayton and Rettig expressed an interest in wanting to leave the show. Cleveland had passed away the year before. Adoptee Timmy Martin (Jon Provost) becomes his master and they live with his parents, Ruth Martin (Cloris Leachman) and Paul Martin (Jon Shepodd).
In 1958 Wrather dropped Leachman and Shepodd, replacing them with June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly. A neighbor Cully Wilson (Andy Clyde) was also added.
Lassie received good ratings from 1954-1958. In 1959 it fell out of the top 30. By 1960 with the change in characters, the show shot back and made it to #13 in 1964.
However, just as things were looking up, Provost declined to renew his contract. So, ten years after its debut, the show changed its focus to conservation and environmentalism, teaming Lassie with a group of US Forest Service members. In 1965 the show transitioned to color, but the ratings decline had already begun.
Season 17 transitioned again and this time it was an anthology season with Lassie traveling on her own, finding adventures along the way. CBS cancelled the show after season 17, but it became a syndicated show for networks to pick up.
The final two seasons were spent with Garth Holden (Ron Hayes) on the Holden Ranch, a home for orphaned boys. After season 19, the show went off the air for good.
Five of Pal’s descendants also played the role of Lassie. They included Lassie Jr. (1954-59), Spook (1960), Baby (1960-1966), Mire (1966-1971), and Hey Hey (1971-73). Like the show, Pal lived to be 19.
The show was filmed at Stage One of KTTV in Los Angeles from 1954-57 and then moved to Desilu for a year. The Timmy seasons were filmed at the Grand Canyon and High Sierra and the Forest Service seasons were filmed in Alaska and Puerto Rico, among other sites.
Most of the plots involved the boys or other characters needing help and Lassie coming to the rescue. However, ironically the biggest spoof of the show is Timmy falling down a well and Lassie saving him, but no one ever fell down a well on the show except Lassie in season 17. It is such an iconic plot, that Provost wrote his autobiography in 2007 and called it Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story. On his website, Provost says he kept in touch with Rettig. He says that he always ended their conversations with “Thanks for the dog, Jeff” which was his line in the series when he took over the show.
During the nineteen years that the show was on the air, several theme songs were used. For the first season, the theme was “Secret of the Silent Hills” composed by William Lava. The song was originally created for a 1940 radio show, “The Courageous Dr. Christian.” The song was tweaked a bit for the second and third seasons. An orchestral version of an aria from Faust, “Dio Possente” came in for the next year. Beginning with year five, the most famous version was aired: “Lassie Main & End Title” was created by Les Baxter and whistled by Muzzy Marcellino. After the Martin years, an orchestral version of “The Whistler” was used for a few years, and then Nathan Scott’s arrangement of “Greensleeves’ finished the run.
The series received two Emmy Awards for Best Children’s Program in 1955 and 1956 and a nomination in 1960. In addition, June Lockhart was nominated for Leading Actress in a Dramatic Series in 1959, Jan Clayton was nominated for the same award in 1957 and 1958, and the show was nominated for Best Dramatic Series in 1957.
The series was released on DVD during the years 2001-2007.
I do remember watching Lassie during the Provost years, but I actually was not aware of the other seasons. Like Flipper and Gentle Ben, it was a family show where everyone could sit around the television and watch together on a Sunday evening. With the show being on the air for 19 years, it is fondly remembered by several generations and made a ton of money marketing merchandise.
One of the things I love most about the show is that people are sure they remember Timmy falling into the well. It would be fun to do a blog about things that people are positive they remember but never happened. It’s similar to the Robot on Lost in Space saying “Danger Will Robinson” which he never actually did. It just proves that some shows live on in our imaginations for a long time.