Lassie: This Series Had Five Lives

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.

File:Lassie cast 1955.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Clayton, Rettig, Cleveland Photo: wikimedia.com

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).

Lassie (TV Series 1954–1974) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

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.

Photo: ashroudofthoughts.com

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.

Mister Ed:

In the 1960s we had some crazy sitcom situations: a wife who was a witch, a genie who was found in a bottle, a dead mother who inhabited a car, and the Munsters who tried to adjust to a normal human world.  One show that was not that incredible was Mister Ed. If someone said they were writing a show about a talking horse, it should sound a bit far-fetched, but when you watched the show, it all seemed quite plausible. Let’s take a look at what made Mister Ed a fairly well-written and enjoyable series.

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Mister Ed was developed by Arthur Lubin, a producer and director. Lubin had worked on the Francis the talking mule movies. He wanted to make a similar show for television. He was unable to gain the rights to Francis, but then he heard about children’s author Walter R. Brooks. Brooks had a series of short stories about a talking horse. His stories were published by Bantam, but since he passed away in 1958, he was never able to see the television show his work inspired.

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The pilot was financed by George Burns and filmed at his McCadden Studio. It was titled “Wilbur Pope and Mister Ed.” Scott McKay played Wilbur Pope, Sandra White played his wife, and Mr. Ed was played by a chestnut gelding that was temperamental and difficult to work with.

 

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Lubin was not able to sell the show to one of the major networks, so he financed it as a syndication sitcom. The cast was switched up a bit. Bamboo Harvester, a golden Palamino, was brought in as Ed and his voice was kept secret at the time but was Rocky Lane, an older Western star.

Allan Young came on board as the now named Wilbur Post, and Connie Hines played his wife Carol. Young was actually a blonde but in the black and white version, his hair blended into the horse’s, so Connie Hines’ hairdresser would dye Young’s hair brunette. Originally Lubin discussed naming it The Alan Young Show, but Alan did not want to do that in case it bombed. He did, however, buy into the show, which resulted in his earning a lot of money later.

Ed’s singing voice was provided by Sheldon Allman. However, the line “I am Mister Ed” at the end of the theme song was done by the song’s composer, Jay Livingston.

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote the theme song. An instrumental version was used for the first seven episodes, and then lyrics were added. The lyrics are:

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And no one can talk to a horse, of course.

That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.

Go right to the source and ask the horse.

He’ll give you the answer that you’ll endorse.

He’s always on a steady course.

Talk to Mister Ed.

People yakkity-yak a streak and waste your time of day,

But Mister Ed will never speak unless he has something to say.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And this one’ll talk ’til his voice is hoarse.

You never heard of a talking horse?

Well listen to this: I am Mister Ed.

 

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The first 26 episodes were so popular, CBS picked it up. It aired on CBS from October 1961 until February 1966. During the sixth season, CBS moved the show from the prime time schedule and broadcast it on later on Sunday afternoon. There are 143 episodes in all, and they were all filmed in black and white.

 

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Photo: Hooniverse.com

Lubin got Studebaker Packard Corporation to sponsor the show in syndication which it continued to sponsor once CBS picked it up. The Posts own a 1962 Lark convertible. Studebaker’s sales plummeted in the early 1960s, and production stopped in 1963. From then on, Ford provided the cars seen on the show.

Ed also had a double named Pumpkin, a quarterhorse, which was his stunt double. Later Pumpkin was featured in a pudding commercial and went on to appear in another Filmways Presentation show, Green Acres.

The Posts live in Los Angeles. Wilbur was an architect.

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Photo: youtube.com

The Posts’ neighbors and friends were Roger and Kay Addison played by Larry Keating and Edna Skinner.  Keating died in the middle of the series, and Edna continued on the show. Later Wilbur’s former commanding officer, Col. Gordon Kirkwood (Leon Ames) and his wife Winnie (Florence MacMichael) moved into the Addisons’ home.

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Both the Addisons and the Kirkwoods think Wilbur is a bit nuts. They often hear him talking to himself and, to cover for Ed, he gets involved in a lot of awkward situations. Wilbur is also a bit accident prone.

Wilbur’s wife resented the time Wilbur liked to spend with his horse instead of her. Her father, Mr. Higgins (Jack Albertson), thought she should leave Wilbur and considered him a “kook.”

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Mr. Ed only talks to Wilbur. The only reason given for Ed refusing to talk to anyone else is that he thought Wilbur was the only person worth talking to. It worked because Ed was not treated as an unbelievable horse who could talk. He appeared as an equal character. Ed was also quite intelligent. He could read and play chess. He was able to use the phone to get information.  Bamboo Harvester really could answer the phone; he just could not have a conversation. He was also able to open the barn door. Ed would also pout at times when he didn’t get his way and threatened to run away a lot.

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Photo: itschess.blogspot

In an online article, “The World of Mr. Ed-What You Didn’t Know About the Talking Horse,” written by Ed Gross on April 24, 2018, he quoted Ben Starr who wrote 42 of the episodes. He explained that the reason the show worked was because he and producer Lou Derman “really knew how to do that show because we figured out how to make it work for kids and grownups. You had to take care of the grownups, and that was our secret.”

Mister Ed featured a lot of famous guest stars including Mae West, Clint Eastwood, George Burns, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Leo Durocher, Jon Provost, Sebastian Cabot, Donna Douglas, Irene Ryan, Alan Hale Jr., Neil Hamilton, William Bendix, Sharon Tate, and Jack LaLanne.

 

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Bamboo Harvester was trained by Les Hilton.  At a time when trainers could be considered somewhat cruel, Hilton was always respectful of his animals and never used force or abuse on them. Hilton had to be on the set whenever the horse was. To make Ed appear to be talking, Hilton originally used a nylon thread to open his mouth. Bamboo Harvester was quite smart though and learned to talk on cue whenever Hilton touched his hoof. A story made the rounds that Ed was made to talk by applying peanut butter to the horse’s mouth, but later Young admitted he made that up because it was more interesting than the real story.

 

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Bamboo Harvester appeared to be a professional. He usually only needed one take to complete his action. Hilton had to teach him to play a variety of sports including riding a skateboard. However, when he got tired of working for the day, he just walked off the set. He received twenty pounds of hay and a gallon of sweet tea daily.

Apparently Young and the horse became close. Young had a great respect for his co-star and after the show ended, he would make trips to see Bamboo Harvester in his retirement.

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I could not find a definite date of death for the horse. There are a lot of conflicting stories about it. Young claimed that the horse was in a stable in California where he lived on Hilton’s property. One version is that one day when Hilton was out of town, Bamboo Harvester was given a tranquilizer because he was having trouble getting up and he died hours later. Another story I read was that the horse was euthanized in 1970 in Oklahoma. He was reported to be suffering from arthritis and kidney problems.

One story I did confirm is that a horse did die in February of 1979 in Oklahoma, but it was not Bamboo Harvester, but a horse that posed for still pictures for the show which led to false reports of his being Mr Ed when he died.

Apparently, a reboot was planned for the Fox network in 2004, starring Sherman Hemsley as the voice of Mr. Ed, David Alan Basche as Wilbur, and Sherilyn Fenn as Carol. I could not find any information whether a pilot was ever filmed or not.

Another movie version was discussed in 2012 when Waterman Entertainment announced they were developing a new feature film based on the television show. Once again, I could not find any further information on the movie.

 

Mister Ed was popular during its run. A lot of collectible products were created in the 1960s including comic books and board games.

Mister Ed was not a show on my “must-watch” list, and I don’t watch a lot of the reruns. However, when I do catch one, I never feel like I wasted my time. The show worked and felt believable. Currently, it is not on either Me TV or Antenna TV, but it is available on DVD.