By Julia Williams
There’s hardly a man, woman or child alive today who doesn’t know who Lassie is, but do you know how she became one of the world’s most famous and beloved dogs? If you’re like me, you may vividly remember watching Lassie on TV or the big screen but not know a thing about the history of one of our most popular animal stars. I did a little digging on the origins of Lassie, and found it interesting. I hope you do too!
Lassie was the main character in a short story called Lassie Come Home, written by Eric Knight. It was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. The touching tale was reportedly inspired by real life Depression-era events in Yorkshire, England. It told of a collie’s arduous journey to reunite with her family after they were forced to sell her for money. The story was so popular that in 1940 it was expanded and published as a book. The novel immediately became a best seller; the publisher released 5 printings in the first 6 months alone.
Because the book was so well received, MGM Studios released the first Lassie movie in 1943, also titled Lassie Come Home. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography and featured Roddy McDowall, Elizabeth Taylor and the canine actor Pal in the role of Lassie. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) reports that Pal earned $250 per week while the young Ms. Taylor – just 11 at the time – was paid $100 per week! After this first Lassie film debuted, scores of people wrote to the studio begging for another Lassie film, and in 1945 they got their wish. Son of Lassie was released, starring Peter Lawford and June Lockhart. To no one’s surprise, this film was also a huge success.
Five more Lassie films were released from 1946 to 1951. One of the more memorable Lassie movies was 1979’s The Magic of Lassie with Jimmy Stewart and a cast of interesting characters including Mickey Rooney. To date, there have been 11 Lassie films. The last one was a remake of the original Lassie movie; released in 2006, it was simply called Lassie and starred Peter O’Toole.
The Lassie Radio Show began broadcasting in 1947 and lasted until 1950. Each week in 15-minute stories, Lassie played a different dog in different types of situations.
The original Lassie TV series began in 1954 and ran for 19 seasons. The show was a hit from day one, and Lassie episodes can still be seen in syndication today. Lassie consistently ranked at the top of the Nielsen ratings, and won the Emmy award for Best Children’s Series in both 1955 and 1956. In 1957, Jon Provost joined the cast as the boy “Timmy.”
By 1964, the show’s sweet depiction of a boy and his beloved dog was no longer attracting the teenage audience, so the producers decided that Lassie needed a new owner, a strong rugged male figure played by Robert Bray. That same year, the episodes started airing in color. In 1973, the network created a Saturday morning cartoon called Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, which portrayed the famous collie as a “Superdog.”
No other “celebridog” has come close to achieving Lassie’s level of notoriety. Moreover, Lassie is credited with forever changing the way people relate to their dogs. Before Knight penned the Lassie story, dogs were primarily kept as workers for the farm. Lassie, however, was regarded as a genuine family member and her job was to be a “best friend” rather than a working dog. Viewers embraced this special relationship between dog and family, and it inspired them to also bring their dogs indoors.
Lassie is one of only 3 dogs to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the other 2 are silent-film stars Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart). Lassie got her star in 1960.
Although the character of Lassie is female, all of the collies portraying Lassie have been male.
Pal (the first canine actor to play Lassie) retired at age 5; all subsequent Lassie films used direct descendants of Pal.
Campbell’s Soup was the sponsor for the entire run of the Lassie TV series.
The Lassie trademark requires a sable and white collie, with a full white collar, four white feet and a white blaze up the nose. All of the genetic line dogs have had these markings naturally, and have not used makeup.
In 2005, the show business journal Variety named Lassie “One of the 100 icons of the century.” Lassie was the only animal to make the list!
Read more articles by Julia Williams
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