Lassie Television Series
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 colour during 1965. Lassie received critical favour at its debut and won two Emmy Awards in its first years. Stars Jan Clayton and June Lockhart were nominated for Emmys.
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.
One of the most beloved family-oriented series of all time was "Lassie," the story of a resourceful collie based on the Eric Knight novel and on the 1943 MGM classic Lassie Come Home, in which a faithful collie makes a hazardous 200-mile journey to rejoin his young master.
Over the course of two decades the program survived various format and cast changes without ever seeming to age. Actually, Lassie was played at various times by at least six collies and by a variety of look-alikes for the difficult stunts. All, like Lassie, were owned and trained for the show by the late Rudd Weatherwax.
In the show's first 103 episodes (1954-57), Lassie lived on the Miller farm near the town of Calverton. The cast included 12-year-old Tommy Rettig as Jeff Miller, Jan Clayton as his widowed mother, Ellen, George Cleveland as Jeff's granddad, George ("Gramps"), and Donald Keeler as his best friend, Sylvester ("Porky") Brockway. Lassie was the greatest of the animal heroes. Episodes often involved scenes in which Lassie leaped through plate glass windows or barked frantically to get help for her beloved Jeff, struggling against adversaries, both human and animal.
At the end of three successful seasons, the producers felt that Tommy Rettig had outgrown the part of Jeff, and Rettig himself had begun to tire of the role. Consequently, another young actor, Jon Provost, was written into the series, in a three-part episode entitled "The Runaway," as a young orphan entrusted to the care of Lassie upon the Millers' sudden move to the big city. The new cast also included Cloris Leachman and Jon Sheppodd as Timmy's foster parents, Paul and Ruth Martin. George Chandler was also featured as Uncle Petrie (George Cleveland had passed away at the start of the new season). Because of a verbal contract dispute, Cloris Leachman and Jon Sheppodd lasted only one season as the Martins. They were replaced the following year (1958) by June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly.
As in the earlier episodes, Lassie continued to show great dedication to her new master, Timmy, with several of the episodes presented as minidramas over three to five weekly installments. In a 1963 five-part episode, Timmy and Lassie are cast adrift in a runaway weather balloon. The episodes were assembled the following year and presented to matinee audiences as the film Lassie's Great Adventure. That same year the Wrather Corporation, producer of the series, and its long-time sponsor, the Campbell Soup Company, decided upon another change, believing that Provost had now also outgrown the role.
It was explained this time that the Martins had sold the farm to move to Australia for a better way of life but were unable to bring Lassie along because of that country's strict quarantine laws for pets. In a tearful two-part episode, Timmy departed, leaving Lassie in the care of Cully Wilson, an elderly friend of the Martins, seen in previous episodes and portrayed by veteran comedy actor Andy Clyde. When Wilson became too sick to look after Lassie, Robert Bray filled in as forest ranger Corey Smith, introduced several episodes earlier. After Bray's departure from the series in 1968, Lassie joined forces with two other forest rangers, Jed Allen and Jack DeMave, respectively, as Scott Turner and Bob Erichson. During the last two seasons of the series, there were no human regulars at all, allowing Lassie to wander about in each episode looking for new adventures. In the last few original episodes, Lassie met and fell in love with a male collie, which eventually led to a litter of puppies. (An exceptional feat even for Lassie, considering that the role had actually been played over the years by a variety of male collies!)
CBS chose the 7:00 P.M. Sunday slot for this 30-minute show. The premiere episode aired on September 12, 1954. The final episode aired on September 12, 1971. In the fall of 1971, "Lassie" was syndicated on more than 200 stations across the United States and Canada.
Like most popular animals shows, "Lassie" was derived from a movie and its sequels, beginning in 1944 with The Son of Lassie, and Lassie Come Home. Lassie (whose real name was Pal) became the principal dog for many of the films' most dramatic scenes and went on to become even more popular several years later when the ABC radio network announced its plans for a radio program starring the canine in a series of her own. For five years Pal, alias Lassie, supplied the needed growls, whimpers, and barks that helped make the radio series a huge success. With television producers then seeking inexpensive properties for a children's audience, the Lassie character appeared to be a sure-fire winner. In 1953, in a 10 percent residual agreement with trainer Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie was turned over to producer Robert Maxwell, known previously for his production of the first television season of "The Adventures of Superman." The first television Lassie was played by Pal II, the first offspring of the original Lassie star, who had retired from acting in 1951.
Throughout the show's many revisions, one thing has remained the same: its popularity with children has never diminished. The basic for-mula was always a simple one: an intelligent, brave collie and her triumphs over adversity.
Earlier versions of the series began syndication in the 1960s under the titles "Jeff's Collie" and "Timmy and Lassie" (the latter is frequently rerun today over cable's Nickelodeon station). In 1973 an animated ver-sion of the series, produced by Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer, was presented on Saturday mornings as "Lassie's Rescue Rangers."
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. 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. 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 Forest 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.
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 non-human 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.
In 1967, in conjunction with Lassie's association with the United States Forest Service and environmentalism, Lassie was welcomed to the White House by Lady Bird Johnson. In January 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into a law a bill targeting soil and water pollution that many called "the Lassie program". Lassie and her sponsors were honored with a luncheon in the Senate Dining Room on March 19, 1968, and presented with a plaque by senators Edmund Muskie and George Murphy, recognizing their commitment to the environment.
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