Lassie

Lassie is an American television series that follows the adventures of a female Rough Collie dog 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 September 12th, 1954, to March 24th, 1973. 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 in 1965.

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 Forest Service Rangers. After traveling without human leads for a year, Lassie finally settles at a children’s home for her final two syndicated seasons.

Lassie received critical favor at its debut 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 lifelong 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.

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 12th, 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 network prime time scheduling were handed down from the Federal Communications Commission, and CBS canceled the show. Lassie then entered first-run syndication for two seasons before televising its last new episode on Sunday March 24th, 1973.

The show’s title 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,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.Two hundred boys were interviewed, and 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. In the fourth season, George Chandler was hired to play Petrie Martin, Paul’s uncle, but was later dropped. As fourth season shooting progressed, Leachman grew unhappy playing a tired farm woman, feuded on-set with co-workers, and proved unpopular with viewers. Ratings dropped. When filming was completed for the 1957–58 season in February 1958, Wrather severed ties with producer Maxwell and dropped Leachman and Shepodd. Film veteran June Lockhart and Broadway stage star Hugh Reilly replaced the two at the top of the fifth season. Todd Ferrell played Timmy’s friend Ralph “Boomer” Bates with his dog Mike a recurring character but both were dropped in 1959.

Former Keystone Kop Andy Clyde, also a co-star of The Real McCoys, became a regular in 1959 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.
During its first four years, Lassie received very decent ratings. However, at the end of the 1958-1959 season, the ratings had fallen out of the top 30 due to the constant turnover in the cast. Once viewers began to warm to Lockhart and Reilly as Timmy’s parents, the Martin family was accepted and embraced by the public. As a result, between 1960 and 1964, Lassie’s ratings greatly improved and by the spring of 1964, it received its highest rating ever, ranking at #13.

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 Ranger. 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 Somers, Victor French, and Morgan Brittany.When the Forest Service years came to an end, Lassie wandered on her own 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.

 

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 Sierra, 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. 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 was 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 “The Whistler,” 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 “Whistler” 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. Television composer Nathan Scott scored the music to nearly every episode between 1963 and 1973, except for four episodes.

Campbell’s Soup Company sponsored the entire nineteen-year run of Lassie. In one of the first instances of product placement, 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 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 spokes dog 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 (Jeff or Timmy) got into some sort of trouble. 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 should not have done what he had done. 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 featured as Martin family friend/neighbor Cully Wilson.
Seasons 11 through 16 were the “Ranger years” of the series, as Lassie (due to not being able to travel to Australia with the Martins after Paul had gotten a job offer to teach agriculture there) was taken in by U.S. Forest Ranger Corey Stuart (who appeared in a few episodes of season 10) and began to work with the U.S. Forest Service. 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. Other rangers would be featured during the latter part of this era when Robert Bray (who played Stuart) left the series.

For season 17, the program shifted gears again and became somewhat of an anthology series, with Lassie traveling on her own, getting into to different adventures each week (similar in format to The Littlest Hobo). No explanation was given as to why Lassie was no longer with the Forest Service. Some episodes during this final CBS season were animals-only.
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. However, Lassie 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.
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