Ever since "Lassie" was taken off the air 18 years ago, dog trainer Bob Weatherwax has been patiently breeding and training look-alike collies in preparation for the day Lassie would come home . . . to television.
That day is almost here. On Sept. 23, MCA-TV's revival of the television classic will make its debut on KHJ-TV Channel 9.
The 4-year-old collie that stars in the new syndicated "Lassie" series is the seventh direct descendant of the original Lassie, which was trained by Weatherwax's late father, Rudd, and which first appeared with Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall in the successful 1943 movie "Lassie Come Home."
The film was based on Eric Knight's best-selling 1940 novel about a poor country family forced to sell their faithful collie, which then overcomes incredible odds and distances to return home to them.
Unlike the female Lassie character, Weatherwax's dogs--all males because they are easier to train--have never strayed from their master's side. During the dog's TV hiatus, Weatherwax and his father groomed the canine celebrity in personal appearances at fairs, rodeos and dog shows, with appearance fees as high as $7,500. Weatherwax says that Lassie often created a greater stir with collie owners than children.
"The collie people at the dog shows would always tell us, 'You know, you have a flawed collie; he would never win any awards,' " Weatherwax said. "One day my father, who grew tired of those comments, reached into his pocket and held up some money. 'You go ahead and collect the blue ribbons,' he said. 'I'll keep collecting these ribbons.' "
The point of contention for purebred collie owners is Lassie's unusually blond coat, which Weatherwax obtains by bleaching, and his nose. A tell-tale white blaze of fur runs up Lassie's nose--traditionally an undesirable trait in show collies. But that familiar white streak is Lassie's trademark, and the Weatherwaxes have taken great care to breed it in their collies.
"During a period of 45 years, we've raised over 3,000 puppies to get the seven Lassies we've had," Weatherwax said on the "Lassie" set at Universal as he flipped Lassie a small bit of cooked steak in reward for a string of tricks the dog had just performed. Weatherwax claims that Lassie knows about 90 verbal commands and hand signals.
"That's how hard it is to find dogs with those markings. My father would go out and find suitable female collies and make a deal with the breeder for pick of the litter. The dog we have now took three years and 10 litters to find."
Weatherwax--who operates Weatherwax Trained Dogs with 25 canines of varying breeds--claims he has already received several letters of protest from members of the Collie Club of America since the new "Lassie" show was announced.
"They blamed me for making collies too popular once before," Weatherwax said. "I think now they're afraid people who want collies with white markings will start tampering with the breed all over again."
But Sally Futh, the collie club's president, said that times have changed and that collies with light-colored manes and nose blazes have placed well in competition--although such dogs are still rare.
"The trend in dog ownership has been away from dogs like collies," she said. "Collies are dottering around with virtually the same registration figures they had before the original Lassie movie. (There are about 25,000 collies registered each year.) Lassie created a definite upsurge and probably made the breed too popular for a while."
Weatherwax learned to train Lassie from his father, who caused rivers of tears when he taught Old Yeller to roll over and die in the 1957 Walt Disney film. Rudd was raised on a ranch in Mexico where his father taught him how to train dogs to herd sheep.
"When my father and his brother went to the market, they taught one of the dogs to follow a few feet behind them and steal apples from the bins when they snapped their fingers," Weatherwax said. "That way they wouldn't get into trouble because they could just blame the dog if they got caught."
The Weatherwax family moved to California and Rudd gave acting a try. When called to play a paperboy, Rudd surprised the director by training a dog to take the newspaper from him, run up and deposit it on the porch. The dog stole the show, and the next day the director fired Rudd and hired the dog.
Eventually, Rudd began training dogs for motion pictures. In 1942, Weatherwax said, his father got a call from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which had just auditioned 1,500 collies for "Lassie Come Home." They needed a trained collie to back up their star dog. Rudd was never partial to collies, but he did have one left to him by a man who had hired Rudd in an unsuccessful effort to break his dog of chasing motorcycles.
"His name was Pal," Weatherwax said, "and he had mange. Pal was going to be used in a scene where the script called for Lassie to come out of a river exhausted. My father interpreted it and designed a scene where Pal walked out of the river and without shaking the water off himself collapsed to the ground. The director stood up and said, 'Lassie is out and Pal is in.' "
Pal, renamed Lassie, received an MGM contract and went on to do a series of six successful feature films. In his heyday, the dog received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and had his paws dipped in cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater. Lassie was one of MGM's top moneymakers in the 1940s, grossing more than $250 million, according to Weatherwax.
When MGM dropped Lassie's contract in 1951, Weatherwax said the studio owed his father $17,000. Rudd bargained with MGM, forfeiting his money for rights to the Lassie name and image.
The move paid off. When Rudd gave Lassie the command to jump to the television screen, he lasted there for 17 years.
"The dog was a better actor than the people most of the time," recalled Tom Rettig, 47, who played the original TV boy, Jeff Miller, from 1954 to 1957.
"On a regular basis, one of the human actors would blow a line, or do something that meant we had to shoot another take. It seems that Lassie, who always had things right the first time, would look at us like, 'Would you get it right this time?' "
Actor Jon Provost took over as Lassie's young master for seven years beginning in 1957. "The dog was always the biggest star in the show," said Provost, now 39, who will return to the new show in a recurring role as a family relative.
"In the original series, we did a scene where Lassie and I were on a river raft," he said. "The raft broke up in the rapids and we fell in the water. They had a safety line across the river with three men who jumped in and rescued Lassie. Meanwhile, I was going down for my third gulp. The crew was just standing on the shore looking at me saying, 'Wow, what great acting!' Finally Rudd Weatherwax saw I was in trouble and his men jumped in to save me."
The original "Lassie" series, which won three Emmy Awards for children's programming, is in syndication on Nickelodeon.
MCA-TV's new "Lassie" is set in a big-city suburb where the dog will confront a modern set of problems ranging from drugs to animal rights. The cast includes Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone, Will Nipper and Wendy Cox.
Bob Weatherwax, who inherited the rights to Lassie from his father, now works alongside his 25-year-old son, Bob Jr., the handler of Lassie's double--named Roxy--who is used for the more difficult scenes on the new series. Roxy has Lassie's familiar nose blaze but only one white front paw, so the dog must wear a white fur sock before the camera.
"I didn't have any brothers or sisters; I grew up with a family of collies," Bob Jr. said, gently stroking Roxy's thick mane. "I remember when I was 3 years old, I tried drinking out of a water dish because that's what all the dogs did."
Weatherwax said he will work a dog for only a few years in production because it is such a demanding experience. If the new "Lassie" series is successful, Weatherwax plans to start grooming an eighth-generation Lassie puppy soon to bear the burden of stardom.