Tom Rettig is a 48-year-old grandfather who heads up a software consulting firm in Beverly Hills and is an authority on personal computer data bases.
But to millions of TV viewers, he will always be Jeff Miller, dog's best friend on the original "Lassie" series from 1954-57.
Rettig is reprising his role of Jeff on an episode of The New Lassie this week on KCOP. Rettig is reunited with Jon Provost, who played Timmy on the original "Lassie" and has a recurring role on the syndicated series. (This Lassie, incidentally, is No. 7.)
Last year when he was asked by "New Lassie" producer Al Burton to guest on the syndicated series, Rettig didn't want to have any part of it.
"I have been out of it for 20 some odd years and I have another career these days," Rettig said. "But I was interested in pitching some stories and doing some writing for them."
Rettig and his partner, Joe Perret, came up with a storyline and submitted it to Burton, who gave them the OK to write the script. Rettig also ended up writing Jeff Miller into the episode.
Now a computer science professor, Jeff helps Lassie match wits with another dog to prove which is the smarter in an experiment using computers. "I don't want to give away the whole plot, but of course Lassie winds up doing just fine," Rettig said.
"Lassie" marks the first time Rettig has acted on TV in 23 years. "I have done talk shows," he said. "They come around once or twice a year no matter how hard I try to be a hermit.
"I know this sounds like a cliche, but acting was exactly like getting back on a bicycle after not riding for 25 years," Rettig said.
Rettig quit "Lassie" because he wanted a normal life.
"I didn't enjoy the wide recognition," he said. "I couldn't go to dinner. I couldn't stand in line for a show without attracting a crowd.
"When I got out of 'Lassie,' I tried to bleach my hair and it came out orange," he said. "I cut it off like it was a quarter-inch butch cut, put on sunglasses and went on a bus to go meet some friends of mine in Westwood. I checked myself out in the mirror and said, 'This is cool. No one will recognize me.' I got on the bus and three people asked me for my autograph."
Though Rettig is now a successful businessman, he spent nearly 25 years after he left the series "finding himself." He married at 18 and was the father of two sons by the time he was 21. He attempted to return to acting in the '60s, but after guest spots on some TV series, Rettig discovered he was washed up in Hollywood.
In the early 1970s he moved to Central California and became an organic farmer, until he was arrested on charges of growing a marijuana crop. Three years later he was arrested and later acquitted on a cocaine smuggling charge. In 1979, he filed for bankruptcy. He began playing around with computers a decade ago while trying to launch a company to conduct EST-like seminars. He taught himself dBase, a PC data-base management program, and began his own company in 1985.
"I wouldn't want to go through that painful period of my 20s," said Rettig, who believes child stars have difficulties coping as adults because of a lack of responsibility on the part of producers.
"You all become family on a series, but when that show is over the producer is on to another show," he said. "Maybe he can't give the kid a job. The point is: When it is very important to be experiencing acceptance in the adult community, you are suddenly experiencing rejection. No matter what people tell you, it's very difficult not to blame yourself.
"I went through huge depressions over that," Rettig said. "But what can I say? That's life. I wouldn't want to go through the depressions again, but the adventures I have had in my life, both bad and good, I treasure them all. None of them have been horrible. Nobody has gotten hurt. My life has been a wonderful adventure."
The original "Lassie" airs Monday-Friday at 9 a.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 6 a.m. on Nickelodeon. "The New Lassie" airs Friday at 9:30 a.m. on KCOP.