Tommy Rettig, the first boy who tagged after Lassie during the famous collie’s 20 years on television, has died. He was 54.
Rettig was found dead of natural causes in his Marina del Rey home, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said Thursday night.
Already an established child star in 1954, Rettig was chosen over 500 other boys to play the 11-year-old Midwestern farm boy Jeff Miller when “Lassie” premiered on CBS that Sept. 12. “With Lassie I’d gladly work for free,” Rettig said when he got the job.
He stayed with the collie for four years, ultimately handing the pet over to Jon Provost as Timmy and a new family in 1958. The dog, actually a series of male collies, had three families and three forest rangers during two decades of televised adventures.
Born Thomas Noel Rettig in Jackson Heights, N.Y., Rettig made his debut at age 6 in a touring company of “Annie Get Your Gun” starring Mary Martin. He landed his first screen role at age 9 and made 17 films, starring with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum in “River of No Return,” with Richard Widmark in “The Last Wagon,” with Jane Wyman in “So Big,” and perhaps most memorably as a boy with a vivid imagination in “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.”
After that came “Lassie,” and after that came a troubled life filled with failure to land adult roles. He also faced arrests and convictions for growing marijuana and importing cocaine, bankruptcy, divorce and a string of jobs ranging from photographer, tool salesman and computer programmer to health club manager.
Rettig remained a staunch advocate of recreational drug use throughout his adult life and in 1983 championed a proposed California initiative to legalize marijuana.
“The use of drugs has been made synonymous with the abuse of drugs,” he told The Times in 1980. “For the most part, they are natural substances and have been around long before man. Prohibition never worked; education is the answer. . . . I think one can achieve a certain growth with it [drugs].”
Rettig said he continued to use marijuana in middle age but that he gave up stronger drugs when he became a vegetarian.
The child star married when he was 18, and his 15-year marriage produced two sons, Tom and Deane.