TV's Top Dogs


50 years ago, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin
leaped into America’s living rooms.

By Keith Bush


Two heroic dogs began their television careers in the fall of 1954, representing simple but powerful ideals of courage and loyalty. Through the medium of television, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin became enduring symbols of the human-canine bond.

Out of the Rubble

Near the end of World War I, Lee Duncan found a German Shepherd Dog, only a few days old, in the ruins of an enemy airfield. The young corporal named him after a French good-luck charm and brought him to the United States. A few years later, Duncan began pursuing a movie career, armed with the dog he trained and a story he wrote. No one showed interest in either until he stumbled across a film crew struggling to complete a scene with a wolf borrowed from a zoo. Duncan said his dog could do it one take, and Rin Tin Tin delivered. More work followed, including 1923’s Where the North Begins, which made Rin Tin Tin world-famous and helped save Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. The dog made 20 more silent films and a handful of “barkies” before dying in 1932 in the arms of blonde bombshell Jean Harlow. Rin Tin Tin Jr. went on to star in several movies of his own.

Off the Page

“Lassie Come-Home” appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1938. The short story drew on author Eric Knight’s Yorkshire boyhood, his affection for a loyal Collie named Toots, and the hardships of the Great Depression. It touched readers’ hearts and led to a best-selling novel.

MGM conducted a nationwide search to find a female Collie to star in the film adaptation and hired trainer Rudd Weatherwax to handle her. But when the leading lady balked at crossing a swollen river, Weatherwax substituted his own dog.

At Weatherwax’s command, Pal swam the river, crawled onto the bank as if exhausted, and collapsed without even shaking himself dry. After watching the dramatic scene, Louis B. Mayer is said to have proclaimed, “That dog may have jumped in the water as Pal, but he came out as Lassie.”

The picture was a hit. Weatherwax and Pal made five more. Unfortunately, Knight never saw them. He died aboard a military transport plane that crashed in World War II.

Duncan, with Rin Tin Tin III, served his country by supervising the training of thousands of dogs for military duty. After the war, they made The Return of Rin Tin Tin with a young Robert Blake, but the golden age of movie dogs had passed.

On the Tube

Television producer Robert Maxwell saw Weatherwax on a road show with former film star Pal and realized the name “Lassie” still drew crowds. He and Weatherwax began searching for a suitable costar.

“Tommy Rettig and I were the final two that went over to Rudd Weatherwax’s house,” recalls former child actor Lee Aaker. “Rettig got the role, and then a few months later, I got the Rin Tin Tin part.” Yes, another dog star was poised for a comeback.

Lassie debuted in September, featuring Rettig as Jeff Miller, a boy who lived with his widowed mother on a farm and inherited Lassie. Although 14-year-old Pal performed impressively in the pilot episode, he wasn’t up to the rigors of a weekly series. His son Lassie Jr. stepped in.

The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin bowed in October, set in the old west and featuring Aaker as Rusty, a young massacre survivor befriended by a cavalry officer. Rin Tin Tin IV and three doubles played his canine protector. Both shows were hits with kids and families. Rusty and Rinty soldiered on until 1959, but Jeff outgrew his Lassie role after a couple of seasons. Weatherwax worried about how Rettig’s 7-year-old replacement, Jon Provost, would interact with the star. “Rudd took me aside and said, ‘If you can go through the first year without bugging Lassie -- don’t pull his tail, don’t sit on him -- next year I’ll give you a Lassie puppy,’” Provost recalls. “The following year I got my Lassie puppy and I named him Rudd. He was a great dog.” Provost, June Lockhart as Ruth and Hugh Reilly as Timmy and his adoptive parents became the most popular of Lassie’s TV families, although the series survived further cast changes to enjoy an impressive 19-year run.

Into the Future

Lassie appeared in two more live-action series, an animated series, and two feature films. Plans for the 50th anniversary this fall include a three-DVD set with episodes from each phase of the classic series, a syndicated lifestyle show, and the launch of a new line of pet products. An animated series with Lassie as a puppy and a big-screen retelling of Lassie Come-Home are in the works for 2005. Rin Tin Tin has kept a lower profile, but an upcoming biography by Susan Orlean, best-selling author of The Orchid Thief, could change that. Meanwhile, Daphne Hereford watches over his legacy. “We breed two to three litters a year,” says Hereford, who lives in Crockett, Texas, with the latest namesake and direct descendant of Rin Tin Tin IV. “The majority of his puppies are donated to ARFkids [A Rinty for Kids] Foundation, which gives them to disabled children to work as service dogs. All Rin’s money for personal appearances goes to ARFkids.” In different ways, Lassie and Rinty continue to be a kid’s best friends.