Lassie, the adorable collie who debuted in 1943, was for generations a touching symbol of the bond between a boy and his dog.
A succession of dogs served in the role of Lassie in 11 films and hundreds of TV episodes.
Based on a contemporary novel by Eric Knight, the classic 1943 film “Lassie Come Home” was set in Depression-era England. It’s the story of an impoverished miner who sells his son’s beloved dog, Lassie, to a Scottish duke. Sensing the dog’s distress, the duke’s daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) helps it to escape. A cross-country journey filled with peril but also aided by the helping hands of strangers leads to an emotional reunion with the dog’s disheartened young master (Roddy McDowall).
The story was reprised in a critically acclaimed 2005 film, "Lassie," starring Peter O’Toole as the duke of Rudling and including Mickey Rooney in a cameo role.
In the intervening years, Lassie became an archetypal character, starring as the faithful and resourceful sidekick in a variety of stories, many taking place in the United States. Among them, Lassie avenges his master’s murder in the California gold fields (“The Painted Hills”) and comforts a bereaved war widow, played by Jeanette MacDonald (“The Sun Comes Up”).
Many of the film roles starred Pal, who belonged to trainer Rudd Weatherwax. The gifted Pal played in seven films, through 1951, five as Lassie and two under different names but always portraying the loyal, resourceful and persevering companion.
Future generations played in the Emmy-winning TV series that lasted nearly two decades, into the 1970s, repeatedly saving his master, Timmy, as melancholy theme music played. Lassie returned to TV in the 1980s and the 1990s, the latter in a Canadian series.
Though the name suggested a female, all of the dogs playing Lassie were males, said Weatherwax’s son, Bob, in a 1986 interview.
"For one thing, he’s bigger," Weatherwax said in 1986, referring to the seventh-generation Lassie. "His coat photographs better, and he doesn’t shed so much fur."
Weatherwax, who still owned the Lassie name and trained successor Lassies, said the character had a following in Europe and Japan as well as the U.S.
"They even play 'Lassie' in Russia because it's nonpolitical, it doesn't deal with sex or any religious philosophy," he said.
Asked what might be the source of Lassie's longtime appeal, Weatherwax observed: "It's just a boy and his dog, what can you say? Lassie has always been a hero. He's never done anything bad."