The phrase dogs in film brings to mind a few important names...Rin Tin Tin, Toto, Old Yeller and most definitely Lassie. In fact the name Lassie has become synonymous with canine companionship.
But who was the canine actor playing Lassie?
In reality of course there where quite a few Lassies, all males. The first, however, was Pal a rough collie born on June 4, 1940. He was born into show biz at a Hollywood Kennel with famous parents and a lineage that traced back to England's greatest show collies.
Despite his impressive background Pal was not an immediate success. He was passed around among several Hollywood dog trainers who struggled to control his barking and chasing behaviors, with limited success. Eventually a trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, saw the dog's potential and agreed to take him on. Weatherwax new a film version of the popular novel Lassie Come Home was being made and he felt Pal was perfect for the part. The makers of the film did not agree, however, to them Pal had the wrong look and they wanted a female dog for the role. An appropriate show dog was selected and Pal was hired as a stunt dog.
Fate intervened, while shooting a particularly dramatic stunt sequence in which Lassie swims in a raging river. Pal's performance so impressed the film's Fred M. Wilcox that the decision was made to have him take over the starring role. In fact Pal's work in that sequence caused the producers of the film to invest more money in it, changing it from a low budget feature to a star status film.
Their investment paid off and Lassie Come Home became a huge box office success, as well one of the first films starring Elizabeth Taylor. Six more Lassie films, all starring Pa,l followed and Collies quickly became one of the most popular breeds in the US with millions of children begging their parents for their own Lassie.
In 1954 Weatherwax and producer Robert Maxwell created a TV series for Lassie, changing the setting of the story from Scotland to America. Pal had a key role in selecting the child actor who would take the role of the young boy, Jeff. Pal at the advanced age of 14 appeared in the first two episodes of the series before retiring and being replaced by his son Lassie Jr.
Pal lived an astonishing 18 years, all of them with Rudd Weatherwax who cherished him above all of the other animals he trained. When Pal died in 1958 Weatherwax was heartbroken. His son said: "It hit him very hard when Pal died. He buried him in a special place on the ranch and would often visit the grave. Dad would never again watch an MGM Lassie movie. He just couldn't bear to see Pal. He didn't want to have to be reminded of just how much he loved that dog."
|Pal and Rudd Weatherwax his trainer and owner|