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Celebrity Pets: Lassie

 by danielle on 30 May 2014 |
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Lassie is one of the most iconic dog characters of all time – but who was the face behind the famous name?

Said to have had the most spectacular canine career in film history, Pal was the Rough Collie actor that played the first and defining Lassie. Despite Lassie being female, Pal was in fact a male and earned the role through a convoluted series of events.

 

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Born at Glamis Kennels in North Hollywood on June 4, 1940, Pal had a fine pedigree, with ancestry that can be traced back to the nineteenth century and notable collies such as ‘Old Cockie’. However, he was considered a poor specimen of his breed due to his large eyes and the white blaze on his forehead and so he was sold as a pet-quality dog.

He came into the possession of Howard Peck who struggled with the rambunctious pup in spite of being an animal trainer. He despaired of Pal’s uncontrollable barking and determination to chase motorcycles. Frustrated, he took the dog to fellow trainer Rudd Weatherwax, hoping he would be able to stop the behavior.

Weatherwax succeeded in part, putting the endless barking to an end, but couldn’t get rid of Pal’s obsession with motocyles. Disappointed, Peck agreed to give Weatherwax Pal instead of paying him for his services.

Weatherwax decided to give Pal to his friend, but soon asked for him back when heard they were looking for a star of MGM’s film adaptation of Eric Knight’s 1940 novel Lassie Come Home. Weatherwax had a feeling Pal was the dog for the part and bought him for $10.00. Later on, when Pal became the star of the dog world, his original owner Peck tried to reclaim ownership of the dog, but Weatherwax’s legal ownership was upheld.

 

At first it had seemed Weatherwax was wrong. Pal competed amongst 1,500 other dogs for the part of Lassie and was rejected. The reasons cited: he was a male, his eyes were over-large, his head was too flat, and his sizeable, white blaze was unsightly. Instead, a prize-winning female show collie was picked – but at least, as a consolation, Pal’s owner Weatherwax was hired to train her. 

When filming of Lassie Come Home began in 1943, it was decided to take advantage of the spectacular flooding of the San Joaquin River to make an attention-grabbing sequence. The show Collie refused to enter the rampant floodwaters and Weatherwax offered for his dog, Pal, to perform the scene.

Pal performed magnificently. He swum across the river, hauled himself out, lay down without shaking and pretended to attempt to crawl forwards before finally lying on his side with exhaustion, unable to go on. Director Fred M. Wilcox was so moved by the dog’s acting he had tears in his eyes.

 
 
It was decided immediately Pal was to take the starring role and the show Collie was dismissed. MGM executives were so impressed with Pal they upgraded the production to an ‘A film’ rather than a simple children’s black and white movie and threw behind it full publicity support. In an amazing action for a film studio, the first six weeks of filming were ordered to be reshot to include Pal in all the scenes, this time in Technicolor.

Pal never faltered. He rarely required more than one take to get his performance just right.

Lassie Come Home was an amazing success and more MGM Lassie films followed: Son of Lassie, Courage of Lassie, Hills of Home, The Sun Comes Up, Challenge to Lassie and The Painted Hills.

After seven films, and enormous success, MGM decided to bring the Lassie series to end – but Weatherwax was certain Lassie still had a future and negiotiated that instead of being given $40,000 in back pay owed to him by the studio he be awarded the Lassie name and trademark.

The studio agreed and Pal and his trainer travelled around America performing shows at department stores, rodeos and dog shows. When television produced Robert Maxwell suggested the idea of a Lassie television show, Weatherwax and he created a story of a boy and his dog living on a struggling farm.


 
Pal was left to decide on the boy that was to be his on-screen companion. Three candidates stayed at Weatherwax’s Hollywood home for a week and he warmed strongly to 11-year-old Tommy Rettig and the boy was chosen for the role on the dog’s decision.

When the pilot episodes were played CBS was impressed and signed up the show at once - but Pal’s age was beginning to show. His son, Lassie Junior, took over the role, but his retired father would accompany him to work every day.

He had a bed on set and was referred to by the respectful title, ‘The Old Man.’ When Weatherwax asked Lassie Junior to perform a trick, Pal, on hearing the cue, would often perform the trick backstage.

 

Pal died at an amazing 18 years of age in 1958. Weatherwax was hit hard. Robert, his son, described his father’s despair at the loss of his dog. “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.”

Child actor Jon Provost remembered Weatherwax’s affection for Pal as profound. "As young as I was, I recognized how much that dog meant to Rudd. Rudd loved that old dog as much as anyone could love an animal or person."

To this day, Pal’s descendants play the role of Lassie he defined, and he remains the most iconic canine star to have ever lived. 

 
 

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