Lassie, the beautiful and resourceful collie appeared first in a television series in the fall of 1954 and for nearly two decades was adored by children and adults alike.
However, the Lassie story began much earlier in the 20th century. The daring dog began a fictional life in a short story written by Erick Knight in 1938. Revised and extended, the work became a best-selling novel titled Lassie Come Home two years later. By 1943 Hollywood had brought the enchanting story to the silver screen, and by the late 1940s Lassie was starring in a radio show sponsored by Red Heart, a leading dog food.
The medium of television was gradually gaining notice in America, and Campbell’s Soup Company began looking for a children’s show to sponsor for the home viewing screen. Campbell’s was commercially involved with The Howdy Doody Show and the Mickey Mouse Club, but found a real winner with Lassie.
During the latter part of 1954, the TV series Lassie first appeared, with the concept of attracting the entire family to watch the almost-human dog tell humans what they needed to know to escape danger or solve a dilemma. Ultimately 35 million viewers sat before the television set on Sunday evenings watching the adventures of Lassie and having warm thoughts about Campbell’s soups.
The series opened with Lassie living on a farm with the Miller family near the small town of Calverton. The cast included Tommy Rettig as little Jeff Miller and Jan Clayton as Ellen, Jeff’s widowed mother. George Cleveland played George Miller, Jeff’s grandfather.
By 1957, the program’s executives decided that Tommy Rettig was getting too old to play little Jeff, so the entire format was changed. In the story the Miller family moved to the city and left Lassie in the care of an adopted orphan named Timmy Martin. Jon Provost played Timmy, and his adoptive parents included Cloris Leachman as Mom and Jon Shepodd as Dad. George Chandler played Timmy’s Uncle Petrie.
Just one year later, however, Timmy had new parents. Starting in 1958 June Lockhart played Mom, and Hugh Reilly filled the role of Dad. To keep things simpler, the ‘new’ parents kept the same last name, Martin, as Timmy’s previous parents. This time Timmy’s best friend was Boomer Bates played by Todd Ferrell. Famed comedian and movie character actor Andy Clyde appeared in the role of old-timer Cully.
The Lassie television show again underwent major changes in 1964 under the ownership of the Wrather Corporation. This time, according to the plot, the Martin family was whisked away to far off Australia but faithful Lassie remained behind. Lassie’s new owner was a forest ranger named Corey Stuart with Robert Bray in the part. Lassie enjoyed more of an outdoors format in the years that followed, and in 1968 joined with a team of forest rangers when Ranger Stuart departed.
The Lassie TV series continued into the early 1970s with Lassie appearing with a whole variety of characters and in all sorts of locations. Earlier versions of the show were syndicated under different titles including Jeff’s Collie (Tommy Rettig) and Timmy and Lassie (John Provost). In 1973 the entire series went into syndication, along with a cartoon version called Lassie’s Rescue Rangers.
Looking back on the grand days of Lassie and company, a writer for Cox News Service concluded, “Timmy and Lassie were the sweet spot, a family oasis on Sunday nights, with that whistled theme song, the ads for Campbell’s Soup, and the inevitable Lassie-saves-the-day ending.”
For the record, Lassie was eternally a female in the story line, thus the enduring name. However, in reality the dogs playing the role, all six of them, were males.
If beloved Lassie could really tell us something today it might be about coming home to all those collectibles of the dog’s entertainment career.
To promote their radio show and their product, Red Heart dog food issued a color picture of Lassie around 1949, along with a comic book. Some accounts mention a black-and-white pin-back button of the remarkable dog, but it may not have been available in the United States at the time.
Dell Publishing issued the first Lassie comic book of many in 1950, while Lassie was still barking her parts on NBC radio.
During the second season of the popular TV show, Campbell’s Soup briefly offered a Lassie Friendship Ring. The silvered brass ring bore a large initial L on each side with the image of the dog in the center.
In 1956, another sponsor, Nestle’s Quik launched their own Lassie-related promotion involving tee-shirts. The offer included a full-color photo of Lassie imprinted on the front of the shirt with “your own name” added to the back. That same year Whitman Publishing began issuing what would become a large number of Lassie hardcover books. Early titles included Lassie and the Mystery at Blackberry Bog, part of the TV Adventure series and Lassie And the Daring Rescue, a Little Golden Book.
During that same year additional Lassie-related promotions included a boxed Lassie Trick Trainer from Mousely Inc., a Lassie Club savings bond certificate, and a “thank you” postcard with Lassie’s photograph for those who entered a promotional contest.
A 1957 Christmas card made available late that year offered a color photograph of Lassie beside the Christmas tree with Timmy (Provost) and Uncle Petrie.
The 1950s closed out with a number of Lassie book titles from Whitman Publishing including Lassie And The Lost Explorer, Lassie And Her Day In The Sun, and A Giant Little Golden Book titled The Adventures of Lassie.
Campbell’s Soup offered a nifty premium around 1959 in connection with their Lassie Get Up And Go Club. The set included an official membership card and a color photo of Lassie in a vinyl wallet. Standard Toykraft offered the Lassie and Timmy Plastic Palette Coloring Set at about the same time.
The Whitman Company continued to publish a number of Lassie titles throughout the 1960s, including a reissue of Lassie Shows The Way, Hooray For Lassie, and Lassie, Lost in the Snow. The same company also featured Lassie in coloring books and what were then called punch-out books.
In 1965 a well-known doll maker, The Knickerbocker Toy Company, issued their version of Lassie. The 15-inch cloth doll initially had a felt face and felt ears; however, later versions came with a vinyl face and vinyl ears. All models bore a cloth Knickerbocker tag.
Lassie collectibles of the 1960s included View Master reels starring Timmy and Lassie. Lassie was so popular at the time that the reels not only came with English captions, but also in Spanish, French, German, and Italian language editions. In 1964 Campbell’s Soup offered a nifty Lassie Forest Ranger set premium, which included a vinyl wallet with a white metal badge. There was a Lassie wristwatch from Bradley and color photograph of Lassie complete with paw prints from Recipe Brand Dinners.
One of the more unique Lassie items of that decade was the brass metal “gold award” for meritorious action from Valley Farms Inc. The one-inch medal depicted Lassie on the front leaving the reverse with space for the owner’s name and the dog’s name. It was described as an award for “giving meaning to the tradition that man’s best friend is his dog.”
During the dog’s career, Lassie starred on at least two lunch boxes. During the 1960s the collie appeared on an Ardee Indurstries vinyl box with accompanying Styrofoam bottle. In the late 1970s Lassie was featured on a much more glamorous metal lunch box, this time crafted by King Seeley Thermos and drawn by artist Sam Petrucci.
One of the last major character collectibles came in 1976 when Gabriel Industries produced a Lassie action figure. The boxed Lassie was made of vinyl and hard plastic and came with movable head and legs.