In 2005, readers of the show biz magazine, “Variety,” listed the top 100 celebrity icons of the 20th century. The Beatles held off a field of highly talented entertainers to take the number one spot. Included was the only animal star to make the list – Lassie. Between the years of 1954 – 1973, dog lovers tuned in to watch the latest TV adventure of Lassie and her humans. But, before the TV series there were six full length movies, and before the movies was a short story, turned into a book, that inspired the Lassie franchise and captured the heart of a generation. Contrary to popular belief, Timmy never did fall down a well, but he was pretty good at finding trouble everywhere else.
Eric Knight was a dog lover and gifted writer with an overwhelming dream to write a great American novel. The job of a wordsmith is to put pen to paper and paint a picture with words – a creation of imagination and life experiences. Knight told a story in, “Lassie Come Home,” about hard working, honest people and created characters readers can still identify with. Had it not been for Knight’s life experiences and imagination, we wouldn’t have had Pal, aka Lassie.
Abandoned by his father when Knight was very young, his life experiences began in his home country of England, and expanded when he immigrated at 15 years of age to America and joined his mother who was already here. After graduating from the Cambridge School of Latin in Massachusetts, Knight began his writing career working for different newspapers around Philadelphia. He fell in love, married, and settled down on a farm in Pennsylvania, surrounded with dogs, including collies. It wasn’t long, however, before a desire for a film writing career steered him to California. He left his dogs behind, except for one small terrier, but the terrier was hit by a car and killed shortly after the couple arrived in California. To ease the pain, Knight bought a collie and named her Toots. He was impressed with her intelligence, devotion, and willingness to learn and he worked with her every extra minute he could training her. The two became inseparable.
As a story began to take shape and simmer in his mind, Knight visited his homeland during the Great Depression. Even in England, people had fallen on hard times and he witnessed first hand how it affected his countrymen. Anguish flowed from their eyes as they sold their belongings, including beloved family dogs, hoping they could hang on for one more day. Knight’s love for Toots and his visit to England became his inspiration. After returning home, he and his wife moved to New York where he wrote, “Lassie Come Home.” His short story was published in the December 17, 1938 issue of the “Saturday Evening Post” and received such a huge response, it was turned into a children’s book two years later. Today, it’s an enduring classic enjoyed by people worldwide.
Pal’s life began on June 4, 1940 at Cherry Osborne Glamis Kennels in North Hollywood, California. No one could have imagined he would become one of the most recognized dog stars of all time. At eight months old, he was an undisciplined pup, barking constantly and chasing motorcycles. Three years later, he would make his movie debut, but his big break wasn’t when his acting talents were discovered, it was being unruly and living in a kennel in North Hollywood. Home to the famous dog training Weatherwax brothers, Rudd and Frank.
Rudd Weatherwax was able to control the collie’s barking, but he never could break him of chasing motorcycles, which came in handy during filming for some scenes. Pal learned quickly and it seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t be trained to do, but when Weatherwax took him to audition for the role of Lassie in, “Lassie Come Home,” he was one of 1,500 dogs vying for the lead role. Pal was rejected for having eyes that were too big, a head that was too large, and being a male. But, he was hired as a stunt dog and Weatherwax would be in charge of training the female star. Pal’s break came when the crew, taking advantage of a flooded San Joaquin River in California to get some live action footage, was trying to get the the female dog into the water, but she refused. Pal jumped into the flood swollen raging river and swam across to the other side, just barely making it, but he continued to follow directions. He impressed the producers and was hired to replace the fired female dog. The director, Fred Wilcox proudly said, “It may have been Pal that went in the river, but it was Lassie that came out. That’s my star!”
Pal did his own stunts and entertained his fans in six more full length movies after his initial success in “Lassie Come Home.” The last one, “The Painted Hills,” was filmed in 1951. In 1954, two pilots for the Lassie TV series were shot, “The Inheritance,” and “The Well.” The pilots would be the last ones for Pal. He retired and passed the role of Lassie to his three year old son, Lassie Junior. In 1958, Pal, the dog who captured the heart of a generation, passed away at 17.
Pal had a remarkable ability to convey empathy to his viewers. We laughed at his antics, cried when he was hurt, got goosebumps when he rushed in to save Timmy from danger, understood what his bark meant, and was totally impressed with the handsome dog we quickly grew to love. He was and always will be; one of a kind.
Erik Knight didn’t see his story come alive on the big screen. He was a major in the United States Army and served in two wars. During WW II, he was in a transport plane flying over the jungles of Dutch Guiana in 1943. His plane crashed and he was killed. He was 46 years old.
Lassie is the longest running television series ever. Eric Knight wrote about traditional family values in “Lassie Come Home” people around the world could identify with. Love of family and friends, courage, loyalty, and honesty. And Lassie, aka Pal, captured a generation’s heart simply by being a courageous, loyal, intelligent, and loving family dog.
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