W.C. Fields once said, “Never work with children or animals.” Well, one of the world’s most famous canines is returning to television and it looks like producers will get to avoid working with both real-life kids and dogs.
The character of Lassie the collie first appeared in a 1938 short story, written by Eric Knight. It was later expanded into a novel called Lassie Come-Home. An MGM film based on the book, starring Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, hit theaters in 1943. That spawned additional Lassie stories in print, on radio and in movie theaters.
In 1954, the Lassie TV show debuted on CBS. Aside from the famous canine, the family show features the talents of Tommy Rettig, Jan Clayton, George Cleveland, Jon Provost, June Lockhart, Hugh Reilly, Robert Bray, Jack De Mave, Jed Allan, Ron Hayes, Larry Wilcox, Pamelyn Ferdin, Cloris Leachman, and Jon Shepodd. Lassie had a number of human friends during the show’s run but Provost played one of the most memorable, young Timmy Martin.
The Lassie show ran for an impressive 17 years on CBS. It moved to first-run syndication for two more seasons and ended on March 24, 1973 with a total of 588 episodes.
Though that series closed, Lassie didn’t leave the airwaves. An animated series called Lassie’s Rescue Rangers began airing Saturday mornings on ABC in the Fall of 1973. It had no direct relation to its live-action predecessor (other than the title character) and lasted for one short season.
In 1989, The New Lassie series returned the canine heroine to television for two seasons in first-run syndication. This time, Lassie was owned by the McCullough family. They are played by Christopher Stone, Dee Wallace Stone, Wendy Cox, and a young Will Estes (credited as Will Nipper).
Provost, who’d played Lassie’s young owner on TV from 1957 to 1964, played Uncle Steve McCullough on the new series. In a strange twist, it was later revealed that Steve was actually the grown-up Timmy and Lockhart reprised her role as Timmy’s mother for one episode. Fellow Lassie veterans Rettig and McDowall also made guest appearances during The New Lassie’s limited run.
In 1996, Lassie returned to television, this time in a Japanese anime series. A Canadian live-action show followed in 1997 and 10 years later, Lassie became the co-host of a reality TV show on PBS for Lassie’s Pet Vet.
Now, Lassie is poised to return to television in a new set of adventures. Partnered with Lassie rights holder Classic Media, DQ Entertainment is set to co-produce a 3D cartoon series. The two companies previously worked together on the CGI project, Casper’s Scare School, based on the classic friendly ghost character. With other partners, India-based DQ has also produced a 3D Iron Man series, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and many other animated projects.
The new Lassie animated series is set to begin airing in late 2010 or early 2011 and 26 half-hour installments have been ordered.
It’s unknown what approach this new version will take but Provost, now 59, tells us he thinks it’s a good idea. He says, “Every five years, there’s a new generation of children. The Lassie series has been sold several times in the past few years; and during that time, the image languished. For the first time in 50 years of public appearances, I am meeting children who do not know about Lassie. They lost a generation or two who will be difficult to capture now. With a cartoon, a new generation will grow up with Lassie — just as all us Baby Boomers did.”
Though the medium of this new series will be slightly different for the famous collie, the former child star believes the tone should remain the same. Provost says, “I hope CM will remain loyal and true to the innate goodness of the story. That’s what has carried the legend of Lassie in our hearts for nearly 70 years. I hear from people around the world who tell me they first learned to love and respect animals because of the show. I am very proud of that legacy.”
The author of an autobiography, Provost is currently involved in other cartoon projects — voicing Prancer the reindeer in one and also preparing to direct an animated pilot about a pink poodle — but would be happy to be part of the new Lassie series. Provost says, “CM and I have had a good working relationship in the past. It appears that the new Lassie cartoon won’t be made in the US, but naturally, I would love to participate.”
He concludes, “Lassie came when I called for seven years. I will always return the favor.”