The screen's most privileged performer manages to keep his
feet on the ground -- all four of them.
That's Lassie, king of the collies. Lassie (born Pal) is
a he, in spite of his name. Any grammarian who called Lassie "it" would
get tossed right off the MGM lot.
"She" is considered a pardonable error -- once.
Lassie gets star billing. He drinks bottled water.
He travels in a Pullman compartment, a plane or his own station wagon. He
naps at regular intervals in a private dressing room. He has a movie
contract an inch thick, and a stand-in. He endorses a canine food and
barks on the radio each week.
Dog's Life Not Bad
Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie's owner, says, "If anybody around here
is leading a dog's life, it's me."
Many an actor would like that kind of dog's life -- Lassie's
or Rudd's. With a training kennel of 65 dogs besides Lassie, the brothers
Rudd and Frank Weatherwax are sitting on top of a fortune.
They got Lassie for a $10 board bill.
Lassie reputedly earns $52,000 a year in pictures. The
studio says a trust fund and three film scripts, now in preparation, insure his
future. But Weatherwax said:
"I never discuss Lassie's financial affairs. It's true
he has a contract. It's so thick I have never read all of it myself.
All I know is, whenever I want to do something with Lassie off the set I usually
find out the contract won't permit it."
Career for Life
On the basis of his present popularity, Lassie has a life-time
career. He heads the dog hierarchy in Hollywood. Next in rank are
Daisy, Rennie Renfro's mutt in the "Blondie" series, and Asta, the terrier in
the "Thin Man" films. Asta, owned by Henry East, earns $500 a week.
Daisy gets about the same but works more.
Rin-Tin-Tin, most famous of all movie dogs, and his master,
Lee Duncan, made as much as $2500 a week, jointly. The German shepherd
died in 1932.
Lassie's work day is limited to eight hours, but only four can
be spent in actual filming under hot arc lights. He can never work more
than 20 minutes at one time.
Had Bad Habits
A man whose name is lost to history brought Lassie (then Pal)
to the Weatherwax boys for training as a pup. It seems Pal chased
motorcycles and barked almost ceaselessly. After a few days the owner came
back and said his house had been so nice and quiet without the dog that he'd
trade him for the board bill.
Rudd agreed. Pal loved him from the start, even while
Rudd was correcting his bad habits. He's still Rudd's dog, except in
title. Frank shares that.
When MGM was casting
"Lassie Come Home," Pal tried out for the part with 300 other dogs. He'd been on
a ranch, and his coat was ragged. Nobody noticed him. The studio
rejected all the dogs, and later engaged a champion collie from San Francisco.
This one ran away from the camera. Rudd, meanwhile, had Pal's coat in
shape again and took him back to MGM.
Pal got the job, and became Lassie, to match the film title.
© 1948 Los Angeles Times