The Man Behind Lassie's On-Screen Magic

Legendary animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax and Lassie, ca. 1973. i i

Legendary animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax and Lassie, ca. 1973. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
Legendary animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax and Lassie, ca. 1973.

Legendary animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax and Lassie, ca. 1973.

Bettmann/Corbis
Robert Weatherwax, his dog Mel and Karl Miller i i

Robert Weatherwax (left), son of the legendary Rudd Weatherwax, and Karl Miller are two of Hollywood's best-known animal trainers today. Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine, NPR
Robert Weatherwax, his dog Mel and Karl Miller

Robert Weatherwax (left), son of the legendary Rudd Weatherwax, and Karl Miller are two of Hollywood's best-known animal trainers today.

Ketzel Levine, NPR

Everyone knows Lassie, whether from the 1940 novel written by Eric Knight, the 1943 MGM movie, or the long-running TV series. But the canine queen (played by male dogs) might have been just another good-looking collie if not for her owner, Rudd Weatherwax.

Weatherwax was one of Hollywood's legendary animal trainers. He and his brother Frank delighted audiences with some of the screen's most famous dogs: Asta, from The Thin Man; Daisy, from Blondie; and Old Yeller, from the film of that same name. Their brother Jack, who had his own business, trained the only cairn terrier to visit Oz: Toto!

But Lassie was something else, not merely a one-shot wonder, but a dog that went on to star in six films followed by a TV series that ran for 20 years. Over the decades, it took quite a number of dogs to play the fiercely loyal and loving collie. But from start to finish, there was only one trainer: Rudd Weatherwax.

His legacy is vast, having influenced a generation of trainers who came up behind him. Among them is Karl Lewis Miller, now retired, whose own credits include Cujo, Beethoven, and as chief animal wrangler, all the creatures in Babe. He's a humble man who describes himself as the sum total of all the great trainers he worked with, including Weatherwax.

"Your neighbor's Dalmatian could have been Lassie, if that's what the script had called for," Miller says. "But he would have needed Rudd Weatherwax to develop him into that great dog."

Rudd Weatherwax died in 1985, leaving both his legacy and his collies to his son, Bob. Bob Weatherwax owned and trained Lassies No. 7, 8 and 9. Currently, the Lassie franchise is owned by the entertainment group, Classic Media.

Incidentally, the Lassie — or more accurately, Lassies — that star in the current remake of the 1943 classic, Lassie Come Home, are not descendents of the Weatherwax dogs.

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