Lassie: The Perfect Dog Sets High Bar for Real Pups In books, radio, movies and television, the history of the dog Lassie is long and illustrious. In fact, some real-life pet owners expect their collies to perform like Lassie. Lassie lovers, historians and an acclaimed animal behaviorist discuss what it takes to create a great character.
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Lassie: The Perfect Dog Sets High Bar for Real Pups

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Lassie: The Perfect Dog Sets High Bar for Real Pups

Lassie: The Perfect Dog Sets High Bar for Real Pups

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to meet an American icon this morning, one who risked mountaintops and mine shafts to save the boy she loves. Know her name? One more hint: Unlike others of her species, she always comes when called.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Lassie")

Mr. JON PROVOST (Actor): (As Timmy Martin) Lassie. Lassie.

MONTAGNE: Since she first appeared in print in the late 1930s, Lassie has achieved immortality - like many of the characters we're featuring in our new series, In Character. This morning, NPR's senior correspondent Ketzel Levine profiles a canine phenomenon who frequently masquerades as the dog next door.

Mr. MICHAEL MARTIN(ph) (Resident, Portland, Oregon): Rufus…

Ms. CINDY MARKS(ph) (Resident, Portland, Oregon): Rufus, come.

Mr. MARTIN: Come.

Ms. MARKS: Rufus, come.

KETZEL LEVINE: Anywhere U.S.A., although this morning it's out front of a bright red house in Portland, Oregon, where collie-coated Rufus and Mercy are playing with their squeaky toys. It turns out this day is their owners' 26th wedding anniversary. Cindy Marks and Michael Martin's union is both blessed and obsessed.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, settle down. Sorry. It's been about 20 years since we've been collecting the Lassie memorabilia.

LEVINE: Dare I see the collection?

Ms. MARKS: Oh, absolutely. Come on in.

Mr. MARTIN: Absolutely.

LEVINE: The dining room is a shrine to the beatific collie - the wet brown eyes, the iconic white blaze spilling down to a black nose. The shrine includes a Lassie lamp with a dimmer - all the better for worship - and a gorgeous Lassie lunchbox.

Mr. MARTIN: We also have in here…

LEVINE: Michael Martin rummages through 20 years of garage sale and eBay debris to find these treasures.

Mr. MARTIN: Lassie stamps from Liberia, Paraguay and Oman.

LEVINE: I neglected to tell them that I had this.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, ladies and gentlemen, of the world's most famous dog, Lassie in person.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

LEVINE: Alas, you cannot always believe what you hear on the radio. Lassie, ladies and gentlemen, is a work of fiction, a character out of a 1938 short story by a talented writer named Eric Knight. It's a story about a poor mining family forced to sell the family collie, who against all odds, fights her way back to them from Scotland to England. Mr. Knight expanded his story into a novel that was made into the 1943 film "Lassie Come Home."

(Soundbite of "Lassie Come Home")

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) She's going down south, grandfather. She's going toward Yorkshire.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) By jove, child, I believe you're right.

Mr. ACE COLLINS (Lassie Historian): Dogs, for a large degree in motion pictures, were there for comic relief, kind of like the sidekicks in motion pictures were at the time.

LEVINE: Author and Lassie historian Ace Collins.

Mr. COLLINS: They might do something clever from time to time but more than anything else they made us laugh. In the movie "Lassie Come Home," that all change because the dog was the focal point of the entire story.

LEVINE: Check out this story. The first day on the MGM film set, the studio had chosen a blow-dried best-in-show beauty to play Lassie, and this after scouring the country for the right look. But when the script called for her to jump in water, she refused. So they had to use the male stunt dog owned by the now legendary animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax. Sadly, the stunt dog's looks were apparently marred by, quote, "an ugly white blaze running down the forehead." Still, he did the job.

Mr. COLLINS: He did the scene so well, as a matter of fact, that when Louis B. Mayer saw the rushes, he informed the studio to fire the show dog and hire this unwanted, unpedigreed collie named Pal. And Pal became Lassie.

LEVINE: The look was launched; never mind that the collie in Eric Knight's short story was black, white and gold. The essential character traits were preserved.

Mr. PROVOST (Former Actor): Faith, hope, loyalty, compassion. I mean, all of those things were all just rolled up in that gorgeous dog.

LEVINE: Of the millions of children whose lives were transformed by the television show "Lassie," which premiered in 1954, none has been as deeply affected as a man now living in Santa Rosa, California. He has no collies. In fact, he has a beagle named Barney. But without "Lassie," Jon Provost, who played Timmy from '57 to '63, might still be stuck on a mountain, in a cave, or heaven help us, down a well.

Mr. PROVOST: You know, that well, I'll tell you, and it was more than one well, and there were a lot of, you know, old abandoned mines and Timmy was a great kid but, boy, he was slow. I don't - if he didn't have that dog…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PROVOST: …he would not be here today.

LEVINE: And perhaps if we hadn't had that dog, we might have a whole lot less dog hair on the sofa.

Ms. PATRICIA McCONNELL (Author, "For the Love of a Dog"): That's the show that helped us redefine who dogs are and what their place is in society. And it made it okay to love a dog as much as many of us have always loved dogs.

LEVINE: Patricia McConnell is a widely red animal behaviorist whose latest book is titled "For the Love of a Dog." She credits Lassie with helping to move dogs out of the yard and into the house and for setting a ludicrously high bar for that other end of the leash.

Ms. McCONNELL: We talk about the Lassie phenomenon in which people expect that they, too, would have a dog who you never had to train to do anything and who always did exactly what you wanted. I mean, there was never a show about Lassie peeing on somebody's pillow, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McCONNELL: So we see people all the time who honestly believe that dogs come, if they're good dogs, not only understanding everything we say, but they inherently want to do something just because you ask.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Lassie")

Unidentified Man #5: Now, look girl, rocking chair. Do you understand? Rocking chair. Where is it?

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Unidentified Man #5: Come on. I think we've solved our problem.

LEVINE: Ah, the magic of '50s TV and some smart collies who did more than tricks, they acted with all the soul of the dog created so many years ago by Eric Knight. Mr. Knight was killed in action during World War II. He would never know what a phenomenon he started in film, radio, TV and in vintage Dell Comics like the shelf load collected by Lassie fanatics Cindy Marks and Michael Martin.

Mr. MARTIN: Lassie fights a blinding blizzard to free Timmy from a snowy trap.

LEVINE: You know what's scary is that the color in your face has gotten really bright.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, there's something about Lassie that brings people to life.

LEVINE: Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Lassie")

Mr. PROVOST: (As Timmy Martin) Lassie.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You can nominate future subjects in this series by going to our In Character blog at npr.org/incharacter.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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