Pal: The First Lassie

Pal became famous in history as the first dog to play Lassie in film and television.

On June 4, 1940 a pure-bred collie, whose ancestry is traced to the 19th century and England's first great collie Old Cockie, gave birth to a litter of puppies at Cherry Osborne's Glamis Kennels in North Hollywood. One male puppy, with large eyes and a white blaze on his forehead, was judged only pet quality and sold to a family who named the dog Pal.

At eight months old, Pal was taken to a dog training school to help break several bad habits, including barking all the time, chewing up everything in the house, and chasing motorcycles. The school was Studio Dog Training, owned by Rudd Weatherwax who also trained dogs to become movie stars. After one week of training, all of Pal's bad habits, except for the motorcycle chasing (which would require more work), were broken. Instead of keeping Pal, the owner decided to give the dog to Weatherwax in exchange for the $10 fee he owed.

When Pal was two years old, Weatherwax took the dog to MGM to audition for an upcoming film called Lassie Come Home. It was the story (from the popular 1940 novel by Eric Knight) of a loyal collie who struggles across hundreds of miles of rugged English countryside to rejoin the Scottish boy she loves. Weatherwax knew Pal was an intelligent animal and felt he would be right for the part. Pal did get a part, but only as a backup. A female prize-winning show dog was chosen to play the title role.

When Lassie was to cross a river with raging water, Director Fred Wilcox wanted to save the energy of his female star so he used Pal instead. Pal did an exceptional job and the scene was completed in one take. The director was so impressed, he had tears in his eyes. "The dog went into the water as Pal, but he emerged as Lassie!" proclaimed Wilcox. He decided to reshoot the first six weeks of filming, making Pal the star. The movie, which featured two juvenile leads, Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, was released in 1943 and became an enormous hit.

Elizabeth Taylor and Pal in Lassie Come Home

Pal and Roddy McDowall in Lassie Come Home

Pal starred in six more MGM Lassie films (Son of Lassie - a sequel to Lassie Come Home, Courage of Lassie, Hills of Home, The Sun Comes Up, Challenge to Lassie and The Painted Hills) as well as the two pilots for the Lassie television series. The pilots were a success, but Pal was getting too old to play the part. Lassie Junior (Pal's son and stand-in) took over the role of Lassie in the television program. The Emmy winning show ran for 19 years (1954-1973) and all the dogs used to portray Lassie were descendants of Pal. Although Lassie is a female character, Weatherwax continued to use males, mainly because of their larger size which gave them that big heroic dog look.

In June 1958, Lassie passed away of natural causes at the age of 18. Rudd Weatherwax slipped in and out of depression for quite some time after Pal's death. Robert Weatherwax, Rudd's son, later recalled, "It hit him very hard when Pal died. He buried him in a special place on the ranch and would often visit the grave. Dad would never again watch an MGM Lassie movie. He just couldn't bear to see Pal. He didn't want to have to be reminded of just how much he loved that dog."

In 1960, Lassie was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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