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Lassie VII Follows in Pawprints of His Six Forefathers

November 13, 1986|DEBRA SORRENTINO LARSON | Larson is a Newhall free-lance writer

Lassie aficionados, take note: The celebrated canine is alive and well and living in Canyon Country. She is actually a he , flies first class, answers fan mail with personalized stationery and has a new television series "in development."

The 75-pound 3-year-old is the seventh-generation Lassie and belongs to trainer Bob Weatherwax and his wife Linda, who operate Weatherwax Trained Dogs.

Bob, 45, worked for a decade as a trainer on the old CBS "Lassie" series. He is the son of the late Rudd Weatherwax, who owned and trained all previous Lassies through seven MGM movies, starting with "Lassie Come Home" in 1942, and 17 years of weekly television shows.

As a visitor recently entered the Weatherwaxes' screened-in porch, Lassie bounded out, gorgeous as his pictures, freshly scented from an avocado shampoo. On his master's cue, he offered a paw and a kiss, "spoke" and even played dead.

A Star Among Top Dogs

At the couple's three-acre home, where most of the 27 dogs live in outdoor kennels, Lassie has the run of the house and, understandably, is the envy of the others. After all, among them are O.J., a sheep dog who played Einstein in the movie "Back to the Future" and who is now in Canada portraying an Old Yeller-type in The TV movie "Stone Fox," and Corky, the Maltese who deserted Nick Nolte in the film "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

Although Lassie sleeps on his own blanket on a sofa in the enclosed patio, he eats Science Diet and canned food and gets an occasional bone, just like the rest. "Everybody thinks Lassie eats steak," Bob said.

The collie has not been bred yet, but when he is, the couple hope for at least one male puppy with a white blaze on his snout. Although this marking helped make the dog famous (Lassie even was featured on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"), organizations such as the American Kennel Club used to view it as a show disqualification.

Recognized Everywhere

Wherever this dog goes, he draws attention if only for his lush auburn beauty and the "Doesn't that look like . . . ?" musings he inspires. "I go to the car wash or to train in different places, and the next thing I know I have 15 people watching me," said Bob.

Since Bob was a baby, there has always been a Lassie. He loves to reminisce about the dog whose Emmy Award-winning show ran on television from 1954 through 1971 and is now in syndication on Nickelodeon. For example, Lassie had billionaire recluse Howard Hughes to thank for his airline privileges.

Back in the '40s, when Lassie was under contract to Metro Goldwyn Mayer and was among its top moneymakers, studio boss Louis B. Mayer, then a friend of Hughes, arranged for the collie to fly first class on Hughes' Trans World Airlines. All successive Lassies have traveled worldwide in the same style ever since, Bob said.

After the success of "Lassie Come Home," in which Elizabeth Taylor played his owner, the dog had his paws dipped in cement in front of what was then called Grauman's Chinese Theater and got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Original Was An Understudy

The original Lassie was actually named Pal. The dog suffered from mange and was left with Rudd Weatherwax by a "screwball dog trainer" friend in 1942, Bob said. The man never came back for the dog and later admitted he didn't want him.

Rudd Weatherwax didn't really want the dog either, Bob explained. "He was a German shepherd man. He wanted to do another Rin Tin Tin."twas

Rudd was then an adviser on the MGM movie which featured a female collie that tended to shed a lot and, further, couldn't act too well. He trained Pal as an understudy. When a scene called for an exhausted dog to emerge from a river, hit the ground and writhe, Pal took over the scene and the role.

"The director liked it so well he said, 'We'll refilm the rest of it and this dog now is Lassie.' "

Lassie VII knows at least 35 different behaviors, including lying "dead" as he is lifted, to swimming, digging and crawling on cue. "Sometimes they ask for crazy things in movies and on TV," Linda said.

Uses Hand Signals

Bob teaches the dogs using hand signals and verbal commands. He trains both outdoors and indoors, often in a den whose love seat has become Lassie's favorite spot from which to watch the 40-inch-screen TV and the exotic fish in the 300-gallon aquarium.

When fan mail arrives, Linda responds with a copy of Rudd's training book, "The Lassie Method," "autographed" with a paw print.

And if a call comes in for the collie's services, it's referred to his attorney, Martin N. Leeds, of Santa Monica. "He handles all of Lassie's contracts," Linda said. A department store appearance starts at $2,000 a day, a 15-minute performance at a fair costs $7,500.

The Weatherwax family owns the Lassie name and leases the character's likeness with the stipulation that the image be preserved in a dignified fashion so that he can't be shown in, say, a clown hat.

Lassie is especially popular in Europe and Japan, Bob said. "They even play 'Lassie' in Russia because it's nonpolitical, it doesn't deal with sex or any religious philosophy," he said.

Asked what might be the cause for Lassie's longtime appeal, Bob observed: "It's just boy and his dog, what can you say? Lassie has always been a hero. He's never done anything bad."

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