Pal was a male Rough Collie performer and the first in a line of such dogs to portray the fictional female collie Lassie in film, on radio, and on television. Pal was born at Cherry Osborne’s Glamis Kennes in North Hollywood, California, in 1940 and eventually brought to the notice of Rudd Weatherwax, a Hollywood animal trainer. In 1943, the dog was chosen to play Lassie in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feature film Lassie Come Home (1943).
Howard Peck, an animal trainer, brought the eight-month-old collie to Hollywood animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax in order to break the animal of uncontrolled barking and a habit of chasing motorcycles.After working with the dog, Weatherwax gained control of the barking but was unable to break Pal of his motorcycle-chasing habit. Disappointed, Peck gave the dog to Weatherwax in exchange for the money Peck owed him.
Weatherwax, in turn, gave the dog to a friend, but when he learned that Eric Knight’s 1940 novel, Lassie Come-Home, was being considered as a feature film by MGM, Weatherwax sensed Pal was the dog to fill the role, and bought Pal back from his friend. Peck later tried to reclaim him after he became famous as Lassie, but Weatherwax’s legal ownership was upheld. Rudd’s brother, Frank Weatherwax, assisted Rudd in training Pal.
The first MGM Lassie film was planned as a low budget, black and white children’s film. Pal was among 1,500 dogs who auditioned for the title role, but was rejected. The reasons for his rejection were because he was male, his eyes were too big, his head was too flat, and a white blaze ran down his forehead. A female prize-winning show collie was hired to play the title character. Weatherwax was hired to train the star, and Pal was hired as a stunt dog.
During the course of filming, a decision was made to take advantage of a massive flooding of the San Joaquin River in central California in order to obtain some spectacular footage for the film. The female collie was still in training and refused to enter the raging waters created by the flood. Weatherwax was on the site with Pal and offered to have his dog perform in a five-stage shot in which Pal would swim the river, haul himself out, lie down without shaking the water off his coat, attempt to crawl while lying on his side and finally lie motionless, completely exhausted.
Pal performed exceptionally well and the scene was completed in one take. In response, producers released the female collie and hired Pal in her stead, reshooting the first six weeks of the filming with Pal now portraying Lassie. Other sources say that the female collie was replaced because she began to shed excessively during shooting of the film in the summer, resulting in Weatherwax substituting the male collie, Pal, in the role of “Lassie”. In any case, MGM executives were so impressed that they upgraded the production to an A film with full advertising support, top publicity and filming in Technicolor. Pal went through his paces with enthusiasm, rarely required multiple retakes, and did his own stunt work.
Pal’s success in Lassie Come Home in 1943 led to six more MGM films: Son of Lassie (1945), Courage of Lassie (1946), Hills of Home (1948), The Sun Comes Up (1949), Challenge to Lassie (1949), and The Painted Hills (1951).
Following The Painted Hills, MGM executives felt Lassie had run her course and planned no future films featuring the character. MGM executives then sought a way to break Weatherwax’s contract. Weatherwax was concerned about protecting Pal and the Lassie image he had created from future diminishment at the hands of others. In lieu of $40,000 in back pay owed him by the studio, Weatherwax bargained for and received the Lassie name and trademark.Following their departure from MGM, Pal and Weatherwax went on the road performing an 18-minute program at dog shows and department stores.
By 1957, Pal was growing blind, deaf, and stiff, and rarely visited the Lassie set. Weatherwax struggled emotionally alongside his beloved dog, pained to see him in such a state.
Pal died of natural causes in June 1958 at age 18 and for months Weatherwax slipped in and out of deep depression. He buried him in a special place on the ranch and would often visit the grave. Weatherwax would never again watch an MGM Lassie movie.
Several descendants of Pal played the fictional Lassie character following Pal’s death. On the original television series (1954–73), Pal’s son, Lassie Junior, and his grandsons, Spook and Baby, worked the first several seasons. Mire appeared in a few of the Ranger seasons, and Hey Hey worked the final two syndicated seasons.
The casting of non-Pal bloodline collies in the role of Lassie has been met with protest. In 1997, a Lassie television series debuted on the Animal Planet network but without a Weatherwax-trained dog as Lassie. A protest campaign ensued, and producers brought a 9th-generation Weatherwax dog to the show. The 2005–2006 remake of the original Lassie movie again stirred criticism when a non-Pal bloodline collie was cast as the iconic canine.
In 2000, the Lassie trademark was sold by the eight remaining members of the Weatherwax family to Classic Media. In 2004, Robert Weatherwax’s personal contract to supply a dog to play the role of Lassie ended. Neither side pursued a renewal.
After several years of stand-in collies that were not related to the original line, Classic Media contracted with Carol Riggins, who had been co-trainer with Robert Weatherwax, and her 9th-generation dog, HeyHey, who had played the role of Lassie during the last 13 episodes of the Canada Lassie series, labeled as one of the Weatherwax-trained dogs banner. Carol Riggins continues today as the official owner and trainer of Lassie with another “Pal”, a 10th-generation direct descendant of the original Pal. This current Pal descendant gives interviews, as seen in this TCM Classic Film Festival Clip, People Magazine “internship,” and in this photo of the dog waiting for an interview with The New Yorker.
The Lassie character was collectively honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6368 Hollywood Blvd.
For more information about Pal, I recommend The Story of Lassie: His Discovery and Training from Puppyhood to Stardom, co-authored by Rudd Weatherwax and John H. Rothwell.
The Weatherwax family continues to share dog training methods and promote the Lassie image.