TV Urban Legends Revealed #34

This is the thirty-fourth in a series of examinations of legends about television and the people involved in TV and whether they are true or false.

Click here to view an archive of the previous TV urban legends.

This week is a special theme week – all legends related to the TV series Lassie!

Let’s begin!

TV LEGEND: MGM gave up the rights to Lassie in exchange for not paying $40,000 in back pay to owner/trainer Rudd Weatherwax.

STATUS: True

Rudd Weatherwax and his brother Frank trained the dog Pal who starred in the hit 1943 film, Lassie Come Home (co-starring a young Roddy McDowell), which was adapted from the Eric Knight novel of the same name.

The movie was popular enough to spin off a series of sequels, including, among others, one film featuring a young Elizabeth Taylor…

In 1951, the film series was dried up and MGM was looking for a way to get out of their contract with Weatherwax. They still owed him another $40,000, which certainly was not chump change in 1951. Weatherwax agreed to be released from his contract in exchange for the full rights (including trademark) to Lassie.

At the time, all Weatherwax had in mind was to tour the country doing fairs with Pal performing as Lassie. MGM agreed to the deal, so Weatherwax now owned the Lassie name outright.

A couple of years later, TV producer Robert Maxwell was looking for ideas to adapt into television series, and he thought Lassie was a good one. Finding that Weatherwax owned the right, he approached him and the two men worked out a deal to shoot a pilot, which CBS picked up for the 1954 TV season. It would air on CBS for the next 17 seasons!!

Naturally, as soon as word got out that CBS was doing a series based on Lassie, MGM got involved, claiming that they still owned the rights, but Weatherwax had a pretty straightforward contract so MGM had to back off.

A few years later, Jack Wrather purchased the rights to the TV show for over $3 million. Presumably Weatherwax made out pretty well in that deal (and, of course, he supplied canine actors to play Lassie for all 19 seasons that Lassie was on the air, including the two syndicated seasons after CBS had to let the show go due to changes in the rules by the FCC which I have detailed in a past TV Legends Revealed here, so he was doing pretty well no matter what).

Who knows how TV history would have been different if MGM had never given up their rights to the Lassie name?

Thanks to Ace Collins’ nifty Lassie biography, Lassie: A Dog’s Life, The First Fifty Years, for the lowdown on the situation.

TV LEGEND: Lassie frequently saved Timmy after the boy fell down a well.

STATUS: False

After being the pet of a young boy named Jeff for the first four seasons of Lassie, Lassie settled in with a new owner named Timmy for the next seven seasons. Timmy (played by Jon Provost) is the most famous of Lassie’s owners, which also included some Park Rangers in later seasons and a children’s orphanage in the last two syndicated seasons.

There is a famous joke about the standard plot on an episode of Lassie. I don’t know exactly where it is from – it certainly could be Saturday Night Live, but I have an idea that it is likely older than that (as Lassie ran from 1954-1973, so you figure SOME comedian must have made fun of the show during those years), but it goes like this.

Lassie comes running in to Timmy’s mother and barks a couple of times. The mother (played most famously by June Lockhart, although Cloris Leachman originated the role) replies, “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy fell down a well?”

The joke mocks the way that Lassie was able to so accurately communicate with the adults on the show to let them know of the trouble Timmy got into, and boy did Timmy get into a lot of trouble!

The website Lassie Web once detailed a bunch of the problems Timmy got into. Here is a sampling…

.let a rabid dog out of a cage (“Graduation”)
…ate deadly nightshade berries (“Berrypickers”)
…threatened by an escaped female circus elephant (“The Elephant”)
…hides out in the treehouse when he has pneumonia (“Spartan”)
…threatened by a mother wolf (“The Wolf Cub”)
…falls into the lake (“Transition” and “The House Guest”)
…develops a high fever from the measles (“The Crisis”)
…is almost shot by Paul (“Hungry Deer”)
…ignores severe stomach pains; he’s diagnosed with appendicitis (“Hospital”)
…is trapped in an abandoned house with Boomer (“Trapped”)
…wanders into a live mine field (“Junior GIs”)
…is menaced by a bear (“Campout” and “The Renegade”)
…is trapped in a mine (“Old Henry”)
…gets a black eye playing football (“Growing Pains”)
…nearly flies a home-made glider off a cliff (“Flying Machine”)
…runs into a burning house to save a neighbor lady and passes out (“The Whopper”)
…is endangered by dynamite picked up by an escaped lab chimp (“The Man from Mars”)

And that is truly just a sampling of the problems he got into over the seven seasons he was the lead character on the show.

You’ll notice what is NOT on that list.

Timmy never actually fell down a well in any of the seven seasons he was on the show. Nor did the earlier owner, Jeff, ever fall down a well. It appears as though the only character on the show to EVER fall down a well was Lassie herself, in a Season 17 episode (Season 17 was an odd season where Lassie was without an owner).

The “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy fell down a well?” joke became SO universal, though, that it was just accepted that Timmy did, in fact, fall down wells with some frequency. And really, he DID fall down things with great frequency, they were just storm drains, pipes, etc. Just never a well.

Amusingly enough, Jon Provost still named his auto-biography, Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story (he does note in the book that never actually fell down a well).

Thanks to Lassie Web for the great list! Go check out their site to find out a list of all the problems he had over the years.

TV LEGEND: A blacklisted writer used his wife as a front to write episodes of Lassie.

STATUS: True

Adrian Scott was a writer and producer who had a good deal of success in the late 1940s with a series of notable noir films, most famously Crossfire, with Roberts Young, Mitchum and Ryan (I couldn’t help myself, I had to phrase it that way), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1948.

Scott worked with Director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter John Paxton frequently in those days.

Well, in late 1947, with their movie already a hit in the theaters, both Scott and Dmytryk were called to testify in front of the US Congress’ House Committee on Un-American Activities. They, along with eight other men, refused to testify.

The “Hollywood Ten” consisted of (thanks to Wikipedia for the list)…

* Alvah Bessie, screenwriter
* Herbert Biberman, screenwriter and director
* Lester Cole, screenwriter
* Edward Dmytryk, director
* Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriter
* John Howard Lawson, screenwriter
* Albert Maltz, screenwriter
* Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter
* Adrian Scott, producer and screenwriter
* Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter

Here they all are (Dmytryk and Scott are in the back row – Dmytryk is in the middle, Scott on the right)…

They were all held in contempt by Congress and sentenced to a year in federal prison. In addition, the studios made a big public show of “banning” each of those men from ever working for the studios again. Dmytryk got off of the “blacklist” a few years later by testifying and claiming that Scott forced him to work Communist ideology into their films.

In any event, Scott’s beliefs cost him his job, his freedom (he was sent to prison for a year in 1950 – he served 10 months, getting out a few months after Dmytryk had named Scott’s name in front of Congress) and it also cost him his wife, as his wife, actress Anne Shirley, divorced him in April of 1948 (Shirley did not care that he was a Communist, but she did care that she married a rich producer and now she was married to a poor writer who couldn’t even work in the States. Her letter to Scott informing him of their separation is pretty rough, essentially saying that she couldn’t live without Beverly Hills). Reader Matthew Johnson pointed out that I had an earlier Movie Legends Revealed feature on Anne Shirley, which you can check out here. Thanks for the reminder, Matthew!

In 1955, Scott re-married, marrying fellow screenwriter (and fellow Communist) Joan LaCour.

While LaCour was blacklisted as well, she was basically totally unknown in Hollywood, so she merely had to use the pseudonym Joanne Court to write for television. So Scott would use his new wife as a front to write for TV.

So, as Joanne Court, Joan would write for a number of shows, including Lassie, but it was really Adrian who was writing the episodes. Joan, though, would attend story conferences and bring back notes for Adrian to adjust his scripts accordingly.

He wrote two episodes of the show using her as a front. However, she eventually began to write for the show herself as she carved out a career as a TV screenwriter on her own, as well (she wrote five episodes in the early 1960s).

By the early 1970s, the blacklist was basically over with, and Adrian Scott was able to write under his own name again, but sadly he would pass away from cancer in 1973, mere months before his first screen credit since the blacklist appeared.

Thanks to Jennifer Langdon’s Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood, for the great information about Scott’s life!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

14 Responses to “TV Urban Legends Revealed #34”

  1. Matthew Johnson on August 20th, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Scott’s wife was, of course, the same Anne Shirley who legally changed her name to that of her most famous role (the title role in Anne of Green Gables) in hopes of boosting her career. (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0794297/bio) When film legends collide!

  2. Ha!

    You’re right, Matthew.

    I’ll go add in a link to that earlier legend!

  3. In Australia the joke is “What’s that Skip’? Sonny fell down a well?”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skippy_the_Bush_Kangaroo
    I don’t think Sonny ever fell down a well either.

  4. [...] A trio of legends about the Lassie television series. [...]

  5. Scott wasn’t the only Hollywood Ten writer to turn to anonymous children’s TV writing– As I recall, Ring Lardner Jr. wrote pseudonymously for the Richard Greene Robin Hood.

  6. I’m fairly certain the joke about Timmy in the well originated (or at least, gained its greatest prominence) with Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. He did the joke on Saturday Night Live in 83 or so (probably on Letterman, too, and on his stage act at the time), involving Godzilla as Lassie. He would later reuse it on MST3K all the time.

  7. I had the opportunity to work with Anne while I was an in house editor at Gale, and she is one of those shining memories of an author who was not only an absolute delight to work with, but in all regards a very classy and gracious individual. She will be missed!

  8. reddit!

  9. [...] Timmy from a well.Timmy, Lassie's second owner in the series, got into a lot of trouble during 7 seasons, including getting trapped in a mine, almost getting shot and being threatened by an escaped [...]

  10. [...] Lassie’s second owner in the series, got into a lot of trouble during 7 seasons, including getting trapped in a mine, almost getting shot and being threatened by an escaped [...]

  11. [...] Lassie’s second owner in the series, got into a lot of trouble during 7 seasons, including getting trapped in a mine, almost getting shot and being threatened by an escaped [...]

  12. [...] Lassie’s second owner in the series, got into a lot of trouble during 7 seasons, including getting trapped in a mine, almost getting shot and being threatened by an escaped [...]

  13. [...] Lassie’s second owner in the series, got into a lot of trouble during 7 seasons, including getting trapped in a mine, almost getting shot and being threatened by an escaped [...]

  14. Good article, thanks.

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