Did MGM Give Up Their Rights to Lassie Just to Avoid Paying Lassie’s Trainer Backpay They Owed Him?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

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

(NOTE: This is also pretty much a TV Legend, as well, so I’ll include it in both archives)

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. What they decided to do next changed, well, Lassie’s history, at least, forever.

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 and Movie history would have been different if MGM had never given up their rights to the Lassie name?

The legend is….

STATUS: True

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

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

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