The fictional character of Lassie was created by Eric Knight in his 1940 novel Lassie Come Home. The rights to the story were purchased by MGM, and a movie with the same name was filmed in 1943, with the part of Lassie played by a talented collie named Pal. Set in England during the Great Depression, the story told about the lengths a collie goes to in order to be reunited with her master, after his family is forced to offer her for sale in order to keep their house. The film starred Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, was a major hit for MGM, and enjoyed many favorable reviews.
Following the success of the movie, Pal appeared as Lassie in six other MGM feature films until 1951, including Son of Lassie, starring June Lockhart and Peter Lawford, and Courage of Lassie, starring Elizabeth Taylor. After the 7th film, Rudd Weatherwax, Pal's owner, acquired from MGM the Lassie trademark and took the character on the road. Weatherwax and 'Lassie' appeared at fairs, rodeos, and similar social gatherings all across the United States in the early 1950s. The Emmy-winning television series Lassie had its debut in 1954, and ran for 19 years, with a succession of Pal's canine descendants taking over the role.
In the television series, Lassie lived on a farm with a young boy named Timmy, played by John Provost. In the show's 11th season, Lassie became a companion to a group of adult foresters, and then the series ended with her living at a ranch for emotionally troubled children. The first Lassie series was canceled in 1973, and a second Lassie series came along in the 1980s. In 1997, a new Lassie television series was produced by a Canadian production company for the Animal Planet network. The series ran for two years. A remake of the original Lassie Come Home movie was produced in the United Kingdom in 2005, starring Samantha Morton and Peter O'Toole.
All the collies selected to play the character of Lassie were males, because male collies are larger and have a thicker summer coat, so a child actor can appear alongside the dog for more seasons before the child outgrows the dog. Pal and eight generations of his descendants―Lassie Junior, Mire, Spook, Baby, and Hey Hey - portrayed Lassie in more than 10 movies and two television series. In the 1978 movie The Magic of Lassie, a collie named Boy (Hey Hey's son) took over the role, and then in the '80s series, Lassie was played by Boy's son, The Old Man.
The character of Lassie has appeared in radio, movies, television, animated series, comic books, and children's books, among other things. Descendants of Pal, the original Lassie, continue to portray Lassie today. The collie makes personal appearances, markets a line of pet food, and hosts a pet-care television series Lassie's Pet Vet, shown on PBS stations around the United States. Lassie is one of only three animals to have been awarded a star on the popular Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2005, the journal Variety included Lassie in its list of the '100 icons of all time'. Cats may have nine lives, but the character of Lassie, with her endearing intelligence and compassion, seems destined to live forever.