Send In The Understudy!

Show business is filled with tales of performers who took over a part moments before the curtains raised or the cameras rolled and ended up becoming a star.

This happened in the 1940s to a male North Hollywood actor who was called on at the last moment to impersonate the female lead in an action film, because he could swim better than she could.

The twist in this particular tale is that the understudy in question was a male collie named Pal, and the film he starred in was called Lassie Come Home.

Pal was born in 1940 and brought to brothers Frank and Rudd Weatherwax a short time later so the trainers could break him from his habit of chasing motorcycles. When the owner couldn’t afford to pay the men, Pal became their property, and the Weatherwaxes were eventually able to teach the beautiful and intelligent dog between 150-200 commands.

The Weatherwax brothers had a long history of training animals for films, beginning in the 1930s. Throughout careers that spanned several decades, they trained some of the most famous animals in cinematic history, including dogs Asta from The Thin Man series, and Spike, who played the lead in Old Yeller.

Pal, by far, would turn out to be their most famous discovery.

In 1943, MGM cast the collie as the understudy in a film about a loyal dog called Lassie Come Home, despite the fact that the role called for a female lead. When the San Joaquin River overflowed that year during filming, the producers wanted action shots of the star swimming in the swollen river; stunts the animal wasn’t trained to perform.

Pal stepped in, performed the rigorous stunt beautifully, and a new star was born.

He played Lassie in a half-dozen more films and in two pilot episodes for the Lassie television series, which would eventually air for several years.

By the time the show was picked up, Pal was too old to perform, and the role passed to his male son. For the next several decades, only Pal’s male descendants would ever play Lassie.

Why only the males?

Male collies are considered more photogenic, and shed less than their female counterparts, which gives them a more consistent look over a long filming schedule.

Pal died in 1958 and was buried on Rudd Weatherwax’s North Hollywood ranch. The passing of his beloved collie hit Weatherwax hard, sending him into a deep depression. He could never bear to watch Pal on screen again.

When Weatherwax died on this date in 1985, the ashes of some of Pal’s descendants were buried along with him. 

(Learn what became of some other of Hollywood’s most famous animal stars on Monday, when Steve Goldstein, the author of LA’s Graveside Companion: Where the V.I.P.s R.I.P. and master of the Beneath Los Angeles website, becomes Deadwrite’s Dailies first guest contributor in a post entitled Film’s Forgotten Four-Footers.)



About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: