Movie Mutts: Dogs Of The Silver Screen

Movie Mutts: Dogs Of The Silver Screen

Famous Dogs of the Silver ScreenWhen I was growing up, there were a lot of famous dogs on television and in the movies.  Names like Lassie and Benji were common names in our home.  Did you ever wonder what happened to these dogs? Sure, we know that they passed on, but did they live a good life?  Where did they find them to begin with?  There are some very good stories behind these canine celebrities.  Here are five of their stories.


Lassie started out as a fictional character written by Eric Knight as a short story.  The dog that we all came to love was really a mixed breed collie who saved the life of a sailor during World War I.  It was on New Year’s Day in 1915 when the British battleship, Formidable, was struck by a German torpedo and sank.  One of the life rafts contained several bodies which were laid out in a pub in Dorset.  They were being prepared to be buried when the pub dog, Lassie, began licking one of the sailor’s feet and he reacted to the dog’s ministrations.  They revived the man and he escaped being buried alive!  Years later, in 1938, English-American author Eric Knight would write Lassie Come-Home as a short story for the Saturday Evening Post.  It would become so popular that he expanded the story into a full size novel, two years later.  The original story was set in England and made into a feature-length film in 1943, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall.  The movie was so successful, it spun off ten more films, a radio show and a television series which lasted 19 years.  The real-life Lassie was a collie named Pal, who appeared in all seven films and two television pilots.  He was the beginning of a Lassie legacy when the next eight generations of Pal were used in various episodes and remakes through the 1990s. Pal and his descendants were all owned by one man and treated very well throughout their lives.   As an interesting side note, all dogs who portrayed Lassie on the screen were males – even though Lassie was a female.  The reason was that male collies have a better summer coat than females.

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Rin-Tin-Tin was a German Shepherd that appeared in the movies, radio, and television from the 1920s through 1950s.  The original dog was found in France in 1919 by American serviceman Lee Duncan during World War One.  He was named after a French puppet.  Duncan brought the dog home with him where he taught him to do several tricks and had him performing in a local dog show in Los Angeles.  From here, Rin Tin Tin made it into silent films where he proved to be a big star.  The original dog would appear in 15 films from 1922-1931.  He died at the age of 14 in 1932 (supposedly in the arms of actress Jean Harlow).  Lee Duncan had arrangements made to have him buried in France, the place of his birth.  Other dogs would go on to play Rin Tin Tin in later films, many of them direct descendants of the original dog.  Today, Rin Tin Tin’s legacy continues with his line being trained as service dogs for special needs children in Latexo, Texas.


In the 1970s, everyone knew Benji.  He was a small, mixed breed dog (some would call him a mutt) who always seemed to show up at the right time when someone was in trouble.  Benji, who’s real name was Higgins, was originally rescued from a shelter in the early 1960s.  The creator of the Benji movies, Joe Camp, had the idea that if he created a character like Benji, more dog owners would go to shelters to find dogs.  He was right.  Following the 1974 move, Benji, eight other movies were released and the adoption of rescue dogs went up.  Unfortunately, Higgins, the original dog to play Benji, never made another film.  He had been acting since 1963 and was too old to do anymore.  Does he look familiar?  You might have seen him as “the dog” on television’s Petticoat Junction.  He played the part for seven seasons.  His offspring and three other dogs that resembled him would go on to take his famous role in the Benji series.


Do you remember that loveable white and black dog with a circle around his eye from the Little Rascal series?  His name was Pete the Pup and he was an American pit bull terrier in the series by Hal Roach.  The dog’s name was Pal (just like Lassie’s real name – it must have been a popular name for famous dogs).  The circle around the eye was partly natural, partly painted on by makeup expert Max Factor (who you thought just made mascara!).  Pal/Pete started out in the Buster Brown series during the 1920s and even starred in a Harold Lloyd comedy.  Pal died in 1930, after he was poisoned.  No one ever found out who did it, but his offspring became the “new Pete”.  The new Pete, who’s real name was Lucenay’s Peter, went on to star in all of the films after 1930.  He was retired in 1933, but went on to perform for children at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City until his death in 1946.  He was 16 years old.


Toto was the fictional dog of Dorothy Gale in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series.  Baum never said what breed of dog Toto was, but explained him as “a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose”.  People have concluded from the books that were illustrated that Toto was in fact, either a Cairn or Yorkshire Terrier.  In the 1939 movie, Toto was portrayed by a female Cairn Terrier by the name of Terry.  She was paid a $125 salary each week, which was more than the people playing the Munchkins.  They only received a $100/week during the filming.  During the film, Terry was injured.  A Winkie guard (the one’s singing Oh-Eee-Oh-Ee-Ohhh-Oh) stepped on her foot and broke it.  A stand-in was used while her foot healed, but she completed the movie.  After the popularity of the film, Terry’s owner officially changed her name to Toto.  She would go on to appear in a total of 13 movies and live to the age of 10 or 11.